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.
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.
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.
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.