Historic Fort Greene Park

Ft Greene Lead Tomb Tower

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.

 

New York City, and Brooklyn with it, is a land of macadam, concrete, and steel. But with all its hard surfaces and hard edges, it is a city that loves its natural green spaces. Besides the well-known major parks, like Central Park, Washington Square, and the Battery in Manhattan and Prospect Park, McCarren Park, and Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, there are hundreds of small squares and triangles full of trees and shrubs and benches for weary pedestrians and area residents to sit in and enjoy.

Ft Greene Visitor Center

The visitors center at Fort Greene Park.

Brooklyn’s oldest official park remains today a bastion of activity and history. The land now known as Fort Greene Park has twice been the site of an actual fort. The first, Fort Putnum, was built at the start of the Revolutionary War by troops commanded by Nathaniel Greene. It was quickly taken by the British during the Battle of Brooklyn and held by them until the end of the conflict. It was re-outfitted and renamed Fort Greene

at the start of the War of 1812. After that war, it was decommissioned and was a draw for locals as a place to hang out and mingle. Washington Park, the park’s original name, was commissioned by the city in 1845 and promoted heavily by the poet Walt Whitman, who worked as an editor at the Brooklyn Eagle at the time. Washington Park opened in 1850.

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Washington Park. The street along the Eastern boundary of Fort Greene Park maintains the park’s original name.

The site is also a hallowed ground. During the revolution, the British anchored several decommissioned ships and barges in Wallabout Bay, just north of Fort Greene Park and the long-time site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Upwards of 11,000 men died aboard those vessels and were simply tossed overboard or buried in shallow mud at the edge of the bay. By the turn of the nineteenth century, their bones and other remnants were becoming exposed by tidal drifting of the muck. In 1808 the remains of these unfortunates were dredged up and buried on drier land near the navy yard.

Following the Civil War, a remodeling of the park conducted by Vaux and Olmstead, the designers of Central and Prospect Parks, included a final resting place for those “prison ship martyrs,” and the remains were moved again to this vault. In 1897, the park was renamed for General Greene. Interestingly, the street along the park’s eastern boundary is still named Washington Park.

Crypt Entrance

This door in the grand staircases that lead to the monument could be the entrance to the Prison Ship Martyrs’ crypt.

In 1905, the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White was commissioned to design a memorial to those buried under the park, the tall column that rises above the park today. The tomb holds the largest number of bodies of any Revolutionary War graveyard.

On a less somber note, the park is a magnet for many residents of the eponymously named neighborhood, Fort Greene. There are tennis courts, a dog-friendly area at DeKalb Avenue and Washington Park, playgrounds for the youngsters, and plenty of spots perfect for sunbathing and lounging. There are plenty of great stores and restaurants nearby on DeKalb and Lafayette Avenues to grab something to picnic on while you’re there. History buffs should add a visit to this park to their bucket lists.

 


 

 

 

Check it Out: The Brooklyn Public Library

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The plaza and portico of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza. This building is considered one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture in America.

 

Every major city has a library system, and Brooklyn is no exception. Dating back to when Brooklyn was an independent city, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is the sixth largest library system in the country, with 59 branches throughout the borough. Almost everyone in Brooklyn lives no more than one-half mile from a library.

The BPL as an entity began as a private association with the merger in 1869 of two antecedent organizations, the Brooklyn Athenaeum and Reading Room and the Brooklyn Mercantile Library Association of the City of Brooklyn. In 1878 the merged organizations were renamed the Brooklyn Public Library, but as noted, at the time it was private, not free. The library was located on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.

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The inner lobby of the Central Branch, circa 1958, with the card catalogues on the left and information and checkout desks on the right.

The city of Brooklyn established the free Brooklyn Public Library in 1896, and today the system holds more than four million items. It welcomed just under eight million visitors last year and circulated over 14 million books and electronic media.

Between 1901 and 1923, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie gave the system $1.6 million to expand the system, and more than one-third of today’s total branches were built with those funds. Twenty-one of the system’s 59 branches are still referred to as Carnegie Libraries.

