Fort Greene is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Part of Brooklyn Community Board 2, Fort Greene is listed on the New York State Registry and on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a New York City-designated Historic District. It is located in northwest Brooklyn, above Prospect Park.
The neighborhood is named after an American Revolutionary War era fort that was built in 1776 under the supervision of General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island (McCullough 2005). General Greene aided General George Washington during the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Fort Greene Park, originally called Washington Park and Brooklyn's first, is also derived from General Greene's name and the neighborhood. In 1864, Fort Greene Park was redesigned by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The park notably includes the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument and crypt, which honors some 11,500 patriots who died aboard British prison ships during the American Revolution.
Fort Greene contains many superb examples of mid-19th century Italianate and Eastlake architecture, most of which is well preserved. It is known for its many graceful, tree-lined streets and elegant low-rise housing. Fort Greene is also home to the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, which for over 80 years was the tallest building in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is close to the Atlantic Terminal train station and has access to most major subway lines.
Fort Greene is also home to several important cultural institutions including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Music School, The Paul Robeson Theater, The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), BRIC Arts|Media|Bklyn, UrbanGlass, 651 Arts performing center for African-American presenters, The Irondale Center for Theater, Education, and Outreach, and Lafayette Church. It is home also to Brooklyn Technical High School, one of New York City's most competitive public schools. The world renowned Pratt Institute, in neighboring Clinton Hill, is one of the leading art schools in the United States.
Fort Greene is bounded by Flushing Avenue to the north, Flatbush Avenue to the west, Vanderbilt Avenue to the east and Atlantic Avenue to the south. Its main arteries are Fulton Street above St. Felix Street and DeKalb Avenue. The neighborhood is served by the New York City Subway at DeKalb Avenue (B D N Q R trains), Atlantic Avenue – Pacific Street (2 3 4 5 B D N Q R trains), Lafayette Avenue (A C trains), and Fulton Street (G train). The LIRR's Atlantic Terminal station is also here, and the neighborhood is served by the NYPD's 88th Precinct.
In approximately 800 A.D. a gradual movement of Native Americans advanced from the Delaware area into lower New York, ultimately settling as part of the Canarsie tribe among 13 tribes of the Algonquin Nation. In 1637, Walloon (now Belgian) Joris Jansen Rapelje purchased 335 acres (1.36 km2) of Native American land from Dutch West India Company in the area of Brooklyn that became known as Wallabout Bay (from Waal Boght or "Bay of Walloons"). This is the area where the Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands on the northern border of Fort Greene. An Italian immigrant named Peter Caesar Alberti started a tobacco plantation near the bay in Fort Greene in 1649 but was killed six years later by Native Americans. In 1776, under the supervision of General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island the American Revolutionary War era Fort Putnam was constructed. Later renamed after Greene, the fort was a star-shaped earthwork that mounted six 18-pound cannons, and was the largest on Long Island. After the American defeat in the Battle of Long Island, George Washington withdrew his troops from the Fort under the cover of darkness, a brilliant move that saved the outnumbered American army from total defeat by the British. Although the fort was repaired in advance of an expected attack on Brooklyn by the British during the War of 1812, it thereafter slowly deteriorated.
In 1801 the US government purchased land on Wallabout Bay for the construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, stimulating some growth in the area. Ferry service linking Manhattan and Brooklyn launched in 1814, and Brooklyn's population exploded from 4,000 to nearly 100,000 by 1850. Fort Greene was known as The Hill and was home to a small commuter population, several large farms - the Post Farm, the Spader farm, the Ryerson Farm, and the Jackson farm - and a burial ground. As early as the 1840s the farms' owners began selling off their land in smaller plots for development. Country villas, frame row houses, and the occasional brick row house dotted the countryside, and one of them was home to poet Walt Whitman, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper.
