Very Tiny Voyage: Gerritsen Beach

[Guest blogger Leslie Griffin is an editor doing her third tour of duty in New York City. This time around, she is determined to visit places that are off the beaten path. Today she brings us to one of New York’s lesser-known neighborhoods.]

Throngs of people, incessant noise, the stench of garbage, hustle and bustle—if these are the things that come to mind when you think of New York, you’re not wrong. In many parts of the city, these annoyances are ubiquitous, especially the closer to Manhattan you are. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise when my boyfriend and I discovered Gerritsen Beach last weekend—a charming waterfront community from a bygone era that is very far from the madding crowd (two trains and a bus, to be exact). Where is this unique place, you ask? Brooklyn.

Gerritsen Beach is in the far reaches of the borough on a peninsula bordered by Marine Park to the east and Plumb Beach Channel to the south and west. It was named for Wolfert Gerritsen, a mill owner who lived there in the early seventeenth century. The area remained sparsely populated until around 1920 when a firm called Realty Associates started constructing a summer resort. Modest bungalows sprang up over the next decade, and the neighborhood soon became suitable for year-round residents, most of whom were of Italian, Irish, and German descent. Most of the people who live here now have a long lineage in the neighborhood.

As soon as we hopped off the bus and walked into the neighborhood, we could tell we had left behind the Brooklyn we knew and had entered a different world—a fishing village, perhaps. Most of the original bungalows are still intact, though some are being rebuilt due to damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Many of the houses, which range from kitschy to charming depending on your feelings about lawn flair and Easter decorations, are on the water and have docks and boats out back. We passed by people sitting on their porches chatting with neighbors as kids played in the small front yards. A few cars drove by lazily; gridlock is clearly unknown here, and parking is ample.

It was apparent that we weren’t locals, but no one seemed to mind. In fact, it was as if we had been transported to a small town where being neighborly is the norm. We walked by a man who was giving detailed fishing advice to some other newcomers. And later, another guy went out of his way to help us with directions and explain the alphabetical layout of the streets. Cold and unfriendly New Yorkers? Not here! These folks give southern hospitality a run for its money—but with heavy Brooklyn accents.

After walking by someone’s pigeon coop and a house with several honking geese, we headed to Tamaqua Marina, which has been owned and run by the same family for decades. We were taking some pictures of the tuna fishing boats outside the restaurant there, when a local inquired, “National Geographic?” We laughed and explained that we were on a mission to explore different neighborhoods in the city. He seemed eager to chat, so we asked him about the area.

“We’re still recovering from Sandy,” he said. “You only see a storm like that once in a lifetime. The water rushed in like a river and out like a river.” At its peak, the water rose about six feet above street level. It only stayed that high for fifteen minutes, but by then the damage was done. “At that point, any of these boats—even these commercial fishing boats—could have sailed down the street,” he added. He gestured to the road on the other side of the channel. “A lot of these boats ended up on top of that street over there.”

As a veteran fisherman (40 years and counting), he’s seen it all, but the most memorable event he witnessed happened last year when he was fishing off the coast of New Jersey early one morning with a friend. In the distance, they saw a huge black cloud of birds that looked about a mile wide. “As we got closer, we saw the birds diving into the water, and we realized what was happening. It was a giant school of sardines! Every predator around was congregating right there to feed: birds, sharks, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, everything.” He said it was amazing, and they’d never seen anything like it. “I asked my buddy if we should take pictures, and he said, ‘Nah. Fuck ’em; they’re not here to enjoy it, but we are.’”

Fortunately for us, our newfound friend wasn’t as unwilling as his buddy to share his experiences. As we headed on our way, he said, “There should be more people like you who come here.” So, if you find yourself in Brooklyn one day and want to venture off the beaten path, consider a stop in Gerritsen Beach, where you’ll leave the stereotypical side of the city behind.