In many ways, Kings Highway is the mother of Brooklyn’s major thoroughfares. The roadway is reputedly named after King George III — the British monarch who ruled during the American Revolution — and the roots of Kings Highway predate even the first Dutch colonists. Over the centuries, it has slowly evolved into the road we know today.
Kings Highway began as a trail used by the Canarsee Indians before it was adapted by the Dutch to connect smaller roads and cow paths in Brooklyn’s early settlements. The road is considered one of the first to be officially called a highway in the new world. Peter Stuyvesant used the term in a document dated June 4, 1654. Meanwhile, the name “Kings Highway” has been in use for more than 200 years.
Now one of Brooklyn’s premier shopping districts, the Kings Highway BID serves 225 businesses on 25 blocks between Ocean Avenue and Ocean Parkway, including part of Quentin Road, from Coney Island Avenue to East 13th Street. This stretch of Kings Highway is unique, a “regional commercial center” in a sea of dense residential development.
The above photo on the left shows the highway in 1910, sans lanes, tar, crosswalks, streetlights, or any other modern additions visible on the span today. In the image, children play on Kings Highway and West 11th Street. The area is visibly rural, a stark contrast to the blocks of stores and apartment buildings that fill the adjacent streets today, seen in photo to the right.
In the 19th century, Brooklyn grew from a village to a city, consolidating independent settlements and multiplying its population. The municipality sought to control these physical and demographic changes by reordering 18th-century land-use patterns. By 1850, the Brooklyn street grid crisscrossed Kings County’s sprawling farms and meandering roadways, with brick and brownstone tenements replacing wood houses. Industrialization, immigration, and shipping dramatically altered the landscape and character of Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhoods. By the end of the 19th century, middle-class families were fleeing poverty and overcrowding on the waterfront in search of cheaper, undeveloped land in Flatbush and Bay Ridge.
An oasis of sleepy Dutch farmhouses, largely rural in character, awaited them along Kings Highway. Yet this was not to last; transformative changes were coming to Kings Highway, propelled by the BMT Brighton Line and the advent of the automobile. By the 1920s, the road and the neighborhoods along its path had been altered irrevocably, giving rise to a dense suburban community and a commercial district to rival Broadway.
The shopping district’s rapid development was catalyzed by elevated train service and the widening of Kings Highway at Ocean Avenue. Today’s B and Q train was originally a “surface steam railroad” that operated between Prospect Park and Brighton Beach, a burgeoning summer resort. The Brighton Line commenced service in 1878, delivering passengers to the Brighton Beach Hotel, also owned by the railway. The line changed hands multiple times due to fierce competition among private rail companies, but each acquisition solidified the route with expanded service and infrastructure improvements.
Between 1905 and 1908, BRT constructed the Brighton Line’s present right of way, which runs in a trench from Prospect Park to Newkirk Avenue, emerging overhead at Kings Highway with a rushing roar. BRT also built the King’s Highway steel overpass, which opened in 1907. Newly electrified and lifted above the street, the modern Brighton Line posed a stark contrast to Kings Highway, where shoppers still arrived at the district by stagecoach.
Whereas the district’s central core was built up with three-story brick houses with ground-floor retail stores, at the turn of the century, Kings Highway east of Ocean Avenue remained undeveloped. While food and dress merchants populated brick and terra cotta storefronts in the district, barns and farmhouses still lined the road in East Midwood. As commercial development spurred real estate values along Kings Highway, developers purchased and cleared most of the large parcels in Flatbush. Within a decade, the 18th-century farmhouses whose property lines marked the road’s irregular twists and turns had given way to one and two-family houses. A 1910 article in the New York Times hailed the new construction with the headline “suburban homes with city comforts have transformed Flatbush farms.”
The onslaught of residential development boosted property sales in the shopping district. Another breathless New York Times piece detailed a parcel on East 15th Street, where two three-story buildings were nearing completion: “These two buildings occupy seven lots for which a few months ago $45,000 was paid. Two years ago, the lots could be had for $1,500 each, and fifteen years ago, they were sold for $100 per lot.”