Since the early 19th century, African Americans have made significant contributions to Fort Greene's development. New York State outlawed slavery in 1827 and 20 years later "Coloured School No. 1," Brooklyn's first school for African-Americans, opened at the current site of the Walt Whitman Houses. Abolitionists formed the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1857, and hosted speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and also aided in the work of the Underground Railroad. Skilled African-American workers fought for their rights at the Navy Yard during the tumultuous Draft Riots of 1863 against armed hooligan bands. The principal of P.S. 67 in the same year was African American, and Dr. Phillip A. White became the first black member of Brooklyn's Board of Education in 1882. By 1870, more than half of the blacks in Brooklyn lived in Fort Greene, most of them north of Fort Greene Park.
In the 1850s Fort Greene's growth spread out from stagecoach lines on Myrtle Avenue and Fulton Street that ran to Fulton Ferry, and The Hill became known as the home of prosperous professionals, second only to Brooklyn Heights in prestige. During the 1850s and 1860s, blocks of Italianate brick and brownstone row houses were built on the remaining open land to house the expanding upper and middle class population. The names of the most attractive streets (Portland, Oxford, Cumberland, Carlton, and Adelphi) came from fine London terraces and streets of the early 19th century. By the 1870s construction in the area had virtually ended, and the area still maintains hundreds of Italianate, Second Empire, Greek Revival, Neo-Grec, Romanesque and Renaissance row houses of virtually original appearance.
As Manhattan became more crowded, the poor as well as the well-off made Fort Greene their home, and the unoccupied areas of Myrtle Avenue became a shanty town known as "Young Dublin". In response to the horrible conditions found there, Walt Whitman called for a park to be constructed and stated in a column in the Eagle, "[as] the inhabitants there are not so wealthy nor so well situated as those on the heights...we have a desire that these, and the generations after them, should have such a place of recreation..." The park idea was soon co-opted by longtime residents to protect the last open space in the area from development.
Washington Park, renamed Fort Greene Park in 1897, was established as Brooklyn's first park in 1847 on a 30-acre (120,000 m2) plot around the site of the old Fort. In 1864, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, by now famous for their design of Central Park, were contracted to design the park, and constructed what was described in 1884 as "one of the most central, delightful, and healthful places for recreation that any city can boast." Olmsted and Vaux's elegant design featured flowering chestnut trees along the periphery, open grassy spaces, walking paths, a vine-covered arbor facing a military salute ground, a permanent rostrum for speeches, and two lawns used for croquet and tennis. The park's success prompted the creation of the larger Prospect Park. At the highest point of the park, The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and vault was erected in 1908 to house the bones of some of the 12,000 Revolutionary soldiers and civilians whose bodies were thrown off British prison ships and later washed ashore. The monument, designed by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White, was the world's largest Doric column at 143 feet (44 m) tall, and housed a bronze urn at its apex. Restoration work on the monument was completed in the late 2000s.
On April 24, 1888, the Fulton Street Elevated began running from Fulton Ferry to Nostrand Avenue, shortening the commute of Fort Greene residents, while also blocking light and adding street noise to residents facing Fulton Street. Elevated lines also ran along Lafayette Avenue and Myrtle Avenue.
Fort Greene in the early 20th century became a significant cultural destination. After the original Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn Heights burned down in 1903, the current one was built in Fort Greene, and opened in 1908 with a production of Charles Gounod's Faust featuring Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar (Caruso suffered a throat hemorrhage while singing at BAM in 1920 and died several days later). At the time, BAM was the most complexly designed cultural center in Greater New York since the construction of Madison Square Garden 15 years earlier. Fort Greene also showcased two stunning movie theaters, built in the 1920s: The Paramount Theater has been converted into Long Island University's Brooklyn Campus; and the Brooklyn Fox Theatre on Flatbush Avenue at Fulton Street which was demolished in 1971. Built from 1927–1929, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, one of Brooklyn's tallest buildings, is considered one of the 10 greatest skyscrapers in New York. It is located next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Brooklyn Technical High School, one of New York's most selective public high schools began construction on Fort Greene Place in 1930.
The poet Marianne Moore lived and worked for many years in an apartment house on Cumberland Street. Her apartment, which is lovingly recalled in Elizabeth Bishop's essay, "Efforts of Affection", has been preserved exactly as it existed during Moore's lifetime—though not in Fort Greene. To see the Moore apartment you need to travel to Center City Philadelphia, to the Rosenbach Museum & Library. After her death, the furnishings and contents of Marianne Moore's apartment were purchased by the Rosenbach brothers, renowned collectors of literary ephemera. These pieces were then painstakingly reassembled in the top floor of their Philadelphia townhouse. Richard Wright wrote Native Son while living on Carlton Avenue in Fort Greene.
