In 1866, as Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead were planning the design and construction of Prospect Park, they smartly considered means of accessing the park. Most of the land surrounding the park was farmland then. The street grid had been planned in 1839, and laid out on paper, but not much area would be cut and divided until much closer to the twentieth century. The two landscape geniuses conceived of a grand road, broad and tree-lined, with little-to-no commercial activity allowed. A road that would be a pleasant, uplifting ride (this was well before the invention of the automobile) that would deliver those from outlying areas to the gates of the park and lead them home again afterwards.
The plan for the road, perhaps conceptually influenced somewhat by the Champs Elysees in Paris though by no means a copy of that route, was for a broad center roadway lined on each side with tress and a wide promenade, with narrower outer roadways for local traffic to the homes and apartment buildings that would line the street. Commercial activity was to be kept to an absolute minimum, a restriction the city of Brooklyn supported. Vaux and Olmstead coined the term parkway for their new road, and so Eastern Parkway is the first of the many, many parkways we now have throughout Brooklyn and worldwide.
At its opening, Eastern Parkway ran from Prospect Plaza (now Grand Army Plaza) at the north end of Prospect Park to Ralph Avenue, which at that time was the city line of Brooklyn. The route was chosen based on the terrain of this section of Brooklyn. During the ice age, glaciers pushing south crunched rocks and dirt and other debris together to form a moraine, or ridge, and Eastern parkway runs along the top of this ridge. This moraine also is the basis for the neighborhood’s current name, Crown Heights, and if you ever bike north-south through the area, you’ll realize that it’s harder to bike to Eastern Parkway on either side than it is to ride away from it.
By 1897, Eastern Parkway by name had been extended through East New York out to the Queens county line, just past Conduit Avenue along what today is Pitkin Avenue. This portion of the road seems not to have been parkway, but a standard street with the glorified name and an elevated rail line running above much of the length of this section. We found a Rand McNally map from 1901 that shows the Pitkin Avenue name here and the parkway turn up along its current route and into Ridgewood, though it could be that the section north of Fulton Street was either a planned or still-under-construction route.
Today, Eastern Parkway maintains the beauty and feeling that Vaux and Olmstead wanted, except of course that traffic is now a nightmare, at least at rush hours.
There is very little commercial activity, mainly at the corners of business-district avenues like Nostrand and Utica, and there are churches and synagogues, most notably the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters at Kingston Avenue. There are also major cultural centers at the west end, including the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, and the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. And then, of course, Prospect Park, the genesis of the idea for the world’s first parkway.
Eastern Parkway is probably best known today as the route of the annual Labor Day parade honoring the Caribbean population of Brooklyn. The parkway is one of the many gems and the many firsts that Brooklyn can claim, and another of the many, many reasons that Brooklyn is the best place in the world to live.