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

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