During World War II, the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed more than 71,000 people. Due to the resulting demand for housing, the New York City Housing Authority built 35 brick buildings between 1941 and 1944 ranging in height from six to fifteen stories collectively called the Fort Greene Houses. Production at the yard declined significantly after the war and many of the workers either moved on or fell on hard times. In 1957-1958 the houses were renovated and divided into the Walt Whitman Houses and the Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses. One year later Newsweek profiled the housing project as "one of the starkest examples" of the failures of public housing. The article painted a picture of broken windows, cracked walls, flickering or inoperative lighting, and elevators being used as toilets. Further depressing the area was the decommissioning of the Navy Yard in 1966 and dismantling of the Myrtle Avenue elevated train in 1969 which made the area much less attractive to Manhattan commuters.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, Fort Greene fought hard times that came with city-wide poverty, crime and drugs. While some houses were abandoned, artists, preservationists and Black professionals began to claim and restore the neighborhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Herbert Scott Gibson, a resident of the street called Washington Park, organized the Fort Greene Landmarks Preservation Committee which successfully lobbied for the establishment of Historic District status. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated two districts, the Fort Greene and BAM Historic Districts, in 1978. The Committee is now known as the Fort Greene Association. Spike Lee established his 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks company in Fort Greene in the mid 1980s, further strengthening the resurgence of the neighborhood. The Fort Greene Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and expanded in 1984.
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the influx of many new residents and businesses to Fort Greene. While issues of gentrification are raised, Fort Greene stands to many as one of the best examples of a truly racially and economically diverse neighborhood with what The New York Times referred to as a "prevailing sense of racial amity that intrigues sociologists and attracts middle-class residents from other parts of the city." GQ describes it in this way: "one of the rare racial mucous membranes in the five boroughs — it's getting white-ified but isn't there yet, and so is temporarily integrated." The controversial Atlantic Yards project to build a stadium for and relocate the New Jersey Nets (which will become the Brooklyn Nets in 2012) along with a complex of large commercial and residential high-rises on the border of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights - the "Barclays Center" has garnered opposition from many neighborhood residents including Councilwoman Letitia James and author Jhumpa Lahiri.
Fort Greene/Clinton Hill has recently garnered attention for The Local, its experimental Hyperlocal blog produced by The New York Times in collaboration with CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. It relies much on community participation, as seen from contributions by locals, crowdsourcing opportunities and their Virtual Assignment Desk. Much of its content is written by CUNY students and members of the community.
New York Times, 1858, "Homes of the Poor" "The poverty stricken condition of the inhabitants residing in the Fort Green (sic)/Clinton Hill district] of Brooklyn render it almost an unknown land,". Focusing on a certain section of the east Brooklyn area defined as "between Flushing and Dekalb Avenues, as far east as Classon Avenue and as far west as Ryerson, extending across Fulton Avenue," the Times item said the real estate boom has resulted in class conflict among a majority of the area's longtime residents (identified as "renters or squatters") and its new neighbors—middle to upper income homeowners (identified as out-priced Manhattanites attracted to the spatial wealth of Brooklyn and able to afford the high price of its grand scale Neo-Gothic brownstones.) The paper further explained the conflict as one that had existed for some time, evidenced perhaps by a letter to the editor of a local Brooklyn paper published prior to the Times profile. The author, a new homeowner, wrote "Perchance there are but few places about more desirable for residences, or more pleasant for our evening walks...(but) on every side filthy shanties are permitted to be erected from which issue all sorts of offensive smells...It is indeed a fact that many of the inmates of these hovels keep swine, cattle, etc. in their cellars and not an unusual circumstance to witness these animals enjoying side by side with their owners the cheering rays of the sun; whilst offal and filth of the assorted family is suffered to collect about their premises and endanger the lives of those in their neighborhood by its sickening and deadly effluvia."