As Kings Highway struggled to accommodate the dizzying growth of housing, automobile traffic, and commercial development had already begun to strain its narrow width. The widening of Kings Highway was first proposed in 1912. At the time, the road was no wider than 60 feet at any point along its length. The plan put forth by the City Planning Commission, proposed expanding its width to 100 feet along a two-mile stretch between Ocean Parkway and Flatbush Avenue.
The shopping district entered a decade-long boom marked by flamboyant architecture and heady nightlife. In 1920 a new tunnel under Flatbush Avenue joined the Brighton Line at Prospect Park to the 4th Avenue Subway (the D, N, and R lines) at DeKalb Avenue, connecting the Brighton Line to the Manhattan Bridge. With access to the City, Kings Highway became a bedroom community for commuters who worked in Manhattan. As residential development continued apace, Kings Highway grew into a major destination for entertainment, shopping, and dining. The district gained two majestic theaters, multiple dance halls and a grand reception hall, and various retail stores. Real estate brochures dubbed Kings Highway from Coney Island to Ocean Avenue “the New White Way of Flatbush.”
Apart from these establishments, Kings Highway’s most significant strength lay in its retail mix. Realtors expressed confidence in the district, noting that “Kings Highway has had its greatest growth influenced by the concentration of chain stores and specialty shops on its frontages.” As the neighborhood developed into a major commercial thoroughfare, rents along Kings Highway skyrocketed to $500 per front foot and $650 per front foot for corner locations. Long before the main street management age, Kings Highway had hit upon a successful formula, drawing chains that could afford to locate in the district, while retaining businesses that made it unique.
Despite the economic downturn, the 1930s brought developments that strengthened regional shopping districts in the boroughs. In 1932, New York City awarded contracts to private bus operators, with several lines serving Kings Highway and Flatbush replacing former trolley routes. Already a force in major retail corridors, chains took advantage of low rents to secure choice locations on Kings Highway, Avenue J and Avenue U. In 1936, heavy demand and limited space pushed ground-floor rents to an unbelievable $1,000 per front foot. Commercial leases helped prop up sagging property values in overdeveloped residential neighborhoods.
Investors began buying up apartment buildings in Flatbush, as taller multi-unit dwellings surpassed one and two-family houses as the dominant mode of urban living. As demand for housing held steady, developers like Fred Trump erected dense apartment complexes in undeveloped sections, creating new residential communities. Most of these buildings were intended for low and middle-income families. Sales were spurred by improved transportation to Kings Highway via the Eighteenth Avenue bus line and the IRT Flatbush Avenue subway at Newkirk Avenue.
In the postwar period, Kings Highway entered a golden age. Kings Highway’s reputation as a shoe-shopping mecca dates back to the 50’s, when dozens of fine footwear and fancy dress stores lined the busy thoroughfare. On Thursday nights, shops in the district stayed open until 9 pm so that its customers could purchase party clothes for the weekend.
An attractive, well-kept shopping district with a rich array of commercial uses, Kings Highway boasted classic signage, high density, and quality retail. These elements distinguished the district as a significant destination, anchored by famous retailers like Field Brothers, Ripley’s, Neil’s, and Jimmy’s. Most of the shops that populated Kings Highway in the sixties have long departed from the district, but are still remembered by locals. Some businesses whose names graced Kings Highway’s storefronts in the central core were Morrell’s on the southwest corner of East 12th Street, Ira Bruce on the northeast corner of East 13th Street, Dorsey Men’s Wear Ltd. on the southeast corner of East 14th Street, Flagg Brothers on the southeast corner of East 13th Street, and Julius Grossman Shoes on the northeast corner of East 14th Street. Another of Kings Highway’s many icons was Perelson’s Department Store, housed in a 1920s terra cotta building on the southeast corner of East 17th Street.
Jimmy’s was the last of the signature stores to leave Kings Highway. It opened in 1948 as Jimmy’s 2-Cent Plain and Fancy at 1226 Kings Highway, hawking high-end men’s clothing. In the 1960s, Jimmy’s became a unisex boutique stocking thousand dollar designer suits and gowns, which were sometimes sold on the sidewalk outside the store. In the nineties, owners Jimmy and Gloria Jacobs set their sights on Manhattan, opening a second Jimmy’s on 72nd Street off Madison Avenue. Until a few years ago, the Brooklyn landmark maintained its location on Kings Highway, catering to newly affluent Russian Jews.