The main branch of the system, at Grand Army Plaza and officially called the Central Library, was considered for the predecessor organization in 1889, but no ground was broken until 1912. The original design was an ornate Beaux-Arts affair that, because of rough economic times during World War I and then the Great Depression, was abandoned after just one wing had been constructed but not finished. The site remained dormant until 1935, at which time a new design was commissioned in the then-current Art Deco style. Shaped like an open book, with the grand, 50-foot high entrance at the binder and the front and back covers fanned out along Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway, respectively, the beautiful limestone building opened in 1941. The building is considered by experts as one of the shining stars of Art Deco design in the country.

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Literary images in the portico of the Central Library, including Brer Rabbit, Natty Bumppo (The Deerslayer) , Walt Whitman, and Poe’s Raven.

Above the main entrance doors are arrayed fifteen bronze images representing characters and writers from the American literary canon, including Tom Sawyer, Rip Van Winkle, Hiawatha,

Walt Whitman, Winken, Blinken, and Nod, and animals including Poe’s Raven, Brer Rabbit, and Moby-Dick.

The library today is a major cultural element in Brooklyn, offering classes and programs for kids, teens, and adults, as well as seminars, talks, readings by authors and scholars on many subjects, movie screenings, and other events, all for the general public and all free. Check with your local branch for specific events.

In this age of digital images taking over from reading for many people, the library is as necessary today as it was one-hundred twenty years ago. And, in a nod to modernity, the library’s collection includes more than 700,000 digital items.

If you haven’t been to your local branch, go check it out. If you can get over to the central branch, go and check it out. And while you’re there, join the library, look through the racks, grab a book, and check it out.

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Three of the twenty-one so-called Carnegie Libraries, built with money given by the industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Pictured L-R are the Macon Library in Bed-Stuy/Stuyvesant Heights, the Park Slope library, and the Arlington Library in Cypress Hills.

 


 

Fulton Ferry Landing

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A view of the busy East River and Fulton Ferry Landing (far side) from Manhattan, 1845. A steamboat leaves the dock, center, as another out in the river approaches.

 

In 1814, Brooklyn was a small village on the Western tip of Long Island, across the East River from bustling New York City. At the time, the only way over the river was via commercial sailboat ferry, service of which had been in place since the 1630s, running from the foot of Joralemon Street in Brooklyn to Broad Street in Manhattan. Both landings were later moved, the Brooklyn side to what was then called Ferry Road. It was from here that George Washington’s Continental Army escaped the British to Manhattan during the Battle of Brooklyn. 

Ferry Ticket

A ticket for the Fulton Ferry cost four cents through the first half of the nineteenth century.

The sailboat ferries were not so reliable, as they were at the mercy of the winds, and thus were sometimes delayed by calm and sometimes blown way off course by blusters and gales. Everything changed in the crucial year 1814. That’s when, on May 8th, Robert Fulton, who since 1807 had been operating a steamboat in the North River (today commonly called the Hudson), launched his East River ferry service. The trip took less than twelve minutes, and suddenly it was fun rather than uncertain to take the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Manhattan became wide open to Brooklyn and Long Island residents and commerce, and Brooklyn was open to Manhattanites who wanted to get away from the hubbub of the city.

Eventually the landings and the roadways leading to them on both sides of the river were renamed to honor Fulton and his achievement. (Both boroughs also have nearby Nassau Streets, named after Fulton’s first East River ferryboat. And, Fulton’s North River boat, the Clermont, could have as its namesake the eponymous street in Fort Greene.)

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Bargemusic, at Fulton Ferry Landing,  is performed on one of the many barges that once off-loaded coffee, cocoa, and tobacco at the nearby piers.

Fulton died the year after the ferry began, but the Fulton Ferry Company was a successful enterprise for more than one hundred years. The few competitors that sprung up were bullied or bought out of existence; bullied via drastic price cutting that only the Fulton Ferry Company could survive, or bought through mergers or acquisitions, one of which changed the name of the company to the New York and Brooklyn Union Ferry Company, popularly called Union Ferry.

