Clinton Hill

Walt Whitman gets his way with new street co-naming

July 29, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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A Clinton Hill street corner will soon be co-named for famed poet and former Brooklyn Eagle editor Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman Way will be coming to the corner of Dekalb Avenue and Ryerson Street, following a City Council vote on July 23. The intersection is about three avenues away from 99 Ryerson St. — the historic yet modest home where Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass.”

Whitmanites are rejoicing the approval of the planned marker, saying it’s another way of remembering one of Brooklyn’s most iconic figures.

“Walt walked and wrote about our city, so it’s perfect street justice that New York has written his name into our grid,” said Karen Karbiener, president of the Walt Whitman Initiative and New York University professor. “Remembering his legacy as an inclusive, democratic spokesperson for ‘the rights of them the others are down upon,’ as a queer poet who broke long-held social and cultural conventions, as the father of free verse and the beloved literary grandfather of Brooklyn, who wouldn’t want to walk down Walt Whitman Way?”

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Leading up to the poet’s bicentennial birthday this May, a coalition to save the house renewed its call to landmark the Clinton Hill home.

The second house from the left is 99 Ryerson St., where Walt Whitman lived. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
The second house from the left is 99 Ryerson St., where Walt Whitman lived. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

The city Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected the coalition’s first proposal to calendar the Ryerson Street address in 2017, claiming architectural alterations had been made to the house since Whitman’s day, such as the addition of a floor and modern siding.

Last month, preservation advocates made their case at an LPC hearing regarding six Manhattan and Staten Island properties with significance to the LGBTQ+ community. The poet’s property wasn’t on the agenda, and the advocates asked, “What about Walt?”

Today, a petition to landmark the Clinton Hill home has nearly 6,000 signatures.

The City Council voted to approve the street co-naming — and 85 others — this week. This particular co-naming was sponsored by Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, whose district includes the communities of Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The Walt Whitman Initiative made the initial push for the co-naming, according to Karbiener, who credited board member Brad Vogel for leading the charge. “We were delighted that Laurie Cumbo’s office supported this initiative,” she said.

Cumbo did not respond to a request for comment.

Cumbo has long supported memorializing Whitman. Last year, she signed a letter calling for his home in her district to be landmarked, emphasizing its significance to the LGBTQ+ community.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and several other councilmembers also signed the letter.

Whitman lived at 99 Ryerson St. from May 1855 to April 1856.

Update (11:39 a.m.): This article has been updated to reflect the Walt Whitman Initiative’s involvement in the street co-naming process.

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