Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Walk in the Park

It is hot tonight and I was hotter still earlier this evening, striding downtown, across town, and across the bridge under a blazing sun. To cool off, besides the circulating fan and the cold Corona, I am remembering my walk in Prospect Park last week. I took Friday off from work to wander around on a weekday, thinking the streets might be less crowded. I some ways they weren't and in some they were. Prospect Park was a lot calmer without the weekend crowds. Among the trees and the leafy glades down by the Audubon Boathouse and around the lake, you could feel miles and miles away from the city. But the pictures can speak for themselves. They were all taken down around the lake between the boathouse and the music garden.

Mozart, Beethoven, and the Saengerfest later; that's all just too energetic for a hot Brooklyn night.
But perhaps some birdsong before you wend your way back to Grand Army Plaza with its memories of the blue and gray . . .

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vinegar Hill

Hudson Ave. at Plymouth St.

I like Vinegar Hill. Whenever my walks take me to downtown or through downtown I try to swing up through there if I can manage it. It always sounded to me like a place that belonged with Tombstone, Dodge City, or the OK Corral, though it turns out that the name comes from the last battle of the (unsuccessful) Irish Revolution of 1798, named thus by the man who bought the land in 1800. Most of this factual background on the neighborhood (as opposed to my own opinions), by the way, I get from that invaluable book The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

Plymouth St. looking toward Bridge St. and the Manhattan Bridge beyond

Sands Street, once considered the main street of Vinegar Hill, from the mid-1800s on attracted bars, gambling houses, brothels, drug peddlers, and thieves. In fact, the commandant of the Navy Yard finally closed down the Sands Street entrance to the yard to try to keep the sailor's from being led into temptation.

Plymouth St. and Hudson Avenue at the Con Ed Plant

You wouldn't know that from walking through there today; there is an almost preternatural quietness around there on the weekend. If you wander those streets on a Saturday or Sunday you could hear a pin drop, as the saying goes. It's probably because most of the area is still commercial, light industrial, with a very large Con Ed plant along the river. What the weekdays are like I don't know.

Plymouth St. from Bridge St. toward Gold St.

Also, it's tucked away in a corner hard up against the East River and the Navy Yard, and Sands Street, still the main route over to the BQE and the Manhattan Bridge, is no longer part of a smaller Vinegar Hill. It reminds me of one of those fictional small towns you read about that were once bustling with activity until the new highway bypass gets put in and then sink into obscurity. Sort of. All the signs direct traffic, bikes and cars, down Sands Street before they get near Vinegar Hill.

Hudson Ave. at Plymouth St.

But keep walking up the hill on Navy Street beyond Sands and beyond the Farragut Houses and you're suddenly in what appears to be a tiny village with tree-shaded cobbled streets and frame houses and small two- to three-story brick buildings. This part of Vinegar Hill is only a few square blocks but it's worth stumbling on.

Hudson Ave. at Plymouth St.

I think the wonderment of small, special places like this is all the more for finding them accidentally which, if you're reading this, you won't be doing any longer. Still, it can be a pleasant surprise walking into it for the first time even if you know it's there.

Hudson Ave. at Water St.

Since I was speaking of Walt Whitman in an earlier post, let me quote some lines that came to mind when I first strolled Vinegar Hill:

I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer

Hudson Ave. at Water St.

Well, okay, take away the orange cones and maybe you can loaf at your ease better, but even they don't interfere with the sense of calm that pervades the place. I like those doglegs you sometimes find in smaller older neighborhoods; the way they break up the tedious regularity of the street grid and make a place seem a little more informal.

Looking down Hudson Ave.

The ironic thing is that when Whitman wrote those, Vinegar Hill was known as Hell's Half Acre and nothing like a place to loaf; it probably made even the old Times Square look like a walk in the park. My only fear right now is that the area known as DUMBO is going to slither it's way northward like a kudzu vine and smother the place with little boutique stores and salad bars and Starbucks . . .

Hudson Ave. at Water St.

Evans & Little Sts.

That is a gorgeous home and from what I can tell from looking at maps of the area, it's always been part of the Navy Yard. Whether it still is, or is in private hands now, I don't know. As a Navy Yard home, though, it sure as hell has fared better than Admiral's Row down at the bottom of Navy St. Of which more the next time.

A General View of Vinegar Hill

A Closer View of Vinegar Hill

In the views above, the Con Ed plant is at the top along the East River and the tree shaded streets are in the curved patch of trees on the right hand side, hard against the Navy Yard. The Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges are out of the picture further down on the left.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

John Lindsay and his Triangle

There is an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (5th Ave. & 103rd St.) revolving around John Lindsay's two terms in office (1966-1973) as mayor of New York City. It's called America's Mayor: John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York. There is a link here to the museum's web site for more information:

John V. Lindsay and the Reinvention of New York

When I was growing up the story was that Lindsay was despised by just about everyone in Queens because he didn't clear the streets fast enough after a 15-inch snowstorm, so you might expect that borough would stint on any sort of remembrance of the mayor. But it's hard to see how they could do worse than Brooklyn. Behold Lindsay Triangle":

It is at Broadway and Lorimer Street and Throop Avenue and is basically the entrance/exit to the Lorimer Street station on the J and M lines.

