Battle of Brooklyn heroes may be one step closer to getting new memorial
Q&A with Historian and Author Robert Furman
The Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn is in the late August air. History lovers are going to ceremonies and reenactments all over the borough just as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s staff is making initial moves that could result in building a park dedicated to a special unit called the Maryland 400 that fought in the battle. The Park Slope site would honor this group of elite American soldiers from Maryland, most of whom died while holding off the British long enough for General George Washington and his men to retreat across the East River. It’s thought that the highly trained Marylanders who died were buried right in Park Slope, in an area near Third Avenue and Ninth Street. Part of the area under discussion lies near what is now a vacant lot next to the Rawley American Legion Post, right on that corner. Next door is a vacant lot and an apartment building under construction. The new park could go on that vacant lot.
The Eagle spoke about the battle’s significance and the possibility of building that park with author and historian Robert Furman. Furman says state officials are starting to inquire about how much it would cost to buy the vacant lot from the owner. He estimates it might be in a range of around $5 million.
Furman serves as the president of the Brooklyn Preservation Council Foundation and has worked as executive director of the Old Stone House. He is also president and founder of Brooklyn Heritage, Inc. and president of Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance. Additionally, he is an active member of the Society of Old Brooklynites and the Bay Ridge Historical Society.
He wrote “Brooklyn Heights: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of America’s First Suburb,’’ with contributor Brian Merlis. Arcadia Publishing released it this summer.
To add some local color, most of the interview took place at Scotto’s Funeral Home in Carroll Gardens before a meeting of the Brooklyn Preservation Council, with Buddy Scotto listening in, just a few feet away.
Below are edited excerpts from interviews with Furman.
TM: Let’s start with some of the basics of the Battle of Brooklyn, commemorated every year around the date the battle started, Aug. 27, 1776, and your role in trying to create a memorial connected to this first official battle of the Revolutionary War. What are you aiming for?
RF: We are concerned about archaeological sites related to the American Revolution near the Gowanus Canal. Some are near the canal but what we are mainly concerned about is the Marylander burial ground, near Third Avenue and Eighth Street.
The Marylanders were the best-trained unit that fought in the Battle of Brooklyn. They were a little bit more sophisticated than the other soldiers. Their attack on the British at the Old Stone House kept the road to Brooklyn Heights open. That enabled the Continental Army to evacuate and live to fight another day.
The British intent was not just to seize New York City. It was to destroy the Continental Army, to kill as many as they could and capture the remainder and end the revolution right there.
What we’re trying to do is commemorate and investigate the Marylander burial ground. There may still be human remains there at a site between Third and Fourth avenues and Eighth and Ninth streets. We would like to have archeological investigations there. And we would like to develop a memorial park [that] would be recreational for the neighborhood, which it needs especially as it’s being developed.
TM: And the latest news on that Marylander Park Project, there’s some progress in Albany with the Governor?
RF: The Governor’s office is talking to the State Office of Parks and to us about how to proceed. I’ve asked them to contact the owner of the property to get asking price. No one has ever gotten that information. When former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was involved, I don’t they ever got a price. They were just talking to them about archeological testing in the area.
That little piece of information is really important. What I’m now trying to do now is assemble financing sources for property acquisition and construction.
There’s a known funding source in the federal government that we can access via the American Battlefield Protection Program, which has designated the area where the park would be as a core study area for the Battle of Brooklyn. We’ve asked Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office to provide some money and obviously New York state can provide money through the state legislature. We’re hoping to do private fund raising with the assistance of nonprofits. And we plan to reach out to Maryland when their political future is settled. (Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is being treated for cancer, dealing with a diagnosis of late stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hogan told the Washington Post recently that 95 percent of the cancer is gone.)
TM: State officials are not going to use eminent domain to get the land that would become the Marylander 400 park?
RF: The Office of Parks and the Governor’s office do not favor the use of eminent domain for park projects. I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s vacant and it’s for sale. It’s a piece of open land at this point so there’s no reason. The question is how much do they want for it, are they really willing to sell and can we come up with the money to make them a bona fide offer. Obviously, if the owner knows the state is interested in the site that has an effect on the process.
TM: Tell me about the process that would start at the vacant lot near Third Avenue and Ninth Street, maybe even before it is purchased.
RF: You would need to do a lot of digging. That’s what the archeologists we’ve worked with told us. It has to be done in warm weather and it can’t be done in the rain. It would take three to six months to get to a sufficient depth to make sure they are or are not human remains there. And if there are human remains in particular, which may not be the case, then the federal government has to be involved because we’re talking about American Revolution graves.
TM: So, it sounds like a long road toward buying the land and building the park. Let’s talk about how you’re doing.
RF: I think we have made excellent progress. We have bills that have been introduced in the State legislature calling on the Office of Parks to acquire the land and develop a park there.
What we’re talking about is somebody being willing to support this project and in the end ponying up around $5 million to purchase this property, and then start this process and start developing the park. We do not have a firm price from the owner.
We want to use this bill to get people to start talking about it, to get a negotiation process going.
The state senator and assemblymember who introduced the bill are state Sen. Jesse Hamilton and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon. They got this bill written and introduced. We’re getting support in the legislature and on the chair of the Senate Tourism and Parks committee. We do not expect or want the bill to become law because it calls for the use of eminent domain, which is contrary to state policy. Use it as a catalyst to get people talking about the project. It’s a process; there’s planning and money has to be gathered to buy the property and the decision between the state and the city about who’s going to do what.
The state Office of Parks is willing to work on this and they need money to do it. They would need the governor to give the money or the state legislature to appropriate funds.
TM: So, in a nutshell it sounds like Albany is working on preliminary steps to try and buy the land and maybe build a park connected to the battle?
RF: The Governor’s office is discussing with the Office of Parks, the operating agency here, finding an asking price from the owner for the site.
TM: What about the land next to the vacant lot that now has a building going up on it?
RF: We were not thinking of that — we didn’t talk to them. We had been looking first at the land next to the Rawley Post, the American Legion Hall. The idea was to get the land that was for sale. If someone handed us or a relevant public authority $5 million we would have said buy the vacant lot for sale and then think about the land next to it.
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Tom Moore lives in Park Slope with his family and is a journalism professor at York College CUNY. He also works as a freelance writer at CBS Radio News and is an editor of the Park Slope Food Coop Gazette.
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