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Sheepshead Bay Footbridge

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Pedestrian bridge connecting Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach

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Place Matters Profile

First constructed in 1880, the footbridge over Sheepshead Bay is one of the rare bridges in New York that does not allow cars. The current bridge, built in the 1930s, is both a well-trodden thoroughfare connecting the neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay with Manhattan Beach, and a destination in itself, a place to stop, linger, and fish. A recreational outlet for the middle-class residential neighborhood that exists there today, it is also a remnant of the days when the area was a well-known resort community.

Austin Corbin, a railroad tycoon and banker, was responsible for the first Sheepshead Bay footbridge. “The Donald Trump of his time,” according to Sheepshead Bay historian Brian Merlis, Corbin proposed a connection from his property on Manhattan Beach, where he operated the grand Manhattan Beach Hotel, to the mainland. Corbin’s Manhattan Beach Company built a simple wooden drawbridge in 1880.

At the time, Sheepshead Bay and the Atlantic barrier that contains Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach made up a district of pure recreation and amusement outside New York’s urban bounds. Corbin’s Manhattan Beach Railroad connected the seaside resort to Manhattan with an hour’s ride. The area was filled with resort hotels, including Corbin’s sprawling, opulent Manhattan Beach Hotel, the equally grand Oriental Hotel, as well a host of smaller ones. The same year the Oriental and the first footbridge were built, the mainland neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay came to life with a racetrack, and gambling became an important pastime in the area.

Corbin had proposed the bridge, but he changed his mind about it quickly. In 1879, he had begun to deny entry to his property to Jews, under pretenses of preserving what he characterized as an elite clientele. (New York changed its civil rights code in 1881 to make creed no more a basis for discrimination in public places than race.) After the bridge was built, Corbin found that it gave too-unrestricted access to Manhattan Beach, and sought to demolish it. But officials in the town of Gravesend (in what is now Sheepshead Bay) claimed that it was a public highway and had to be left intact. Corbin tore it down anyway. Others built it back, and a cycle of demolition and reconstruction ensued. In 1881, New York’s Commission of Highways ruled that the bridge was a public highway, and the Supreme Court issued an injunction against tearing it down again. Once it was reconstructed for good, the bridge became an unquestionable landmark of the neighborhood.

When New York State abolished betting in 1910, both Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach began to change gradually to year-round residential neighborhoods. The Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1911. In 1915, the Sheepshead Bay Speedway–the “Shrine of Speed” for automobiles–opened to replace the racetrack as an attraction, but it closed in 1919. The Oriental Hotel came down in 1916. In place of the resorts, developers began to build moderate-income housing.

During this time, the Sheepshead Bay footbridge became what it is today: a link between residential waterfront neighborhoods and a place for residents and visitors to fish at leisure. Bait and tackle shops sprang up in the area, and the neighborhood became known for the day boats that left from its piers for deep-sea fishing excursions. For shallower catch and a view of the boats and seafood restaurants along Emmons Avenue, the bridge was, and is, a good place to set up a rod. In the 1930s, the WPA reconstructed the bridge, along with Sheepshead Bay’s piers. This is the bridge that continues to stand today.

Controversy over the bridge arose in the early-mid 1990s when a group of residents advocated for the abolition of fishing off the bridge. The fishing community protested vigorously, and, although casting is now prohibited, the footbridge is still a favorite fishing spot for legions of urban anglers. It remains a delight for mothers and children, and for the elderly woman who, on a cold, wintry day in 2005, parks her car on Emmons Avenue, walks to the footbridge, and tosses day-old loaves of bread into the water, creating a pandemonium of ducks and swans, till you can hardly see the footbridge for the fowl.

“There’s a lot of memories on that bridge,” said 87-year-old Angie Ciccarone, who was born on 23rd Street in Sheepshead Bay. A little younger, in his 50s, local advocate Steve Barrison remembers kids diving off the bridge for coins in Sheepshead Bay. But Ms. Ciccarone remembers when the boys from 26th Street would dive in stark naked. She recalls swimming across the bay with her friends, stopping at the sandbar in the center, and making a dash for the other side when it started to disappear beneath their feet. And she remembers the boats from all over the area taking shelter in the bay during storms.

Barrison remembers a day in 1979 when he returned from “sowing my wild oats in California after I graduated from law school. As I walked along Emmons Avenue, looking at the fishing boats, the footbridge, and the bay, I realized that this rivaled anything I had seen in all my travels to America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the French and Italian Rivieras, Mexico, or Venezuela. It’s true, the waterfront had fallen into disrepair. The number of fishing boats had declined, and some of the bait and tackle shops had closed.” The distinctive contours of the harbor still render the bay a portrait of working-class elegance, with Lundy’s seafood restaurant, now a city landmark, on one side, and the residential neighborhood of Manhattan Beach on the other. The footbridge, spanning the bay with a swath of cross-hatched wooden poles, helps bring the pieces together on a human scale, and to make the inlet a unique place in the sun.


Anonymous Nominator

First constructed in 1880 at Ocean Avenue and reconstructed in 1930, the footbridge is a “local landmark” and important feature in the historic character of Sheepshead Bay. Long time fishing spot on the footbridge.

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