A Tree Grows in Brooklyn A Look at Prospect Park

Park Slope has long been one of Brooklyn's most desirable residential neighborhoods. Windsor Terrace, south of the Slope, and Prospect Park South are also much in demand, and the part of Eastern Parkway near Grand Army Plaza has also been attracting positive attention for several years now. But would any of these areas be as sought-after if they weren't near Prospect Park?

Probably not, says John Manbeck, former Brooklyn borough historian and retired English professor at Kingsborough Community College. "Many of the houses nearby don't have big backyards, and some of those brownstones certainly don't have any front yards. For the people who live there, the park is their backyard."

Ellen Salpeter, director of Heart of Brooklyn, a partnership of several Brooklyn cultural institutions that includes Prospect Park, says, "I live on Eastern Parkway, and I'm not sure I would have chosen to live there if it weren't for the park, the Botanic Garden and the zoo."

The Other Park

Indeed, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Prospect Park in the 19th century and also designed Central Park, reportedly considered Prospect Park their masterpiece. Not only do recreational users and tourists visit the park, says Salpeter, but so do "scholars and people interested in park design."

Today, Prospect Park encompasses 526 acres, and is bordered by Eastern Parkway, Flatbush Avenue, Ocean Ave-nue, Parkside Avenue, Prospect Park Southwest and Prospect Park West. Among its major attractions are its vintage Coney Island carousel; the Prospect Park Zoo; the lake and boathouse, which houses the Prospect Park Audubon Center; its natural forest, known as the Woodlands; the 18th century Lefferts Historic House, and much more.

The park also contains seasonal attractions, like the Bandshell, which hosts the Celebrate Brooklyn summer concert series, and the Wollman Skating Rink, which is popular in the winter. And a heavy snowfall often attracts cross-country skiers to the park's open meadows.

Directly south of the park is the Parade Ground, built soon after the park opened. Long dedicated to sports, the Parade Ground's ball fields have been used by countless Little Leaguers and such Brooklyn-raised major leaguers as Lee Mazzilli, Joe Torre and Willie Randolph.

Ins and Outs of the Park

Despite its current beloved status, Prospect Park had a "down" period in the late 1960s, "˜70s and early "˜80s. At one time, the bushes along Prospect Park West were cut down so muggers couldn't hide there.

"When I first came here in 1980," says Tupper Thomas, the park's current administrator, "none of the park buildings were open - even the carousel and the boathouse were shuttered. There were 120 cleaning and maintenance people, but no gardeners at all, and not a single special event."

With the renaissance of Park Slope and nearby areas, more and more neighbors felt the need to supplement the city's cash-strapped parks budget and wanted to become involved in the park. Thus, in 1987, the Prospect Park Alliance (PPA) was born, with Thomas serving a second role as president.

"The Alliance raised $6 million for the park last year," says Thomas, the majority from foundations and individuals." Of that money, she says, most goes into visitor services, special events, education and operations. Money for capital projects typically comes from the public sector and public officials.

Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks calls Prospect Park "an example of what a community can do when it comes together and advocates for more investment and programs."

In addition to contributions, says Thomas, "the Alliance raises money for the park by running its own concessions, which range from hot dog carts to the park gift shop to the Tennis Center [in the Parade Ground]."

Prospect Park currently has about 120 employees, ranging from concessionaires and maintenance staff to educators and fundraisers. They are augmented by a small army of some 5,000 volunteers who do a wide variety of jobs including caring for all the park's flowerbeds and cleaning up litter and debris.

The park also publishes a quarterly newsletter called Prospect Park, an annual report, and various educational publications.

A Little History

Most of the land occupied by Prospect Park was acquired by the then-City of Brooklyn from private estates, lots and farmland. Construction began in the mid-1860s, and portions of the park were open within a year or so of development.

The Encyclopedia of New York says as many as 1,800 men were employed to pave roads and paths, plant grass and trees, build a drainage system, erect bridges and move earth. Huge trees and rocks were moved with the help of "horsepower" - actual horses.

Many of the park's features - such as the system of streams and creeks stretching from the waterfall to the lake - are man-made. Over the years, the basic landscape of the park has remained the same, although there have of course been some changes.

For example, says Manbeck, its Long Meadow originally had just that - sheep. And he remembers during his boyhood during "˜40s and "˜50s, people skated on the lake. "They used to put a red circle on the trolley car when the ice was strong enough to skate on."

