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Before Modernization

Fulton Street in Brooklyn begins at the intersection of Adams and Joralemon Streets and heads east, cutting across the heart of the borough. That’s a modern description, describing the street in its current truncated form. Originally, it began at the East River, at what was known for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as Fulton Landing, running briefly southeast, then curving south until it got to Adams Street and turned east. Obviously the name “Fulton” was only used after Robert Fulton’s work on steam-powered ships in the early 1800s, but Brooklyn was also a quite small town in the years before Fulton’s fame.

In an early example of urban renewal by demolition, a swathe of downtown Brooklyn real estate was taken by condemnation in the 1930s and turned into Cadman Plaza, a park that runs along the east edge of Brooklyn Heights and the core of the old downtown. The long, narrow park has the old north-south stretch of Fulton Street as its west edge, renamed Cadman Plaza West, and the southern portion of Washington Street as its east edge, renamed Cadman Plaza East. The creation of this park orphaned the piece of Fulton Street from Sands Street to the river, which was renamed Old Fulton Street. If you don’t know the history, the name is a bit odd, as Old Fulton is about half a mile from Fulton and roughly parallel to it, with no obvious connection between the two.

To complicated this further, one of the main elevated rail lines in Brooklyn ran along Fulton Street for its entire length, from the ferry terminal at Fulton Landing along the street past the end of Brooklyn and into Queens. The Brooklyn portion of the line was closed and demolished in 1940, following the construction of the Fulton Street subway, which is now known as the Brooklyn portion of the A and C lines.

Now that I’ve been clearing my throat for three long paragraphs, what are we looking at above? The title of the photo is “Washington St. from Fulton, Brooklyn, N.Y.” and is listed as between 1900 and 1920. The south end of Washington Street was originally at an awkward intersection with Fulton, Montague Street to the west and Myrtle Avenue to the east, just north of the small triangular plaza that fronts on Brooklyn City Hall. (Since 1898, that’s Brooklyn Borough Hall.) The construction of the subway and Cadman Plaza truncated it a block further north at Johnson Street. In the photo, we’re elevated above normal street grade, so it seems that we’re on the front steps on Borough Hall, looking past the triangular plaza and up the line of Washington Street past the statue. Hearn Dry Goods and the large building with the cupola are at the foot of Washington Street, Dennett’s is on Fulton Street. Just past the building with the cupola you can make out the ornate masonry of the post office; the Mechanics Bank on the left is one of the buildings I researched for The Structure of Skyscrapers. After the streets were reconfigured, the statue – Henry Ward Beecher, one of Brooklyn’s most famous nineteenth-century citizens – was moved north a block to a bigger plaza at Johnson Street.