The company’s fortunes began to wane with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. People could now drive or walk across the river, or, beginning in 1898, take a trolley. Though its business slowed, Union Ferry remained profitable for another forty years, finally closing in 1924.

Through the years, the ferry landing area was industrial, being a dock not just for ferry service but busy with commercial vessels from all over the world. The area to the north, today known as DUMBO, was a thriving enclave of warehousing and manufacturing, as well as a center of coffee roasting for national distribution.

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Today, Brooklyn Bridge park offers many recreational activities on the refurbished formerly industrial piers.

The waterfront from the Navy Yard to Red Hook was a solid line of piers full of ocean-going ships loading and unloading massive amounts of grain, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa, all of which were shipped in large sacks that were stored in the nearby warehouses. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century shipping methods changed from using sacks to containers, and that heavily impacted the Brooklyn side of New York Harbor. The tight confines of Brooklyn’s downtown area couldn’t accept containers, and so much of what used to come to Brooklyn transferred over to the more wide-open ports of New Jersey. In the early 1980s, the Port Authority shut down all activity north of Atlantic Avenue.

By the time the piers closed, the landing’s future could already be envisioned. In 1977 both the River Café and Bargemusic began their separate operations at the foot of Old Fulton Street by the Brooklyn Bridge, and both continue to attract visitors hungry for good food and music today. From the eighties through the nineties and beyond, the somewhat bleak Empire-Fulton Ferry state park under the bridge was a site for summer sculpture installations and for TV shoots where the body or abandoned car was found. But not much else was going on, at least publicly.

Behind the scenes, planners were envisioning a new strategy for using the site, and today the Fulton Ferry Landing area has been transformed into a destination for fun and frolic. Brooklyn Bridge Park opened in sections beginning in 2010 and has since grown to its full size and potential. Covering 85 acres along more than a mile of waterfront from Jay Street at the north end south to Atlantic Avenue, the park straddles the landing itself, and the piers that remain are now covered in grass or artificial turf, with landscaped pathways and gardens, and include a carousel; picnic area; beaches; basketball, soccer, and roller skating open-air arenas; and much, much more.

Restored to a new glory, the Fulton Ferry Landing is abuzz with activity again.


How to get there: Access to the Fulton Ferry Landing area is via the F train at York Street station in DUMBO or the A or C trains at High Street station and 2/3 trains at Clark Street station, both in Brooklyn Heights. All are an easy walk from the landing.

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An aerial view of the former Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, today a part of Brooklyn Bridge Park, with the restored red brick Empire Stores warehouse building center, the Tobacco Warehouse, now home to the St. Ann’s Warehouse Theatre, to its right, and the Jane’s Carousel in front on the water’s edge. (From the Empire Stores Web site.)

 


 

Eastern Parkway: One of Brooklyn’s many Firsts

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The original route of Eastern Parkway, the world’s first, from Prospect Plaza on the West (left) and Ralph Avenue at the East end, from an 1897 Rand-McNally City of Brooklyn map,

 

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.

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Eastern Parkway provides pedestrian promenades on both sides, and is lined with trees for its entire length.

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. 

Caribbean Parade

The Parkway is perhaps best known as the route of the annual Labor Day Caribbean parade.

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.

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Eastern Parkway at Nostrand St., approx. 1919.

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.

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Eastern Parkway’s Route today.

 


Historic Green-wood Cemetery

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The main gate into Green-wood Cemetery, at Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Fifth Street.

 

One of Brooklyn’s most spectacular, naturally beautiful, and historically important spots and a big attraction for thousands of visitors annually is Green-wood Cemetery. (We won’t say it: people are dying to go there. Oops, we said it.) More famous people sleep at Green-wood than ever slept, lived, and/or died at the Hotel Chelsea; Green-wood is also forty-five years older than that Manhattan landmark.

As the mid-nineteenth century came into view, New York and Brooklyn were growing and becoming more urban. Green spaces were shrinking, and church yard cemeteries had graves reaching to the edges of their lots. The disposal of the departed began to become problematic. A new cemetery, Green-wood, was proposed by Brooklyn socialite Henry Pierrepont and laid out (no pun intended) after the then-current English style of cemetery having an informal park-like setting.

