Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Brooklyn's Autonomous Zones (and a Temporary Farewell)

Topic for Research: Brooklyn's Autonomous Zones

We've long been fascinated by Brooklyn's autonomous zones, those regions beyond the edge of the map, where free spirits, eccentrics, squatters, the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden migrated beyond the pale of polite society.

The New York Times in 2005 published a fascinating article about these districts, which were self-governing to a large extent. The article carried the following photograph of "shanties" on 4th Avenue, and identified a large autonomous zone along the Gowanus Canal as "Slab City" for the many do-it-yourself shanties to be found there, constructed of slabs of wood salvaged and recycled from the streets.

4th Avenue "Shanties"
Brainerd Collection - Brooklyn Public Library/Brooklyn Collection

Slab City is of course also the name of a present day Temporary Autonomous Zone in southern California that was featured in the 2007 film "Into the Wild".

The December, 2006 "Civic News," a publication of the Park Slope Civic Council, reprinted an August, 1967 reminiscence by Norman Litchfield, great-grandnephew of Edwin C. Litchfield, who built Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park. Norman Litchfield, who was born in 1881, recalled the trip by rail to Coney Island, departing from the old terminal on the west side of 5th Avenue, at 27th Street. The train passed through another of these autonomous zones, beyond the city limits on the other side of Greenwood Cemetery (emphasis added):

Then a roar from the conductor, "All aboard," and with a jerk, the train started out of the depot. But, not so fast; we were still inside the city limits and the train tracks were laid on the city streets. Pedestrians and horses must be guarded from the dangers of the steam monster, and so a man mounted on a horse rode ahead waving a red flag and the engine bell rang continually, not disturbing many people, however, for on one side they were all dead and on the other side mostly missing; in this outlying part of the city, houses were few and far between. Soon we came to the "City Line," a hilly section, gaunt and barren, near enough to the city for its dwellers to enjoy urban advantages, chiefly saloons, and yet more or less outside the pale of law and free from most inhibitions. Shanty town it was, inhabited by Irish "lately come-overs" and their goats.

On this note, it is time to say good-bye to our few faithful readers. We have been tasked by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to undertake some more formal research into the proposed South Slope extension, and we will have to abandon this blog for now. We will continue to update the photo archive comments, and our other online resources, and may occasionally post new material here, but alas not with the same frequency. We hope to restart the blog later, perhaps after the phase 1 extension is designated. Many thanks for reading!


Eric McClure said...

"Time to say good-bye to our few faithful readers?"

Bummer! Hope it's a very brief hiatus.

Chicken Underwear said...

More than a few, I am sure.

babs said...

So sorry I just discovered this wonderful blog - had I found it earlier I could have saved myself a lot of work :) Best of luck to you with Landmarks and thank you for helping to save the Slope!