The last quarter of the nineteenth century brought rapid changes to many parts of Brooklyn, not least to the town of Flatbush and its environs. Flatbush (from the Dutch vlacke bos, flat forest or wooded plain) was one of the original 6 towns making up the city of Brooklyn, and became part of that city in 1894. Four years later Brooklyn would become part of the consolidation of Greater New York City.
I became interested in the Flatbush of that era when I went looking for pictures of Vanderveer farm and its most iconic landmark the farm’s windmill.
The farm and its history is a fascinating story in its own right, but my search led me to mentions of Vanderveer Park, and the intriguing picture at the head of this article.
I had expected a park, and instead found a rustic wooden sign welcoming one into a flat open area irregularly dotted with houses. I learned about a neighborhood whose name has dropped off contemporary maps but was clearly a place created with a defined character – one of the developments that made up Victorian Flatbush.
Flatbush, until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, was a village surrounded by farmland, and somewhat inaccessible to the more urbanized areas to the north and west. In 1878 the Brooklyn, Flatbush, Coney Island Railroad began service between Prospect Park and the Brighton Beach Hotel. Later, in 1920, the IRT Nostrand Avenue Line connected Flatbush to the city along Nostrand Avenue.
With increased access to the area, developers bought up tracts of farmland to establish suburban developments in Flatbush. Two areas that grew up around the same period may be more familiar to readers: Tennis Court and Prospect Park South.
Vanderveer Park was created by Germania Real Estate, headed by Henry A. Meyer. In 1892 Meyer acquired acreage from several members of the Vanderveer family, and added purchases in subsequent years. The development grew by ‘Additions’ advertised with great fanfare over succeeding years. Each new ‘Addition’ was heralded with warnings like: “There is not much left unclaimed in the older sections of Vanderveer Park.“
Along with the rapid increase in Flatbush residents came a proliferation of local clubs, among them homeowners associations, whose activities were carefully reported in the local news. I counted eleven groups in one article speaking about their resumed activities after the Labor Day weekend. The Vanderveer Park Taxpayers Association, reported to be active between 1915-1925, energetically advocated for improvements in transit, school capacity, sewage, playgrounds, libraries and other city services and, as well, built social cohesion with lavish teas, parades and dances. Campaigns for new schools in 1896, 1904 and 1914 attest to the rapid growth of the area. Evidently, this homeowners group valued its autonomy because it states explicitly in the article, “Taxpayers’ annual meeting held … ” The Chat, January 18, 1919, p.48, that it would not consider merging with others in the area.
Old Vanderveer Park: the waning of a name
By the 1940s instances of the name Vanderveer Park in local newspapers were down from the heyday of 1920s (over 6,000 in the decade) to one tenth that, and the majority of those referred either to Vanderveer Park Methodist Episcopal Church, or to sports events connected to the church.
Today the once exclusive suburb of Vanderveer Park has become integrated into the urban fabric of wider Flatbush. Many of the houses that remain from the early 20th century are somewhat ragged around the edges but the neighborhood has a wealth of beautiful forms that serve as a reminder of the area’s Victorian past.
For more on the story of Vanderveer Park see our post on Brooklynology.
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