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Minerva, the Roman Goddess of wisdom, is the main feature of the monument honoring the Revolutionary War dead.

Soon after Green-wood opened in 1838, it became a destination spot for Brooklynites and for many Manhattanites, later becoming a final destination for some of those visitors. Green-wood now holds the rich and famous from days long gone and days just gone by. A short list of celebs buried there includes:

The Famous
Leonard Bernstein, Composer, West Side Story, many others
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Artist
Henry Ward Beecher, Abolitionist
Kate Claxton, Actress
Horace Greeley, Newspaperman, Politician
Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives, Engravers
Frederick Ebb, Lyricist
Frank Morgan, Actor, who portrayed the Wizard of Oz
Samuel B. Morse, inventor of Morse code

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Statues of soldiers of all ranks grace the base of the Civil War memorial on Battle Hill in Green-wood Cemetery.

The Notable
Stanley Bosworth, Founder, St, Ann’s School, Brooklyn Heights
George Catlin, Painter
Henry Chadwick, Baseball Hall of Famer and inventor of the box score
DeWitt Clinton, Governor of and Senator from New York
Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Union
Charles Ebbets, Owner, Brooklyn Dodgers
Mary Ellis Peltz, Theatre Critic
Eli Siegel, Philosopher
Emma Stebbins, Sculptor of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park
Henry and William Steinway, father/son, Piano Makers

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“Our Drummer Boy” commemorates the life and death of twelve-year-old Clarence McKenzie, the first Brooklynite killed in the Civil War.

The Infamous
Albert Anastasia, noted mobster
William “Boss” Tweed, Politician

and many other artists, athletes, industrialists, murderers and the murdered, military men and women, politicians, socialites, and more.

The grounds are the site of some of the fiercest fighting that took place during the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. The highest point in Brooklyn, Battle Hill, is in the cemetery, and is graced with a monument to the battle in the form of a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, and one to the New Yorkers who died in the Civil War. Elsewhere on the grounds is a monument remembering twelve-year-old Clarence McKenzie, the first soldier from Brooklyn killed in the Civil War. Ironically, it was not in battle, but in camp that the youngster, in his tent, was hit by a stray bullet from other Union soldiers drilling nearby. His monument, entitled “Our Drummer Boy,” stands on what’s known as the Hill of Graves, surrounded by other soldiers who were killed or fought in the Civil War.

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Crypts and monuments line this road and dot the entire grounds in Green-wood.

There are hundreds of mausoleums, obelisks, statues, and thousands and thousands of standard gravestones and markers of well-known and ordinary citizens across the cemetery’s 478 acres. Near the main entrance on Fifth Avenue is the monument to those lost in the Brooklyn Theatre Fire, atop a mound under which lie more than one hundred bodies of men, women, and children buried in a mass grave, the unidentifiable remains of victims of that historic, horrific conflagration. Far from being an historical relic, however, the cemetery is alive and vibrant, and continues to accept new residents. There’s room for many more.

Green-wood also continues its long history as a recreational destination, offering a slate of annual, monthly, and one-off events in every season. Many have to do with discussions and/or examinations of death. November includes a Day of the Dead Family Program; Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre; Border Crossings: This and Other Worlds (about death, not politics). 

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A fall day at Green-wood Cemetery.

There are Twilight Tours, birding tours (including a search for the famous Green-wood parrots), Trolley Tours (perfect for the less mobile of us), and others with eclectic subjects, focusing on topics such as mushrooms, stained glass, and seances. One long-time annual event is the ISO Symphonic Band and Orchestra concert every Memorial Day. In addition, there are Revolutionary War reenactments, Green-wood at Night tours, and so many more all year round.

Green-wood Cemetery is a true treasure, and any Brooklynite who hasn’t been there should make a resolution to go in 2019. No matter what time of year, its beauty and its interest can’t be beat. Get to Green-wood Cemetery, while you can still walk out when you’re done.

