Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday Afternoon in Fort Greene Park: Urban Park Rangers present "Walt Whitman's Fort Greene"

At 1 p.m. on this beautiful, breezy Saturday, we were one of a half-dozen people who showed up at the Fort Greene Park Visitor Center to go on a fascinating tour of the park with the theme "Walt Whitman's Fort Greene" with one of the Urban Park Rangers, the very knowledgeable and personable Vinny Piccolo, a Brooklyn native who's been at Fort Greene Park for half a dozen years and knows it inside and out.

Walt Whitman, of course, was not only one of the greatest poets of all time but served as the editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, at the time the largest circulation afternoon newspaper in the country.

As the editor and a resident of the area, he was a moving force behind both Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. Vinny Piccolo took us around the park, pointing out many things we'd never noticed or known before, like this tree that was hit by lightning, as he spoke about Whitman's legacy here.

As Vinny mentioned, Whitman was progressive in many ways -- from abolitionism to deism to celebrating gayness -- and he was also an environmentalist who, as any reader of Leaves of Grass can see, found sustenance in nature. (This poor pine tree, like most of the old pines in the park, is afflicted with pine borers and dying from the top down. But new ones, like the one to its left, have been recently planted.)

Anyway, Vinny served as a terrific guide to Fort Greene Park and the monument, as well as Whitman's role in it. We're kind of pressed for time, so we'll lift some of this from the Parks Department website for the park:
In 1776 American Major General Nathanael Greene supervised the construction of Fort Putnam on high ground that is now part of the park. During the Battle of Long Island, the Continental Army surrendered the fort and retreated to Manhattan. The British held thousands of captives on prison ships anchored in the East River. Over 11,500 men and women died of overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation, and disease aboard the ships, and their bodies were hastily buried along the shore. These brave patriots represented all thirteen colonies and at least thirteen different nationalities. In 1808 the remains of the prison ship martyrs were buried in a tomb on Jackson Street (now Hudson Avenue), near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Brooklyn fort was renamed for General Greene and rebuilt for the War of 1812. When the threat of war passed, locals enjoyed visiting the grounds of the old fort for recreation and relaxation. The City of Brooklyn designated the site for use as a public park in 1845, and newspaper editor Walt Whitman rallied popular support for the project. From the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he appealed for a pleasant retreat for city dwellers, "a place of recreation. . .where, on hot summer evenings, and Sundays, they can spend a few grateful hours in the enjoyment of wholesome rest and fresh air."

In 1847 the legislature approved an act to secure land for Washington Park on the site of the old fort. The improvements were complete by 1850. . . In 1867 landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central and Prospect Parks, were engaged to prepare a new design for Washington Park and a crypt for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. At the top of the hill was a trellised walk approaching two flights of steps that led down to a circular parade ground in the northwest corner of the park. Olmsted and Vaux proposed that the rest of the hilly site would be "somewhat closely planted, and . . .so laid out that it will offer a series of shady walks that will have an outlook over open grassy spaces." Washington Park was renamed for Fort Greene in 1897, less than a year before Brooklyn was consolidated into greater New York City.

With funds available for a permanent monument to the prison ship martyrs, the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was hired in 1905. They designed a new entrance to the crypt and a wide granite stairway leading to a plaza on top of the hill. From its center rose a freestanding Doric column crowned by a bronze lantern; President-elect William Howard Taft attended the monument’s dedication in 1908.

Although we'd spent a good deal of time in Fort Greene Park -- we went to several of the wonderful recent annual Summer Literary Festivals and last summer saw a terrific Midsummer Night's Dream here -- until this afternoon we had no idea what kinds of trees were here and Vinny pointed out the sometimes-smelly gingkos, the massive London planes, the sugar maples, etc. -- 39 species in all.

We even got a view of one raptor trying to attack another raptor as it attempted to swoop down on a pigeon. It seemed to be a peregrine falcon going after one of Fort Greene Park's red-tailed hawks.

This view, once unobstructed by any buildings so that it gave a clear view of the waterfront and Manhattan, inspired this from Whitman (read aloud by Vinny as we stood there):
By day the distant, shadowy
sails, the steamers' pennant
trails of smoke
Some vast soul, like a planet's,
bound, arrested, tied,
Watching the distant, shadowy sails,
My sight and senses given to
to thee—the saline smell—
Thy distant shadowy sails—the
steamers' pennant-trails of
The flying soaring gull hawks and flocks
Vinny pointed out that the park inspired writers like Marianne Moore, who lived nearby, and Richard Wright, who wrote Native Son on a legal pad while sitting at a bench near the monument. Whitman would have appreciated this urban garden, tended by volunteers, on the west side of the park.

At the end of the tour, we recited "O Captain! My Captain!" -- a poem Mrs. Sanjour made us memorize at Meyer Levin Junior High back in 1965.

It was an informative and fascinating tour around Brooklyn's oldest park on a nice, breezy afternoon, and we're grateful to Vinny Piccolo, the Urban Park Rangers, the Parks Department. . . and of course we're always grateful to Walt Whitman.

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