- Historic Sites
The City of Churches and Henry Ward Beecher, of Walt Whitman, Coney Island, and a famously departed baseball team is ready for its next act—as a world-class tourist destination
August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
In the shadow of the Great Bridge, Fulton Ferry Landing marks where the city really began. Dutch settlers crossed the river and established a small farming community here in the early 1600s. From the 1630s to the 1660s the Dutch settled the towns of Breuckelen (Brooklyn), New Amersfoort (Flatlands), Vlacke Bosch (Flatbush), New Utrecht, and Boswick (Bushwick). The Dutch and English alternated control of the area until 1674, and the towns (including the English village of Gravesend) were united as Kings County in 1683.
Fulton Landing and its ferries were most famously commemorated by the local son and onetime Brooklyn Daily Eagle editor Walt Whitman: “Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, / A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them, / Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.” But until three years ago, when the initial yellow fleet of New York Water Taxis appeared, there had been no regular ferry service between Manhattan and Fulton Landing since the 1920s, when the ferries finally gave up competing with the bridge that had so dramatically spanned the East River in 1883. Whitman, who was born on Long Island, in 1819, came to Brooklyn with his family when he was four and eventually became (after typesetter, schoolteacher, editor, reporter) its greatest poet and one of its greatest boosters. He could be surprisingly frank in writing obituaries for his paper (Samuel Leggett’s sendoff opened: “This man is dead. He was immensely rich”), but he was known during his tenure as editor for his strident editorials and democratic gestures, among them always riding alongside the omnibus driver.
Brooklyn Heights, considered New York’s first suburb, contains Beecher’s famous Plymouth Church and 619 buildings from before the Civil War.
More than “a hundred years hence” from Whitman’s roiling river scene current ferriers reach the Fulton Landing, which is bounded by several acres of blue-and-white Port Authority pier sheds (with its hopeful painted slogan “Brooklyn Works!”) and the swank landmark of the River Café. This once was the destination of Beecher Boats, nineteenth-century ferries filled with New Yorkers coming for a Sunday-morning dose of the abolitionist firebrand Henry Ward Beecher preaching theatrically at his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, an exquisite area (the neighborhood, considered New York City’s first suburb, was landmarked in 1965) where 619 buildings date from before the Civil War. The handsome 1847 church where Beecher staged slave auctions is still here. A heroic likeness of the long-haired orator appears in the church’s courtyard; in front of the Romanesque castle of the nearby Brooklyn post office, a second life-size Beecher faces Borough Hall, a newly freed woman at his feet. Beecher’s church, which contains a number of beautiful Tiffany windows, was for decades “not only the moral and spiritual center of Brooklyn and New York but all America,” wrote David McCullough in The Great Bridge . “Plymouth Church, a big brick barn of a building on Orange Street, was [Brooklyn’s] foremost institution, bar none, the thing [it] was famous for from one end of the land to the other.”
Look at any map of Brooklyn and you’ll notice its big splotches of greenery. There’s Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, known for its varieties of roses, Japanese gardens, and Celebrity Path (a Brooklyn “walk of fame” that includes, among others, Woody Allen, George Gershwin, Jackie Robinson, Mary Tyler Moore, and Chuck Schumer– intern–turned movie star Marisa Tomei). Other large green park-sized shapes on the map represent Brooklyn’s major cemeteries: Green-Wood, Cypress Hills, Washington. In 1874 the Eagle wrote with some alarm that Brooklyn’s “living population today numbers 450,000 people, and yet how few of that number are aware that there is a still larger city near by or surrounding them … and in this silent city are buried 504,000 people… .” Today Green-Wood and Cypress Hills each hold well more than that.