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Some of the many hundreds of ornamented gravestones in Green-wood Cemetery.

 


 

The Narrows Botanical Garden

 

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The Narrow Botanical Garden is a small, hidden gem at the northwest corner of Bay Ridge.

 

There are many, many hidden gems in Brooklyn, and one small outdoor wonder that’s unknown even to many of its neighbors is the Narrows Botanical Garden in Bay Ridge. Tucked between Shore Road and the Gowanus Expressway just below Owl’s Head Park, this small but lovely space, now known as the Jewel of Bay Ridge, has an open field, two tiny rose gardens, a natural area with water features and a turtle sanctuary, a monkey puzzle tree, and keeps bees that produce one of the best honeys we’ve ever tasted.

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The garden has several water features in and near the natural area.

The Narrows Botanical Gardens is today and always has been a labor of love by Bay Ridge volunteers who founded the garden in 1995 and others who maintain it today. The parkland that holds the garden was created when the Belt Parkway was built between 1934 and 1940. The park at this locale was little used for decades, and became derelict, with trash, car tires, and other detritus littering the area. Then, in 1995, two area residents, Joan Regan and James Johnson, waded into the park and began cleaning it up. Their efforts soon attracted others, and within a year, they had established the Narrows Botanical Garden.

It was a simple restored park at the start, but through the years various features have been added, including a greenhouse for plant propagation, a cactus garden, a lily pond, and the small rose gardens. Support comes from local businesses, local politicians, and the city Parks Department. That support helps with covering costs, but it’s the volunteer corps that operates and maintains the grounds that is the true lifeblood of the garden.

An early autumn visit to the garden found volunteers manning the gate to the natural garden. There is no admission, but, like all non-profits, donations are always gratefully accepted. Several other volunteers worked at various spots, digging and making minor repairs. One gardener had just collected a batch of honey from the onsite hives and offered some to anyone who happened by. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe the smoothness and taste of that golden nectar. The garden itself had peaked as far as most of the flowers go, but there were a few late-late-season roses in the two rose gardens, the koi pond in the natural area was active, and the small Chinese garden area is lovely at any time of year. And, we were delightfully surprised to see that monkey puzzle tree thriving in the ground not far from the entrance.

Narrows Botanical Gdn Logo 72dpiA taste of honey won’t be offered at every visit, but if you’re a garden aficionado and find yourself in the Bay Ridge area, a stop by the Narrows Botanical Garden should be on your to-do list.

 

https://www.narrowsbg.org/about_us

 

 


 

 

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum

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The exhibits at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum cover international arts, local natural sciences, and world cultures.

 

Young minds are curious. From babyhood, the blank slate that is our new-born brain begins absorbing all that we see, examining our hands, and feet, and the faces, the touch, and smell of our parents and everything else that we sense. If we’re lucky, as we grow, as we age, that curiosity stays with us. One way to maintain that level of absorption of our surroundings is to continue to explore new things. Here in Brooklyn we’re very fortunate to have an institution that is dedicated to nurturing the developing minds of our youngest.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, in Crown Heights, is the oldest and one of the largest institutions in the country and perhaps the world dedicated to feeding and developing the curiosity and creativity of children. From its beginning in 1899, the museum has presented science, the arts, and the natural sciences with the notion of learning by experience, providing interactive, hands-on exhibits that encourage visitors to take an active part in each. 

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Some of the 30,000 objects in the collection of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. At the rear is the entrance to one of the museum’s many workshop classrooms, the Color Lab.

Six permanent exhibits offer interactive experiences in nature, art, sensory play, cultural diversity, and more. The Neighborhood Nature exhibit includes dioramas of local plants and animals found here in Brooklyn. The Our favorite is World Brooklyn where kids can learn hands on what it’s like to work as a shopkeeper, baker, grocer, builder, and other vocations.

