New Look for Iconic Brooklyn Park Roils Residents

Since 1908, Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn has been home to the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, designed by architecture firm of McKim, Mead and White as a memorial to 11,500 men and women who died on British prison ships during the Revolutionary War. (AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – In July 1846 the Brooklyn Eagle published an essay from its new editor, 27-year-old Walt Whitman, describing a blissful scene in which 30,000 men, women and children gathered on an old Continental Army fort to watch fireworks across the East River in Manhattan.

Walt Whitman for the Brooklyn Eagle, July 8, 1846.

“Imagine the high summit of the old Fort, with ceaseless but mild sea breezes dallying round it; not a taint of streets or close human dwellings; but the moist fresh odor of dew-sprinkled grass, instead. Imagine a sweep of many acres, partly spread in gracefully sloping plains and partly broken into knolls and abrupt elevations, with here and there little dells—and crowning all, the great flattened apex of the hill itself. Imagine all this on the borders of a seventy-thousand-souled city—and not level to the city, but lifted out from it, as it were, and hung between heaven and earth.”

Printed more than 50 years before Brooklyn was incorporated as a borough of New York City, the essay was one of multiple calls by Whitman that argued for the space to be turned into a park. In 1849, he got his wish. 

Today, over a century after Whitman’s death, passionate voices continue to advocate for Fort Greene Park as they envision it — this time in opposition to changes proposed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Fort Greene Park was one of eight spaces selected for a facelift in 2016 as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Parks Without Borders.” The project aims to make parks more open, accessible, useful and integrated with the city. 

At Fort Greene, just over a mile from the Brooklyn Waterfront, the project calls for removing several dozen mature trees and a stone wall, flattening beveled mounds added by renowned landscape architect AE Bye in the 1970s, and building a wide, flat promenade in the northwest corner to allow for an unobstructed view of the 149-foot-high Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument.

Designed in the early 1900s by the architecture firm McKim, Mead and White, the towering column honors the 11,500 people who died grisly deaths on British prison ships after the Americans’ defeat in the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn, in the earliest days of the Revolutionary War. 

The park, as Whitman explained, served as a fort during the war, and some of the prisoners’ remains were buried there in a crypt.

For community members today, the commitment to preserving this rich history has stirred fierce opposition to what is estimated to be a $10.5 million makeover.

From clockwise: “Interior of the old Jersey Prison Ship in the Revolutionary War”; a door at the base of the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, a memorial to 11,500 men and women who died on British prison ships during the Revolutionary War; a beveled mound designed by landscape architect AE Bye, which would be removed as part of a renovation plan for Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. (Photos by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

The Sierra Club, Friends of Fort Greene Park and several individuals brought one such challenge on Feb. 15 in Manhattan Supreme Court, accusing the Parks Department of failing to publicly consider how its planned renovations will affect the environment.

“They’ve totally ignored SEQRA,” attorney Richard Lippes said in a phone interview, using an abbreviation for New York’s Environmental Quality Review Act. “They haven’t indicated that it doesn’t apply. They’ve just ignored it completely.”

Though NYC Parks spokeswoman Mae Ferguson declined to comment on pending litigation, she emphasized that the new features coming to Fort Greene were “explicitly requested and approved” by officials, the community board and the park’s neighbors.

“While design-based tree removals are uncommon in our capital projects, they are necessary for this design,” Ferguson said in an email. “Through extensive community engagement and historical research, the design addresses the community’s accessibility and connectivity needs, and pays tribute to the park’s monument to the 11,500 men and women who lost their lives during the Revolutionary War.”

Lippes, the attorney in the SEQRA case, said the park is already accessible to people with disabilities, and further, “making it accessible certainly would not need the major changes that they’re planning for the park.”

Disability Rights New York, which provides legal services and advocates for people with disabilities, has cheered the city’s accessibility initiatives.

“While Disability Rights New York respects those who raise their voices in support of both environmental responsibility and historical preservation, the voices of people with disabilities, who seek complete and equal access to all of New York City’s fantastic community spaces, have too often been excluded from conversations about issues like park renovation,” Marc Fliedner, a program director with the group, said in a statement.

“DRNY is gratified to see that the New York City Parks Department has made accessibility a core priority with its Parks Without Borders Project.”

From clockwise: The Prison Ship Martyrs’ monument as seen from the south end of the Fort Greene Park, over one of the grassy plains designed in the 19th century by landscapers Frederick Law Olmsted & Calvert Vaux; this playground in Fort Greene Park pays tribute to the Revolutionary War history of the Brooklyn enclave; pet owners make use of the off-leash dog run in Fort Greene Park. (Photos by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

With its winding paths and grassy plains, the 30-acre Fort Greene Park showcases the signature style of landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux; the pair also designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park, a massive if lesser-known space just south of Fort Greene.

Fort Greene Park has been shaped over the century by many prominent designers who add their own touches in distinct, sometimes incongruous ways, like graffiti artists careful not to tread upon each other’s works.

Gilmore D. Clarke built a stone wall in the 1930s, and people roller-skated on a paved plaza. Twenty years before the addition of a playground, the park’s beveled mounds were installed in the 1970s by Bye for children to play on.