Well, at least in the spring, the tree looks kind of nice.

Johnny, we hardly knew you.

Downtown -- Korean War Vets Plaza

I have to correct an oversight from the last post concerning the parks along Cadman Plaza. I hopped from Columbus Park near Borough Hall to Cadman Plaza Park near the bridge without mentioning the one in between.

Korea War Veterans Plaza looking toward Tillary Street and Cadman Plaza Park

The formal entrance to this park is at Tillary Street and if you are walking from Borough Hall you may not see it (as prominent as it is) if, like I did, you simply cross Tillary Street to continue to the World War II memorial. On Saturday when I was down there again, I happened to approach it from the other direction and saw what I hadn't sen the first time.

Tillary Street at Cadman Plaza

This quiet, tree shaded park is dedicated to the veterans of the Korean War and is known as Korean War Veterans Plaza.

Tillary Street at Cadman Plaza

Along the low wall at the park entrance is a roll of honor where are inscribed the names of the Brooklyn men who lost their lives in that war.

Friday, May 14, 2010


I knew I should never have said anything about that empty lot. That's the one where there grow either wild flowers or colorful weeds, depending on your perspective. The one where there is supposedly an underground spring that prevents anyone from building on it.

I am a great believer in jinxes. I work on the 17th floor of a building in midtown and when a few of us get on the elevator for the lobby, no matter what time of day, all it takes is a comment like "Maybe we won't make too many stops," to make us stop at practically every floor. If I say, "Hey, our neighbors have been quiet lately," it's enough to cause a racket to break out.

So I wasn't really surprised when I found out this afternoon, from someone in a position to know, that we are to get a MOVIE THEATER in that lot. Four screens were mentioned though that remains to be seen (as does the theater itself, actually). The reason, I was told, is that no one building there would be able to dig a basement (presumably because of that spring), but the movie theater would be constructed on a concrete slab on the ground.

Just what a fairly quiet block of Grand Street needs. Why not a multiplex in one of those damn skyscrapers by the river? I had dreams of casting a few dozen bags of wildflower seeds in there this summer to see what the result would be. Alas!

Also, not at all related to the jinx but since the camera is pointing that way . . . it seems like a new little restaurant or cafe opened in the dark red building in the background of the photo above.

I say "it seems" because the way my head is in the clouds sometimes when I'm walking to the train or the store, I might have been passing that place for weeks without noticing. Earlier this week on the way from the L train, I noticed a person sitting a a table in the window and couldn't remember the table or the window being there before. So, either it's new or it's time to get back into therapy.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Until a couple of weekends ago, I knew next to nothing about downtown Brooklyn, at least that part around Borough Hall. I'd spent an afternoon on jury duty five years ago (called to a
voir dire, not chosen, dismissed), and I'd been around the Fulton Mall on occasion, but little elsewhere.

Fulton Stret at Boerum Place-Adams Street behind Borough Hall

I'd managed to get to Brooklyn Heights by way of the river and wandered down into Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens without venturing any further west than Hicks Street. And that's too bad because it's a nice area and nothing close to what I had expected it to be.

Prospect and Washington Streets

For some reason I always imagined that area choked with traffic from the Brooklyn Bridge and the BQE, sort of like the traffic above only far worse. Maybe it was trying to get across Adams Street once and feeling like I was crossing an L.A. freeway. Anyway, I kept away from the area for years.

Manhattan Bridge from Prospect and Washington Streets

There were at least two reasons I finally gave in: I had been edging closer and closer to that part of downtown on my recent walks around the Navy Yard and Vinegar Hill, so that was the next logical place to go. Also, having come across all those World War I memorial plaques along Eastern Parkway last year and reading that some had also been placed around Borough Hall, I decided to take a look. And I felt like a schmuck claiming to love Brooklyn yet never going down to the historic heart of our city.

Brooklyn Borough Hall

But in one way it was a bit of a disappointment. Borough Hall (Brooklyn's city hall) itself surely rivals that other city hall across the river, and there are some fine things in the area, but Columbus Park with it's esplanade leading up to Borough Hall was really a letdown.

The east side of Borough Hall

It's littered, the fences are broken, the fencing that isn't broken is plug-ugly, the grass plots don't look much cared for except the ones immediately next to the building . . . I just wasn't thinking it was a very pleasant place to be, considering it should be the jewel of our city.

East side of Borough Hall looking toward Columbus Park

Maybe the parks department thinks the first week in May is too early to begin sprucing the place up, though I would have thought that was something that happened all year round.

And I did find those memorial plaques (see my post of Nov. 2, 2009), at least I found five of them and I have a feeling those are the only ones there. The other landscaping in the area looks more recent than when the plaques were put in, or maybe they were dug up during a bout of relandscaping.

