Navy Yard

Brooklyn Greenway Initiative transforms Navy Yard cemetery

May 23, 2016 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Award-winning student artists and photographers pose with principal Cara Tait-Fanour (far right) and Ted St. Germain, head of the New York State Office of Infrastructure Engineering (far left). Eagle photos by Andy Katz

Milton Puryear, co-founder and project development director of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative (BGI), presided over the grand opening of the Initiative’s latest public space: a one-time naval cemetery set on the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, now transformed into a natural, green setting intended to permit harried city dwellers a few moments of transformation in the midst of one of Brooklyn’s densest industrial zones.

Tucked into an unobtrusive section of Williamsburg Street West and fronted by a simple lumber façade, BGI’s Naval Cemetery Landscape is easy to miss, even on a bright, sunny morning. Inside, members of the Brooklyn Green School Step Team started the grand opening ceremony with a spunky performance of their stylish hip-hop flavored routines, after which the school’s principal, Cara Tait-Fanour, announced winners of the school’s art and photo contest. Winning entries were on display in the site’s new amphitheater.

Civic leaders were also on hand to offer remarks. Public Advocate Letitia James was perhaps the most eloquent when she characterized the space as “sacred ground” that would inspire users to ponder the sacrifices made by previous generations. After calling for a moment of silence on their behalf, she went on to remind those present that “We need a quiet space. This is a place where you come to sit and to repair. This is an example of bringing dignity to Mother Earth.”

Tom Stoner, founder and president of the TKF Foundation, asked the question, “Are we in nature, or are we of it?” His foundation, which funded the project, aids in the creation of publically accessible urban green spaces, believed to promote individual and community well-being by permitting urbanites closer contact with natural space.

“Our plan is that eventually people will not be able to see any buildings while inside this place,” Puryear said.

The idea that natural green zones, designed to insulate people from the discord of urban living, can exert a profound effect on human healing and resiliency is being studied at length by a Columbia University research team focusing on students of the Green School and residents of Brooklyn Housing and Community Services.

Developed originally by the U.S. Navy in 1824 to serve as both a hospital and an adjacent cemetery, the Brooklyn Naval Hospital became a leading center in trauma care and medical research before closing in 1948. The cemetery served until 1910. In 1926, the Navy moved all of the bodies to Cypress Hill National Cemetery, and the site has been closed off since.

“This is an untouched part of Brooklyn history,” City Councilmember Stephen Levin said. “And it was novel — this idea of opening up unclaimed space.”

Brooklyn Navy Yard CEO David Ehrenberg said earlier during the event, “After 90 years, the transformation of this space will create a place where the community can come together.”

The BGI is a nonprofit organization charged with developing the Brooklyn Waterfront into user-friendly parks, pedestrian and bike ways that will also connect neighborhoods and even help to remove storm water from the city’s overstrained sewage system, ameliorating the tendency of storms to force the release of raw sewage into the East River.

“Our next planned site is on Columbia Street,” Puryear announced.

With its minimalist design and as yet unplanted greenery, the one-time cemetery is a tabula rasa where the roar of the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway will remind visitors that they’re still quite city-bound. But if the commitment displayed by civic, business and foundation leaders is any indication of things to come, then it might well become an authentic zone of restoration in an otherwise frenetic cityscape.