Don’t think for a moment that Central Park in Manhattan or Prospect Park in Brooklyn are the only parks to see in New York City. If you are a history buff, you won’t want to miss a great park near downtown Brooklyn called Fort Greene Park.
The park was the passion of Walt Whitman (you remember him from grade school) when he edited one of the many daily newspapers of Brooklyn. He wrote editorial after editorial to cajole and squeeze local politicians into creating the park. He wrote about the “ample hills” of Brooklyn which he envisioned as charming and worthy of a park. Today, Fort Greene is his legacy to preserve the beauty of early, pastoral Brooklyn.
The history of the location of Fort Greene will astound you. Inside the small park headquarters, historic maps help visitors visualize what Brooklyn was like when America was a baby. Brooklyn had an active seaport at Wallabout Bay into which many cargo ships arrived. The port also served as a place for hulks—prison ships that no longer were seaworthy. It was on these hulks that the British imprisoned many rebellious citizens during the Revolutionary War. They weren’t entitled to be treated as “prisoners of war” because they were all British citizens…until America became an independent country.
Fort Greene memorializes 11,000 such prisoners who died on these ships. Some of their remains are buried beneath a huge obelisk at the center of the park. Appropriate plaques explain the significance of what happened on this hallowed ground. Although not well-remembered as a memorial site today, Fort Greene is equally important in the history of America as Pearl Harbor.
Fort Greene forms a 30-acre refuge from the hustle-bustle of Brooklyn. As you enter the park, the constant din of the city fades away, replaced by peace and quiet. From the park, which sits on one of the “ample hills” of Brooklyn, you get a unique view of Manhattan, including the Manhattan Bridge, Empire State Building, and other landmark buildings. During the summer, the park is lush with greenery, but all year long, there are runners, tennis players, and dog-walkers in abundant supply. Geologists will note that Fort Greene Park’s hills were formed by glaciers. Architects will love the design of the park, created by the same city planners who designed Central Park in Manhattan, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
There are fabulous Revolutionary War remnants scattered around the park, including original cannons. The park offers year-round free events, but nevertheless is a hidden gem. Given that it is located in New York where most everything is crowded, the park events are not. The reason: its a relatively new place. Prior to revitalization in 1990 the park was in disrepair. Then a group of neighborhood gardeners coalesced to form a non-profit to rehabilitate and support Fort Greene, which also receives some support from New York City Parks.
Before Whitman advocated for a park here, it was the location of historic Fort Putnam, an important fortification in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The fort was in disrepair, when, in anticipation of the War of 1812, it underwent its first restoration and was renamed for General Nathanael Greene. Olmsted and Vaux originally named the surrounding area “Washington Park,” but the entire area was renamed Fort Greene Park when Brooklyn became part of New York City in 1897. The park was not recognized for its historic significance until receiving its landmark designation until 1978. Even today it hasn’t received the notice it deserves.
The park is bounded by Dekalb Avenue on the South. The nearest subway station is the Dekalb Station. You can also reach the park by taking Fort Greene Place off the famous Brooklyn shopping street, Fulton Avenue, in downtown Brooklyn. Good news: the park is one of the best free attractions in New York City! And kid friendly, too, another off-the-beaten track “Untraveled Place.”