World War I memorial plaques, Borough Hall

I had to shoo away a lot of pigeons to get the photographs. I doubt if one out of a hundred people that walk through there even realize the damn things are there; I wonder if Mr. Markowitz does. They are several feet beyond an ugly black iron pipe fence and, as you can see, mainly overgrown with weeds. It's really an insult to the men they are meant to memorialize.

Above is the plot of land where I found them. They range in a short row under some of the trees on the left hand side. You wouldn't know it because it's so dark and too far from the plaza to see, but that standing plaque amid the trees is in honor of Washington Roebling who, with his father, built the Brooklyn Bridge. I had to clamber over the fence to get close enough to see what it was and take a picture.

Washington Roebling Memorial

And in that same picture, the small tree behind the park bench and partly blocking the Roebling memorial is actually a tree planted in honor of John F. Kennedy. Not exactly cared for like the eternal flame at Arlington.

Still, these are, maybe, minor cavils and things easily fixed if the borough president wants to do something to spruce the place up. And I did get a kind of warm glow just being there where so much history has been made over the centuries.

Looking south down Columbus Park toward Borough Hall

United States Court House, Cadman Plaza East

At the opposite end of the esplanade in front of Borough Hall and just visible in the corner of the second photo above is a statue honoring a famous Brooklynite, arguably the best-known preacher in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century: Henry Ward Beecher.

Henry Ward Beecher statue, Columbus Park

I have been trying to think of who in our time most closely resembles him and I can't come up with any one person; as a preacher, perhaps Billy Graham comes close though I'm not sure that even Graham had Beecher's gusto and larger-than-life presence. He would easily be able to fill one of today's evangelical mega-churches but he embraced a liberalism and a desire for social reform that today's well-known evangelists wouldn't touch. He was an ardent abolitionist (and the younger brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of
Uncle Tom's Cabin) and a supporter of woman's rights.

Henry Ward Beecher

His statue is placed where it is because for the last forty years of his life, from 1847 until his death in 1887, he was the pastor of Plymouth Church a few blocks away in nearby Brooklyn Heights.

Plymouth Church, Orange Street, Brooklyn Hts.

There is another resemblance between Beecher and some of today's evangelical preachers: a sex scandal. Near the end of his life a member of the Plymouth Church accused Beecher of seducing his wife. When the case went to court it was covered by newspapers across the country. After a six-month trial the jury could not either convict or acquit Beecher. He continued as pastor of Plymouth Church, unrepentant and still as popular as he had been, until his death around ten years later.

Beecher preaching in Plymouth Church

Further north beyond Henry Ward Beecher, Columbus Park continues for a bit and then begins a really beautiful piece of parkland, Cadman Plaza Park. It is situated between Cadman Plaza East and West. Cadman Plaza East is just a narrow roadway that runs in front of the various court buildings that stretch alongside the park. Cadman Plaza West runs out toward the bridge until it runs into Old Fulton Street, which itself continues downhill to the river; at the other end, Cadman Plaza West turns into Court Street and heads down into Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. So much for getting you located.

World War II memorial in Cadman Plaza Park

The park is also the location of Brooklyn's memorial to the men and women of the borough who fought in and died in World War II. It is a simple, almost stark monument yet very moving.

Cadman Plaza Park, south from the war memorial in the direction of Borough Hall

And behind the war memorial, down a flight of steps into a grove of trees is yet another park and memorial, this one dedicated to William J. Gaynor the anti-Tammany reform mayor of New York City from 1910-1913. (The memorial has it as "Jay," but it is usually given as "J.")

Memorial to Mayor William J. Gaynor, Cadman Plaza Park

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a sucker for statues, monuments, memorials, and inscriptions of all kinds. And for views of bridges . . .

Manhattan Bridge from Cadman Plaza East

As I usually do, I am going to break off here before I finish because it's getting late. I have been wandering back home here by way of old Brooklyn, along the river, near the bridges, close to where the ferries plied their trade even after the bridges were built. This is the way to Vinegar Hill and the Navy Yard district.

Plymouth Street in Vinegar Hill looking toward the Manhattan Bridge

But besides this being Henry Ward Beecher country, it's even more Walt Whitman country.

Walt Whitman

In fact all of Brooklyn is Walt Whitman country. Like a true Brooklyn walker he "tramp'd freely about the neighborhood and town." He grew up on Front Street in the same general neighborhood as the Plymouth Street photo above and he wrote the poems that became the first edition of
Leaves of Grass while working around Brooklyn as an editor at various newspapers and as a house builder.

And yet I don't think there is a statue of him anyplace in Brooklyn; I've never seen one. I hope I'm wrong about that, someone please tell me I am. All there is in the vicinity of downtown is Walt Whitman Park up among the courthouses along Cadman Plaza, and even that is under construction and all torn up. A nice memorial to the Good Gray Poet would be welcome.

Walt Whitman Park, Cadman Plaza East