Kings Highway was served by several well-known diners, such as Chat N Chew Luncheonette on the northeast corner of East 15th Street and the legendary Dubrow’s Cafeteria on the northeast corner of East 16th Street. Dubrow’s Cafeteria was a chain of restaurants established in 1929 by Belarusian immigrant Benjamin Dubrow, in the Eastern Parkway section of Brooklyn. Dubrow’s other locations in New York included Kings Highway and the Garment District. The Kings Highway Dubrow’s, opened in 1939, was famous for drawing celebrities and campaigning politicians. Jewish baseball player Sandy Koufax announced his decision to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers in front of Dubrow’s in 1954. President John F. Kennedy campaigned at Dubrow’s while running for office in 1960. Before it closed in the eighties, Dubrow’s was the setting for the 1979 film Boardwalk starring Lee Strasberg and Ruth Gordon as restaurant owners fighting a protection racket on Coney Island.
As today, food purveyors clustered in the eastern portion of the district toward Ocean Avenue. These consisted mostly of markets like Food Mart and Key Food on the south side of Kings Highway between Ocean Avenue and 19th Street. Several establishments in the district catered to observant Jews, including the King Terrace Kosher Restaurant located above Litt Chinitz at 1122 Kings Highway. Confectioners like Barton’s Bonbonierre at 1712 Kings Highway and the Barricini Candy Shop at 1912 Kings Highway beckoned customers with a sweet tooth. Numerous pharmacies also made their homes east of the subway station, including Kings, Avalon, and B&W. Finally, the district housed multiple banks, including the Kings Highway Savings Bank and 1st National City Bank, that had begun moving to Flatbush in the 1920s.
Despite a staggering variety of stores, the district presented a uniform image of sophistication and class. Its tasteful look and feel derived from the merchants’ commitment to cleanliness, luxury, and preservation. Sidewalks were kept free of greenery or debris; signage conformed to unspoken standards of scale and quality. Many of the buildings that have since been drastically altered still retained their historic charm.
Though many customers arrived on Kings Highway by automobile, the BMT station remained the shopping district’s focal point. The areas around and under the overpass were well-maintained and reserved for eateries and drug stores. Dubrow’s, DeBarry, London & Fishberg Station Market, Cut Rate Drugs, and a second diner all huddled under the elevated tracks between East 15th and East 16th Streets, flanking the station entrance on either side.
Resilience and Renewal
The nineties brought a new resolve to Kings Highway and transformed the demographics of its trade area. A Business Improvement District formed in 1990 to improve all aspects of the district, and specifically address parking and sanitation issues.
The ethnic makeup of the area was shifting. The collapse of the Soviet Union sent an influx of Russian immigrants, most of them Jews, to New York City. Many settled along the Q train from Brighton Beach to Kings Highway, where Russian Jewish communities had already taken root. The Orthodox Jewish population in Midwood grew exponentially, giving business to Kings Highway and Avenue J. Chinese immigrants opened businesses on Sheepshead Bay and Avenue U, revitalizing long-dormant commercial corridors.
The district has made a comeback, adapting to change by forging a new identity. Though it has lost many of the fine stores that built its reputation, Kings Highway now caters to an ethnically and economically diverse clientele. The district is a mix of shoe stores, cell phone retailers, and other chains but retains its winning formula of glamor and convenience. Though arguably less cohesive than in its golden years, the core nonetheless stakes out its niche as a major destination for high-end shoes, clothes, and jewelry shopping.
Kings Highway weathered the 2008 economic downturn with a record low number of vacancies. New businesses and sought-after chains are staking out territory in the shopping district, capitalizing on its central location and strong customer base. The BID recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
In planning the shopping district’s future, the Kings Highway BID will look to its vibrant past for new directions while capitalizing on its present strengths and valuable potential. Its most significant challenge in the next ten years will involve balancing change with stability: drawing a new generation of shoppers while preserving what makes the district truly special.