Many of the temporary exhibits introduce young people to other cultures, other eras, and other ways of viewing and interacting with the objects and materials around us. The museum offers many weekend workshops for kids, and educators and organizations can rent a Museum on the Go case for classroom presentations and activities. In addition, the museum offers after-school programs in the arts, culture, and science, and teen programs geared toward community interaction.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum was founded in 1899 by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum), with the idea that children learn best by doing. Creating a place that offers children a chance to touch, operate, and become immersed in the offered exhibits was a revolutionary concept at the time.

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The world culture area offers a strip of “shops” displaying items specific to various places around the world.

The original building was an old mansion on or near the site of the present building in Brower Park, designed by the architect Raphael Vinoly and completed in 2008 with more than 100,000 sq. ft. inside and a large roof deck and garden. It is the only LEED-certified green museum in the city. Today, the museum boasts a collection of over 30,000 natural science and cultural objects that are either on display or used in the various programs and exhibitions. There’s something of interest for kids of all ages. We suggest you grab your kids and go see for yourself. (Note: Thursdays from 2:00-6:00, admission is free!)

 

https://www.brooklynkids.org/

 The Children’s Museum
145 Brooklyn Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11213, corner of St. Marks Avenue

Hours: Tue, Wed, Fri., 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Thu., 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Sat., Sun., 10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Admission: $11 except Thursday, 2:00 – 6:00, free/pay what you wish

 


 

Bottle Beach and Dead Horse Bay

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Bottle Beach at Dead Horse Bay. These bottles and other debris fall out of the landfill under the embankment behind the beach.

 

Many Brooklynites have heard of Bottle Beach, often called Glass Bottle Beach, the stretch of beach along Flatbush Avenue opposite Floyd Bennett Field just before the Marine Parkway Bridge to the Rockaways. It’s one of the most litter-strewn beaches you’ll find anywhere in the world, with every step falling onto not just glass bottles, but all manner of recrement ranging from pieces of animal bones to shoes to tables to refrigerators, the type of trash changing on every visit. Where does all this dross come from?

The water lapping onto the beach is known as Dead Horse Bay, and the beach’s dirty (literally) little secret is that its scattered detritus comes not from the waters of the bay but from under the sand on the embankments behind it. In the nineteenth century, horses were a big part of everyday life. By 1880, there were upwards of 100,000 horses in New York City, working as the engines for streetcars, drays, and coaches. Their utility was indispensable, but they posed huge health hazards, each one generating +/- twenty pounds of solid waste and a quart of urine per day. In addition to that problem, they often died in the street, from sickness or overwork, and a carcass often remained where it fell until it had rotted and dried out enough to be easily carted away.

Barren ISland and marshes

Prior to being connected to the mainland, Barren Island (lower right) in Jamaica Bay could be accessed by walking through the marshland north of the island.

As people became more aware of how disease spreads, officials looked for a place to process the horses’ bodies and contracted the job to several “horse rendering plants” (read glue factories) on Barren Island, an isolated spot in Jamaica Bay. In addition to horses, the plants processed dogs and cats, cows, goats, pigs, etc., all commonly found throughout New York City and Brooklyn in those days. Besides glue, the factories turned out soap, fertilizer and grease. The island became known throughout the area as the most foul-smelling place in the state, and maybe the country. The workers who lived there with their families were considered somewhat less than human. The post-processing remains of the animals, mainly bones, were dumped into the bay, which along this stretch now carries the Dead Horse moniker.

Barren Island Factory

A factory on Barren Island, c. 1911. From the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Once Brooklyn became part of New York City, the island became a repository for trash as well as offal. Later, Jamaica Bay along the eastern part of Barren Island was filled in with sand dredged from elsewhere in the bay, connecting a few other islands together and to the mainland in order to build Floyd Bennett Field, which opened in 1930. The water around these islands had always been shallow and marshy, and the Dutch settlers walked through the bay water from one island to the next and back to the mainland, so filling in all those channels in was not a huge engineering feat. The western side of the former island continued to be used as a dump, and as Robert Moses bulldozed entire neighborhoods to make way for his expressways, many of the poorer homeowners and renters in the right-of-way areas were forced out with not much more than the clothes on their backs. The debris from these swaths of razed homes were sent to Dead Horse Bay, including clothing, furnishings, mementos, photos, and keepsakes, all of which now fall out of the sand banks and onto the beach along with the broken remnants of horse bones and bottles.

