Visit Walt Whitman’s park on his 200th birthday
Eye on Real Estate: The famed poet fought for the park's creation.
Famed poet and former Brooklyn Eagle editor Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday is May 31.
Nationwide celebratory events have been underway for some time and will continue on the big day and long afterwards. The Walt Whitman Initiative, a group that promotes the Bard of Brooklyn’s artistic legacy, has a list of birthday activities on its website.
Here’s my idea for a way to honor Whitman: Take a stroll through historic Fort Greene Park. It came into being in the late 1840s thanks to his advocacy.
Bring your copy of “Leaves of Grass” to read when you’re done walking up the hill to the iconic Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and around the park’s winding paths.
Read in the shade beneath the landmarked 33-acre park’s staggeringly beautiful trees. Or take a seat on a bench with a commemorative inscription that’s a paraphrase of a Whitman verse.
“We were together. I forget the rest,” it says.
The complete line, from a poem called “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City,” is “Day by day and night by night we were together — all else has long been forgotten by me.”
An oasis for the Emeralders
The city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s 1978 designation report about the Fort Greene Historic District tells of Whitman’s two-year campaign to get the city of Brooklyn to build the park.
In the campaign, which he began in March 1846, he argued that working-class families who then inhabited the area needed an oasis with greenery and fresh air for the sake of their health.
According to the LPC’s designation report, there was a big shantytown along Myrtle Avenue at that time. Whitman referred to shanty-dwelling Irish immigrants as “the Emeralders,” a reference to their homeland, the Emerald Isle.
South of the park, there were modest frame, brick and brownstone houses for workers, the designation report says.
Fancy brownstones and mansions were constructed years later, after the park’s opening.
RIP, brave colonials
If you’re coming from another part of Brooklyn and need to get oriented, Fort Greene Park’s boundaries are Myrtle Avenue, St. Edwards Street, DeKalb Avenue and a street that’s called Washington Park — which was the recreation area’s original name.
I gleaned some fast facts about the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument from the Fort Greene Park Conservancy’s website: Distinguished architectural firm McKim, Mead and White designed the monument.
It’s a 149-foot-tall Doric-style granite column topped by a 20-foot-tall bronze urn. Its construction was completed in 1908.
The hillside on which the monument stands has a crypt built into it for Colonial Americans who died while incarcerated on British ships during the Revolutionary War. Nearly 12,000 people perished aboard the floating prisons.
A.E. Bye’s work is in jeopardy
Alongside the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, an epic granite staircase leads to lower-elevation parkland near St. Edwards Street. Stand on these stairs and look down for an excellent view of mounds made of Belgian blocks and grass-covered earth and flanked by rows of tall trees.
The mounds are a little peculiar — and utterly beautiful.
The modernist mounds were designed in the early 1970s by A.E. Bye, aka Arthur Edwin Bye. His 2001 New York Times obituary called the landscape architect “one of the foremost practitioners of his generation.”
A $10.5 million Parks Without Borders project calls for the mounds to be removed — along with 58 mature trees — and replaced with a flat, paved plaza to create a park entrance at the corner of St. Edwards Street and Myrtle Avenue.
An activist group called the Friends of Fort Greene Park is waging a legal battle against the Parks Department over its planned removal of the trees.
Tanda Francis’s sculpture
Be sure to step out of the park when you get to the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Washington Park.
On a cobblestone park-entrance plaza you’ll find “Adorn Me,” a concrete and steel sculpture by artist Tanda Francis. It’s 14-plus feet tall.
The artwork consists of three monumental heads joined together. The faces are incised with thin vertical lines, which are a reference to the West African practice of scarification.
Francis said on her website that she made the sculpture “to speak directly to the African American community which often goes unrepresented in public art.”
She said she was inspired by 13th-century sculptures from Ife, which was a city-state located in what is now Nigeria.
The Art in the Parks program brought the mesmerizing statue to Fort Greene Park. Francis is one of 10 emerging artists who each received $10,000 grants from Japanese clothing company Uniqlo to complete works that are displayed for a year.
“Adorn Me” was installed last August.
‘Leaves of Grass House’ is nearby
Fort Greene Park has room for tennis courts, basketball courts — and eye-catching blossoms. The day I took my Walt Whitman-inspired stroll, the dogwood trees were blooming.
By the way, if you’ve got some spare energy after your day in Whitman’s park, you should walk several blocks down Myrtle Avenue into Clinton Hill and turn onto Ryerson Street.
The only still-standing New York City house where Whitman lived is at 99 Ryerson St. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s House, which is calling for city landmark designation for the property.
The coalition refers to 99 Ryerson St. as Leaves of Grass House because Whitman lived there when he published the first version of his poetry book.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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