As for the park's name, Thomas says it was named for Mount Prospect, the highest point in Brooklyn. Ironically, this spot was left out of the park when the original plans changed - it's now near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, areas with high ground and wide views were often named "prospect."

Education Program

Education is a very important part of the park. Glenn Phillips, its education director, says there are three main components: the Lefferts Historic House, the Audubon Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE) high school.

The Lefferts Historic House, a former Dutch farmhouse that was rebuilt after the Revolutionary War, houses a collection of artifacts from the Lefferts family. Many of its programs hearken back to the Colonial era, such as spinning, candle making and storytelling. Phillips says new programming during the next few years will emphasize the changing relationship between people and their environment.

The Audubon Center, a partnership with Audubon New York, opened in the park's boathouse on April 26, 2002, the joint birthday of Olmsted and bird enthusiast John James Audubon. According to Phillips, "The center attracted 60,000 visitors last year, and has programs for kids of all ages." The park is home to 200 species of birds, but the center also focuses on nature in general. "I like to say it's 60 percent birds, 40 percent everything else," says Phillips.

As for BASE, it's the result of a partnership between the park, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Department of Education. The students use the park and the garden as outdoor classrooms and laboratories.

More Attractions

The park's Carousel, an intricately designed Coney Island masterpiece dating from 1912, was moved to the park in the 1950s. The park, says Thomas, has had several carousels over the years, in various locations.

The Prospect Park Zoo, managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, has been a fixture since the 1930s and was restored in the "˜90s. It's very teaching-oriented and child-oriented, according to Thomas.

The Bandshell, on the park's west side, has been there since the 1920s (although its high-tech sound system obviously hasn't), and many old-timers remember dancing to the big bands there. Nowadays, its concerts are produced by Celebrate Brooklyn, and has included a wide variety of performances there from a salute to folk singer Leonard Cohen to reggae singer Burning Spear to a klezmer extravaganza.

The Boathouse, according to Thomas, was almost destroyed in the "˜60s because it had fallen into disrepair, but was then renovated. Years ago, people rented rowboats; now, they rent paddleboats. Visitors can also take a ride on the electric boat Independence.

The Wollman Ice Skating Rink (one of two by that name - the other is in Central Park) was built in 1960, and receives more than 100,000 visitors per year. The park plans to replace the aging facility with a new skating center, to be built where the rink's parking lot now stands.

"Almost nobody likes the rink's current location," says Thomas, "because it blocks views for picnickers on the park's east side. There was once beautiful scenery, but now, all you do is look out on the back of the skating rink."

Although the Parade Ground is technically just outside Prospect Park, it is operated as part of the park. Here, you can play (or watch) baseball, softball, soccer, football or tennis. A $12.5 million renovation of the area, designed and managed by the Prospect Park Alliance, has basically been finished, except for work on the playground.

The spectacular Grand Army Plaza Arch, built in the 1890s to honor Civil War veterans, marks the western entrance to the park and is adorned with a four-horse bronze chariot group and other sculptures. Occasionally, the inside of the arch opens to the public for art exhibits. The plaza itself is a favorite spot for wedding photos.

The People's Park

So, has Prospect Park contributed the improvement of the surrounding neighborhoods, or is it the other way around? A little of both, many people say - one cannot ignore the general rise in property values in much of the city during the "˜80s and "˜90s.

The story of how Park Slope was transformed, first from a wealthy "gold coast" neighborhood to a somewhat faded, rundown area, and then to a haven for upwardly mobile young professional families is well known. "Nowadays," says Thomas, "the values of houses on blocks next to the park have improved, whereas in the "˜70s, living on a "˜park block' was considered dangerous."

Nearby Windsor Terrace used to be solid working-class, family neighborhoods, and their nearness to the park was a big draw when they were first developed. Now, upper-middle-class professionals are moving here as well.

Prospect-Lefferts Gardens is home to many middle-class Caribbean-Americans; Crown Heights has a mixture of Caribbean-Americans, Hasidic Jews and others; and a wide array of working-class families live around Ocean Avenue, says Thomas. "The areas are all very stable."

Above all, she says, the park is a wonderful resource for urban families for whom a little green means a lot. Prospect Park offers a welcome respite from the acres of concrete and asphalt that serve as backyards for thousands of Brooklynites.

"The majority of people who use the park are from lower- or middle-income families," says Thomas. "People come from Bedford-Stuyvesant, from South Brooklyn, from Red Hook. Many of these people have no backyard."

Ranaan Geberer is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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