Southern Brooklyn

Going To Sheepshead Bay? Nah, It’s “The Canal”

See how it just kind of, uh, ends? That's what makes it a bay, not a canal.

Every community has its quirks, and discovering new ones always gives me a little kick. Even if it is small.

The latest discovery I made was on a recent bike ride with reader Eitan K. We were talking about the Bay when Eitan dropped a little Russian knowledge bomb on me. Our Eastern European comrades call Sheepshead Bay the “Canal.”

By no stretch of the imagination is Sheepshead Bay a canal. Canals are artificial waterways made to connect two bodies of water, usually for shipping and transportation purposes. What we have in Sheepshead Bay is… a bay. Duh.

So the misnomer intrigued me. Just as when I lived in New Jersey, I wanted to know what a “Benny” is (explanation: rich people, usually from New York, who come to the beach during the summer. Benny is short for Benjamin Franklin, whose face is on the $100 bill) or why natives always called going to the beach going “down the shore” (explanation: they’re retards).

So, I put the Sheepshead Bites machinery into action, and solicited help from our Russian-American readers.

Here’s what I found, followed by some explanations:

  • Canal is the same in Russian as it is in English, both in meaning and pronunciation (more or less)
  • The term is mostly used by older Russians, though some in their 20s did admit to using it – at least when talking to babushka
  • The actual Russian word for “bay” is zaliv. Only one reader knew this. Several said there is no direct translation for bay
  • Younger Russians usually say “I’m going to the bay,” or “I’m going to Emmons,” just like the rest of us

Now for some explanations. Most agreed it was a confusion over the definition of “canal” due to:

  • The artificially straightened banks
  • The beach on the other side of the peninsula instinctively demands some sort of mental and lexical distinction (but wouldn’t “bay” do that?)
  • The docked boats and fishermen are reminiscent of a canal
  • Families from Leningrad/St. Petersburg are reminded of that city’s huge canal. St. Petersburg is built on water like Venice, and residents there will say they are visiting the canal when they, in fact, visit a canal.

While most readers kept to the script and discussed the meaning of the word, Greg M. told us a little bit about the appeal of the neighborhood to Russian-Americans. He wrote, “Russians will go anywhere where there is water and they can walk around pointlessely, spitting seeds and talking shit about fat relatives and friends.”

So there you have it, two mysteries solved.

Thanks to all the readers who contributed to this.

Comment policy


  1. I get it. Remember that all that land south of Emmons Ave. is on Coney Island. Yes, an island. Coney Island Creek once connected with Sheepshead Bay, making an island. Don't know if cutting off the flow makes for the awful stench along Coney Island Creek, but that is what we have now.

  2. I've always heard zaliv used in reference to a spill, or to filling in something with water. I've heard puddles referred to as zaliv.

    Greg M is 100%, Russians LOVE living by water. Thats why the largest Russian community outside Brooklyn is fast growing around Father Cappadano in Staten Island. It's gotta be more then cultural though, because everytime I've visited the midwest and have been landlocked I've constantly felt claustrophobic and didn't like the lack of salt in the air at all.

    And yes, many in my family have called it “The Canal”. Even I have!

  3. A widened Gravesend Ship Canal was pushed as an idea for quite a long time, it's last gasp was in the early years of the last century. Part of the plan involved building a ship basin (named after some member of the Stryker family) where Homecrest Avenue runs. The City of New York was uninterested in the idea, and it finally died.

  4. Agree- I also call it ‘Canal’ and my kids-‘bay’. And by the way any years ago Coney Island was an island and not a peninsula and was separated from the main land by the creek. There were plans to make it a ship canal in the beginning of 20-th century but they were abandoned . So there is a real history in ‘canal’.

  5. I am deeply offended about the whole “living by the water, spitting seeds and talking sh*t…” no need to generalize and this painting of a picture of a Russian stereotype is just little and petty… Just as you say velour tracksuits, expensive sneakers and a gold chain/cross is an attribute of a true Eye-talian… Come on…

  6. this is a great article on what i am sure is a very controversial topic,.. NOT.
    ok so some Russians call it a canal, my russian grandpa refers to UPS, Fedex as post office… maybe you can write about this tomorrow.

  7. Thats so wierd, my russian mom ALSO can't understand that UPS and fedex are seperate, private entities from the post office. I was at the 11229 post office a few weeks ago and there was a russian lady holding one of those brown and yellow UPS tickets trying to pick up the package she missed, lol.

    Its an epidemic, we need live team coverage!

  8. Not everything needs to be controversial, buddy. I thought it was interesting, and apparently others did as well. Gotta remember that a lot of people still see Russians as being an insular group in Brooklyn, and so these little glimpses into their way of life and why they do things can help bridge the divide for many people.

  9. sure it doesn't have to be controversial,.. but common Russians call the bay the canal?… besides the fact that it looks more like a canal then a bay i really doubt any of them think its actually a canal or dont know the definition of one,.. just a reference really because the actual correct term for a bay “zaliv” doesnt seem right when you are looking at sheepshead bay,..

  10. I agree with part of what Gene is saying. The word 'zaliv' almost sounds like an action is taking place, a pouring of water, which doesnt fit when describing the bay. Russians use the word 'canal' because of the words' reference of a man made entity, not necessarily BEING a canal, but describing sheepshead bay with its straight, man made walls as RESEMBLING a canal.

    really wish I could use italics instead of capitals.

  11. Zaliv is usually referred to a natural formation. Calling it “zaliv” is just awkward – canal is much more suitable. The word “zaliv” is probably closer to inlet. A better word for Sheepshead Bay is “bukhta” (бухта).


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