1851 view of Brooklyn Navy Yard looking north towards Greenpoint

Over-zealous waterfront development in Greenpoint is actually pretty old news. Scroll back the hands of time to the mid 1800’s and we’d find a very familiar scenario taking place on our shores. Before there were real estate moguls like George Klein and David Bistricer, there was Neziah Bliss–an entrepreneur that radically transformed the Greenpoint landscape forever.

Bliss, like his modern day compatriots, was a man of big ideas. He saw our expansive waterfront and could instantly hear the coins ringing. 

You see, Bliss was a maritime engineer and he wanted to build ships—big hulking ships that touched the sun, blocked out light, and made intimidating impressions.

There was no better place to launch his dream than Greenpoint’s shoreline. The water levels were so deep, even at low tide they reached to depths of 25 feet, it was infinitely easier to build his fleet here than anywhere else.

So in 1851, when two brothers from Boston–who failed miserably at building their own shipyard and foundry–put their 30 acre waterfront property on the market, Bliss seized the opportunity. He plunked down $100,000 dollars—a whopping $2.7 million in modern times—and snatched up the 10 lots of land.

Some things never change…

Because all great plans in Greenpoint deal with pesky transportation issues, Bliss’s first mission was to build a ferry line.  The city granted him a permit, and before long, the East River finally had a ferry service with steady prices and reliable schedules. No longer did shipbuilders and iron workers have to cross the river in unreliable dingies and deal with fickle ferryman and their price fluctuations. The Greenpoint Avenue ferry to 10th Street in Manhattan was a hit. Soon other money-makers took note and more ferry lines appeared.

Greenpoint was officially a boom town, and in as little as 10 years, the population sky-rocketed from 15,000 to 30,000 residents–ironically, a number that has remained unchanged to this day, albeit not for long.

The waterfront was a wild new frontier that brought in deep-pocketed men with grand designs to revamp the place. What is now the monstrous Greenpoint Landing property, Bliss drew up his blueprints with imaginary streets and gave them pretty names like Pink, Blue and Bay.  Where our famed blue digester eggs lay, another developer drew in more streets and named them things like Pequod and Duck—titled after Moby Dick’s whaleship and the nabe’s resident waterfoul.

This 1886 map shows us these fanciful renderings which historians refer to as “paper streets” because of the fact they were only imagined, never created. Photo courtesy of Forgotten NY

 

Photo courtesy of Forgotten New York

Some thoroughfares managed to see the light of day. One such road was Bliss’s Ravenswood- Williamsburg Turnpike, which connected Greenpoint to LIC. Today the turnpike would’ve included parts of Franklin Street, Manhattan Avenue, and Vernon Boulevard. Bliss was so enchanted with himself he even created his own neighborhood on the other side of Newtown Creek which he lovingly named Blissville.

1891 map of Blissville

But like all massive land developments, developers got too big for their bridges, and some of their grand visions failed to actualize. By 1916, any semblance of Bliss’s strip of colorfully named streets on Greenpoint’s tip had vanished from the atlas maps. The dead end streets along Whale Creek disappeared with them.

In today’s current climate of cloud-scraping luxury towers, which continues to sprout up like mushrooms on steroids, I take comfort in these old ambitious plans. It grounds me in the inevitable truth about boom and bust cycles. If history repeats itself, as it is already proving, with some luck Greenpoint might be spared a tower or two.

 

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  1. I realy enjoyed the article. Just a couple of comments.

    When I was researching a walking tour that I conducted a few years ago regarding Bushwick Creek, I noted 1838 as the year when the serious development of Greenpoint commenced. This was when a proper bridge over Bushwick Creek opened for business at the point where Franklin St. turns into Kent Ave. In addition, the Williamsburg-Ravenswood turnpike opened soon thereafter. I believe that Bliss was heavily involved in these ventures even then. So while he made the huge investment noted in your article in 1851, this hardly represented his first action in this area.

    Also, while the “paper streets” situated in what is now the Greenpoint Commons area never did open, I do not believe the same sad fate occurred to the streets mapped further east along Newtown Creek. I once stumbled over a mid-20th century road map – the kind you were once able to get for free at a gas station – that clearly referenced Duck and Pequod Streets. While they had certainly disappeared many years ago – and probably many years before this map was published – I doubt that they were never opened.

    One last thought, once Greenpoint Commons opens, it might be a nice idea to name the pedestrian paths that will traverse the area after Bliss’ old and stillborn streets. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks John for the additional info. I’m so glad you liked the piece. While doing my research I came across some of the things you mentioned, but for the sake of brevity, I narrowed down the scope a bit. I read about a couple of builders doing things in the shipyards near Oak St before Bliss bought his property. Just like nowadays, there seemed to be a few key players on the waterfront, Bliss was one of them. Some things never change!

  2. I am under the impression that the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 was responsible for the end of Greenpoint’s shipbuilding boom because it was no longer possible to sail giant ships out to sea. Since we no longer have any specific industry bringing inhabitants here there is really no reason why the current development plans won’t go forward as planned.

    1. Hi Hank,

      After attending a wonderful reading last night by Geoffrey Cobb, author of Greenpoint’s Forgotten Past, I asked about Whale Creek. I was told two different stories: 1) the property around Whale Creek was owned by a whale oil barron. Supposedly, whaling fleets would come into the creek from the Long Island Sound and the refinery would process the blubber into oil. 2) It was called that b/c whales were occasionally spotted swimming up the creek.

      Pick your poison!

  3. This article misrepresents Bliss in a number of ways. Bliss had already bought and developed local property before 1851. In fact he bought thirty acres of riverfront property in the late 1830’s and acquired more when he married the daughter of local landowner John A. Meserole.
    I enjoyed your article, but would would like to clear up a few points. Your article gives the impression that Bliss wanted to build ships in Greenpoint, which he never did. He had already become a partner in the Novelty Shipyard across the river in Manhattan long before he developed Greenpoint land. Novelty never moved to Greenpoint.
    He knew that shipbuilding was being pushed out of Manhattan and correctly foresaw that Greenpoint could be the new home of New York shipbuilding. His interest was real estate development, not shipbuilding. Greenpoint represented for him a new kind of venture.
    The first ship was built in Greenpoint a year before the 1851 date you mention. By 1851 shipbuilding was already well-established locally.

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