The mounds, like some of the trees, are set for removal.

Given the history of the park, the petitioners’ grievances are much broader than the environmental concerns they laid out in the February 2019 suit. The group shares an amalgam of ethical, aesthetic and environmental concerns.

“To me, one of the attractive things [about Fort Greene Park] is that right now, you have to go through a little bit of a maze, and get quite well into the park, before you can really make out the entire monument,” said petitioner Michael Gruen, who is also president of the City Club of New York and represents the petitioners in a separate case about the renovation plan.

“Up until that point you see bits and pieces of it, so it makes you wonder, and curious about it,” Gruen said. “If they do this redesign, people will be able to see it from its entirety from outside the park, and the tourists will check it off their list” and go on to the next thing. 

Gruen argues that this defeats the whole concept of an Olmsted and Vaux park: built for meandering.

Another petitioner in the case, Enid Braun, 68, lives in Fort Greene and disagrees with the changes proposed for the northwest corner.

“People go to that part of the park because it is a quiet, shady place in the summer, unlike the rest of the park,” she said. “And people may not know the science behind the benefits of trees, but they know when a place is calm, quiet and cool in hot weather. And Olmsted knew it when he designed it.”

Though the petitioners do agree the park needs some maintenance work, north-side residents say they weren’t consulted in the design process.

“Somehow they are invisible to the Parks Department,” said Ling Hsu, 41, who is a petitioner and the president of Friends of Fort Greene Park. “The Parks Department says one thing and the residents say the other.”

Braun agreed.

“Basically the way this whole plan was unveiled, it was not taking into account local input,” she said. “It followed a sort of template I would describe as fake community engagement, in that comments made by users of the park at public hearings were basically discounted.”

Though the contested northwest corner of the park overlooks several public housing residences, none of those tenants are listed on the petition. Braun said some residents had told her and other petitioners they weren’t comfortable putting their names on it because people who receive public benefits are often hesitant to challenge the government.

Some were able to share their input, however, when NYC Parks hosted a Feb. 16, 2017, meeting at the Ingersoll Community Center, which Hsu recorded.

“I’m speaking from a person who was born and raised in these projects,” one woman said, explaining that she lived in the Walt Whitman Houses, almost directly in front of the park’s disputed northwest corner.

“I see men and women of powerful positions coming into a community and not talking. Half of us black folks didn’t even know that you had a meeting in November. I certainly didn’t.”

On Nextdoor, a private social-networking site with neighborhood-specific membership, Hsu said there was an immediate negative reaction to the proposed park changes.

People feared that “this was yet another project that will speed up the gentrification of Brooklyn,” she explained.

“And immediately following that reaction, people started to give other case studies of similar projects which spent millions of dollars on changes that residents don’t want.”

Top from left: Brownstones line the eastern end of Fort Greene Park on a street called Washington Park, between Myrtle and Dekalb avenues in Brooklyn; a view of Myrtle Avenue, which spans the north end of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn and includes several public housing projects. Bottom level: The Prison Ship Martyrs’ monument as seen from the northwest corner of the Fort Greene Park. During the summer, with leaves on the trees, the monument would be difficult to see in full from this spot. (Photos by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

The gentrification of Fort Greene has been underway for years: against a backdrop of new skyscrapers, the community’s eponymous park is lined with elegant brownstones, housing projects and a hospital. At least one plaintiff has been critical of the $100 million sale last year of some of the hospital’s land to a private developer that wants to build a high-rise overlooking the park.

Irrespective of the participation of public housing residents, the petitioners in the case represent a group diverse in age, race and gender.

Their suit follows a public-records battle inspired by reports that the Parks Department misrepresented the health of the trees it planned to remove in Fort Greene Park.

“The fact is that credible arborists have attested to the fact that [the trees] are healthy, and there’s no reason to cut them down,” said Lippes.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth ruled last year that Friends of Fort Greene Park is entitled to see an unredacted report on the park’s condition, but the report has stayed under wraps while the Parks Department fights for a reversal on appeal.

For Hsu, the top concerns aren’t even about Fort Greene Park specifically.

“Transparency and accountability,” she said. “The Parks Department should be transparent about all the public documentations. … As for accountability, I don’t think parks officials should get away with giving misinformation to get approval.”

Hsu maintained the petitioners want to work with the Parks Department to reach a “better design for everyone,” but said they had been stonewalled.

“I think we’re asking questions that they cannot answer,” she said, later adding, “If you have a good design, we will support you.”

A spokesperson for New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission said the agency could not comment on pending litigation but offered a brief statement via email.

“When the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s 2017 application to modify entrances and pathways at Fort Greene Park, it determined that the proposed changes were consistent with the history and previous designs of the park and supported the special architectural and historic character of the park,” she said. 

Fort Greene’s representative in City Council is Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, whose office did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

The New York City Law Department declined to comment.

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission considered these historic images of Materials considered by Fort Greene Park at a Nov. 14, 2017, hearing.

%d bloggers like this: