Dealing with History in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Brooklyn Bridge Park is divided in two. This long ribbon of postindustrial waterfront in central Brooklyn, passing under its namesake bridge, is being adaptively used as a new park designed by landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates. North of the bridge, bordering DUMBO and within the Fulton Ferry Historic District, the Brooklyn Bridge park is mostly complete, and an undeniable success. The much larger southern section, built on five old piers, is isolated from neighboring Brooklyn Heights by a long vertical drop and the six lane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Only partially completed, this section of park is somewhat of an experiment in accessibility. The Brooklyn Bridge itself flies high above the park. The Bridge’s long span is a divining rod around which everything else relates.

In the shadow of the bridge, so close it’s almost underneath, is Fulton Ferry Landing, where Robert Fulton’s steamboat ferry connected Brooklyn with Manhattan long before the bridge was built. Although there isn’t a lot left to see, the old slip at the end of Fulton Street is an important relic of New York history. Fittingly, Van Valkenburgh’s design makes this spot the park’s main entrance. It is an appropriate location, and a nod to the landing’s historic significance as the threshold of Brooklyn. All is not, however, graciously referential to the past. To the east, and directly under the bridge, the historic New York Department of Purchase Storehouse, a New Deal building from the Great Depression, was destroyed to create a new plaza. Construction of the plaza, which is the keystone in Van Valkenburgh’s design, is almost complete.

The Purchase Storehouse was a modern, streamlined brick building with long ribbon windows that folded around chamfered corners, articulated with metal decorative accents, probably of aluminum or steel. The building’s decoration didn’t go far beyond the functional, but it was a triumph of proportion, and precision. Although considered a contributing structure within the Fulton Ferry Historic District, the Purchase Storehouse was controversially de-Landmarked by the city, and demolished for the sake of the park. It’s now totally gone, except for a small boiler house, distinctive for its two octagonal chimneys. The boiler house will eventually serve as a concession stand, or possibly bathrooms.

The Purchase Storehouse was sacrificed for the grandest of the park’s new spaces, the wide and welcoming Brooklyn Bridge Plaza. Directly under the bridge, it will be adjacent to Fulton Street, and will be wonderfully open to the park and the city in either direction. The East River forms an elbow here, bending around the Brooklyn landmass, which reaches out to the bridge’s first tower, creating generous space. This broad paved expanse will be left mostly empty, with some edge landscaping and lighting. Whether this was worth the loss of an historic structure is debatable, but the plaza will probably be a success.

I’ve been to the park a few times, exploring the surrounding neighborhoods of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, once on a tour with Matthew Urbanski, a Principal at MVVA, and again on a recent blustery night, when I found myself trying to walk along the edge of the park, and having a very hard time of it. I wanted to explore the park’s edge conditions,  – the not always visible line where the park meets the city, and the line across which one must pass to enter the park. This line is never simple or straightforward in Brooklyn Bridge Park, nor is it a gracious barrier, as with Central Park. It is convoluted, and complicated. Although it melts away near Fulton Street and the future plaza, in DUMBO the line is complex and intimately tied to the urban fabric, and near Brooklyn Heights it can seem insurmountable.

The northern half of the park, stretching through DUMBO from the Brooklyn Bridge, and under the Manhattan Bridge, is intimate and complicated. An historic carousel was restored by philanthropist and artist Jane Wolenta and placed in a glittering pale crystal box designed by Jean Nouvel. Small lawns run up to the Empire Stores Warehouses, built in 1869, and the neighboring Tobacco Warehouse, all within the Fulton Ferry Historic District. DUMBO’s lowness gave its warehouses direct access to the waterfront at the end of every street, and now the park enjoys the same advantage. Van Valkenburgh’s design carves its way along the formerly industrial waterfront, creating coves, a pebble beach, and small peninsulas. This topography established by industry, born of necessity, is a great asset to the park’s design.

North-East of the Brooklyn Bridge, the park ends just beyond the Manhattan Bridge, and it will eventually extend another city block further. This section was the first to open. It followed a master plan created by Van Valkenburgh, but it was completed in a rush by the Parks Department. Although many unique details that stand out in areas later completed by Van Valkenburgh, including lighting fixtures and wooden benches, are more generic here, the spaces under the Manhattan Bridge are otherworldly and thrilling. An inlet snakes around the bridge’s east tower, giving room for a kayak slip, while a path follows the course of the bridge, upland towards the city.

The southern expanse of the park, on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, begins with the Fulton Ferry Landing, followed by five wide piers reaching into the East River, giving the park the majority of its acreage. Only piers 1 and 6, at opposite ends of the row, have been finished so far. They are a physical introduction to the programmed nature of future spaces on this side of the park, which will include a variety of sports fields and courts, some flexible spaces for public assembly, a few highly designed playgrounds, food concessions, a small network of canals, and water gardens. Most of this has yet to be built, but Pier 1, unusual because its on landfill instead of pylons, already has a 30-foot grassy mountain, making it a surreal site. By contrast, Pier 4 is heavily deteriorated, and will become an unoccupied island with natural vegetation. Pier 6 has the most playgrounds, a modern recreational ferry dockage, and a second main park entrance, at the end of Atlantic Avenue.

By now we are between the East River, and the six-lane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which cantilevers off a cliff, without many choices of escape. There are about 50 vertical feet between us and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, clearly separating the park from the city. This boundary is a serious problem for the park, which Van Valkenburgh’s design has attempted to mitigate through increased access along the other entrances, plans to add a flying wooden staircase, and the addition of a new bus line down into the park. Hopefully these moves will help, because the highway is an incredible beauty. I love watching the BQE from this angle, where it forms a great, constantly moving, palisade, and then shoots off, seemingly through a canyon in the city, darting under the Brooklyn Bridge and up towards Queens. I love this mess of roads, bits of city squeezed in, and the crazy infrastructural landscape it creates.

The viaduct of the Brooklyn Bridge glides just above the BQE, then launches into the sky and soars magnificently over the future Brooklyn Bridge Plaza, towards Manhattan. Once the Plaza is open, and other major elements near completion, the park’s disparate halves will come together and the composition of Michael Van Valkenburgh’s design will make sense to park-goers. The BQE may not prove to be as problematic an obstacle for the park as was predicted, and may even become part of the attraction. The park’s dynamic and nuanced procession of piers, plazas, lawns, and promenades will give Brooklyn a great public waterfront of vitality and delight.

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