 


 

Pioneer Works

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There are so many reasons to love Red Hook: The waterfront, the many old warehouse buildings, now housing great modern shops and manufacturing companies such as German Kitchen Center

, the Red Hook Winery, Scanlon Glass, Steve’s Key Lime Pie, and Fairway, as well as more modern constructions like IKEA; the quaint nineteenth-century row houses along the narrow streets and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal at Atlantic Basin; and the baseball and soccer fields and the large public pool at the Sol Goldman Rec Center. There are also many arts and community organizations, both commercial and non-profit, that attract visitors from all over the metro area. These include the Waterfront Museum Barge, The Brooklyn Waterfront Artist’s Coalition Gallery, and Added Value Farms.

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A group listening to an artist talk about his work at the Potoprens exhibit at Pioneer Works, September 2018.

One of the larger of the arts organizations is Pioneer Works, located in a former Ironwork factory at 159 Pioneer Street, at the foot of Imlay Street  between Van Brunt and Conover Streets. Pioneer Works is a cultural center “dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines. Through a broad range of educational programs, performances, residencies, and exhibitions, Pioneer Works transcends disciplinary boundaries to foster a community where alternative modes of thought are activated and supported.” In plainer English, the organization’s goal is “to make culture accessible to all.”

One of the ways it does that is through its Second Sundays events. Second Sundays is a free event series which provides the public free access to tour the space, visit the studios of current resident artists, and view the current exhibitions. There is live music, and the organization’s program leaders give hands-on demonstrations and programs in art, education, science, and technology.

Artit talking

One of the twenty artists exhibiting work at the Potoprens show talks about his work.

The center offers classes in each of its different focuses, i.e., art, science, technology, and music. Many classes relate to the current exhibitions. Admission is free, though a reservation is required. A link to order a free ticket is on the page of each program, class, or talk.

Scientific Controversies (Sci Con) is a series of conversations between scientists on unsolved quandaries, hosted by Director of Sciences Janna Levin. Conversations can be on any scientific riddle, such as Swarm Intelligence, String Theory, Black Holes, or Dark Matter.

One of the more well-known events sponsored by Pioneer Works is the annual Red Hook Regatta, in which homemade boats race along the Red Hook waterfront in New York Harbor.  The 2018 regatta, the fourth annual, takes place on September 28th. The race features two classes of boats, 3-D printed boats and general do-it-yourself boats. All boats must fit in a 2′ x 2′ x 2′ box. Electronic controllers are provided by Pioneers Works. Registration and controller-kit pickup ends on September 9th.  Full rules are here. Spectators can watch from Valentino Park pier from 1:00-5:00 p.m. The event is free, and there is catered food available (not free) and live entertainment during a half-time break.

Visit the center’s Web site for a complete list of current goings on.

Some History

Steamroller 350w

A picture of one of the steamrollers made at the Pioneer Iron Works near the close of  the 19th century. The building is now the home of the Pioneer Works cultural center.

The original Pioneer Iron Works factory opened by circa 1866 on Williams Street at the foot of Imlay Street, under the ownership of Alexander Bass. Ten years later the company was a leading manufacturer of tar kettles and steamrollers for road construction, and sugar production machinery and “temporary railroads,” the latter two products sold to companies in Cuba to be used on sugar plantations. The factory suffered two devastating fires, one in 1881 and one in 1906 but was rebuilt each time. The company closed in the mid-1940s, about the same time as the end of World War II, and the building was used for some time after as a storage facility for the Time Moving Company.

William Pioneer Map 250W

Map detail from 1903 showing both William and Pioneer as the names of the street where the Pioneer Iron Works was.

William Street was renamed Pioneer Street around the turn of the twentieth Century. Maps from 1898 have the way named William Street. By 1903, both names, William and Pioneer, are used as the name. Eventually, William was dropped completely.

We’re repeat visitors to the center and to  Second Sundays, and can say it’s well worth a stop-by any time you’re in Red Hook, which we think should be fairly often.

Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street
Hours: Thurs – Sun, 2 – 7      Admission: FREE!

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The Brooklyn Theatre Fire

Burnt out theatre Lead image

The aftermath of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire, which claimed the lives of at least 278 men, women, and children, many burned beyond recognition.

 

On December 5, 1876, upwards of 900 people were gathered in the Brooklyn Theatre enjoying a production of The Two Orphans, starring Kate Claxton and Harry S. Murdock. Claxton especially was a major star of her day, and the play, a melodrama in five acts adapted from a French play, would go on to be one of the most produced theatre pieces in the country well into the twentieth century. Just at the beginning of the final act, a cotton backdrop above the stage swayed close to a gaslight and caught fire. Several crewmen attempted to dowse the flames without stopping the show or sounding any alarms, but failed, and in the conflagration and ensuing panic that followed, at least 278 people died (an exact number was never determined). The theatre burned to the ground in ninety minutes.

The Brooklyn Theatre post card

A post card depicting the Brooklyn Theatre, which opened in 1871 and burned down in 1876.

The Brooklyn Theatre stood on the corner of Johnson and Washington Streets (now Cadman Plaza East at this junction), directly across Johnson Street from where the U.S. Post Office building now stands. Built in 1871, the theatre was made mostly of wood, and was lit by gaslights. The auditorium rose three tiers high, including the first-floor Parquet Circle, a second-level Dress Circle balcony, and the Family Circle (the cheap seats) on the top tier. This third level was accessible by just one switchback staircase, and once upstairs, there was no way out except that staircase. Most of the dead had been sitting in this section of the theatre.

It was between the fourth and fifth acts that a crew member noticed the small fire in the rear fly area above the stage. Rather than evacuate the theatre, it was decided to put out the flames while the show went on. Most theatres at the time kept water buckets and wet blankets backstage for smothering small fires, and the Brooklyn Theatre had a hose tied into a dedicated water pipe. However, all those were on the deck and the fire, small though it was, was in the air, and when the curtain rose for the final act, the inrush of air from the auditorium fanned the flames, which ignited other scenic drops and the dry wood battens that held them, and the fire took off.

Map of Brooklyn, 1840 wBrooklyn Theatre Cropped

A map, circa 1840, with the superimposed red area showing the location of the Brooklyn Theatre, which was built in 1871.

The performers onstage bravely tried to calm the audience as it rose and ran for the exits, but as the fire grew, the actors, too, ran to escape. Foolishly, Murdoch and castmate Claude Burroughs, a popular young rising star, went to their dressing rooms to grab warmer clothes than their costumes allowed, and both perished. Claxton and another actress, Maude Harrison, escaped through an underground passage that led from their dressing room to the box office on Washington Street.

Newspaper accounts of the fire describe horrific scenes of people being trampled, trapped, and jumping from windows, of which there were few, and ventilator outlets, and the collapse of the still-crowded and burning Family Circle tier into the middle of the ground level and on into the theatre’s basement.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Headline copy

A report of the fire as published in the Brooklyn Eagle within days of the event.

The list of the dead includes not just adults, but many children and teenagers. Of the 278 known dead, 103 bodies were unidentifiable and were buried together in a mass grave in Green-wood Cemetery, where an obelisk stands today marking their final resting place.

The Brooklyn Theatre fire was at the time the worst public-assembly fire disaster in U.S. history, and today remains the third worst. A new fire code was instituted as a response, and included requiring theatres to have brick proscenium walls rather than wood, and to have a fire-proof house curtain. Those curtains, of course, were for almost 100 years after made of asbestos, now a known carcinogen and banned substance.

A fascinating footnote to the fire concerns Kate Claxton. As noted, she was a popular, highly regarded actor at the time of the fire, but just months later, she traveled to St. Louis to perform in a show there, and just after she arrived, her hotel burned down, with Claxton making another last-second escape. Thereafter, many actors refused to join any show she was in, and superstitious audiences fearfully avoided her performances. Her career was irreparably damaged.