- 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
There is no finer marriage of the old and new Brooklyns than to sit in the Cyclones’ stands and see the boardwalk clam bars and the Wonder Wheel.
As a place to visit, the magnificently strange Green-Wood Cemetery is part bird sanctuary, part lush wood filled with dramatic willows and oaks, mostly a fascinating collection of competing mausoleums, crypts, obelisks, even a 20-foot-high limestone pyramid (with guarding sphinx), and part Revolutionary battlefield. Stretching more than 450 acres, it is complete with its own hall of fame of interred celebrities that includes both the noble and the notorious, from the composer Leonard Bernstein to Boss Tweed himself, the Coney Island impresario George C. Tilyou and the English-born “father of baseball” Henry Chadwick, whose pedestal is topped with a marble baseball, while his green-grass plot is squared off by stone bases. Horace Greeley is here, as is the Dodgers’ owner Charles Ebbets. This is the final place in Brooklyn where Henry Ward Beecher turns up, but Green-Wood has not kept out the less righteous, such as the Brooklyn mobsters Joey “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Albert Anastasia. Established in 1838, it is a verdant necropolis of 560,000 with its own Web site, coffee-table book, and nighttime flashlight tours. On a Sunday last fall there was a lecture tour up on Battle Hill, the borough’s highest point, which overlooks the harbor and the Statue of Liberty; there were a few tourists carrying Starbucks cups and two nervous guys in Red Sox hats asking the spirit of Henry Chadwick for luck in the World Series.
“Brooklyn has over 800 weekend street festivals each year,” reports our tireless and personable borough president, Marty Markowitz, who should know since he visits most of them himself, pressing the flesh and handing out “Brooklyn” stickpins. Of the borough’s larger parades, perhaps the most joyous and colorful annual event in all New York is the West Indian American Carnival each Labor Day weekend. Eastern Parkway, the home to enviably comfortable Jewish families of “alrightniks” in Alfred Kazin’s time, has since 1969 been the route of this enormous annual gathering in which a million people jam the parkway from end to end, sampling island cooking as highly decorated 16-wheelers roll by, blasting island sounds in between groups of marching bands and children dressed in dazzling homemade costumes to look like schools of tropical fish. (One year I saw a roadside cop disappear within the embrace of an enormous marching manta ray.) The parade is a dramatic symbol of the immigration that has brought thousands of Caribbean people to Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and Bedford-Stuyvesant since the relaxation of immigration laws in the 1960s.
A story about tourist Brooklyn should end where national Brooklyn tourism really began, with the “Nickel Empire” of Coney Island. Although its scruffy and small collection of aging rides scarcely compared with any of the amusement empires from its several heydays, Coney recently gained a quite magnificent new train station and other improvements, especially a minor-league baseball team that plays in the New York–Penn League. Forty-four years after the Dodgers’ departure, baseball returned to Brooklyn in 2001 with the Brooklyn Cyclones, who play right off the Coney Island boardwalk in a handsome new seaside ballpark that seats about 7,500 fans, making it a very hot ticket.
Coney Island also plays host to the Mermaid Parade, a huge and inspiredly weird event. One day each June, among the ghosts of far stranger old Coney entertainments such as a popular re-creation of the Johnstown Flood, the Mermaid Parade takes over Surf Avenue as well as the boardwalk, beach, and bars as thousands of grease-painted, bewigged, or befeathered bodies stream off the subway trains at the end of the line. There is no end to Brooklyn, as Agee observed, but here it does in fact finally run out. Although the parade celebrates a sort of exuberant, tawdry flamboyance, some participants bring a surprising sense of Brooklyn history: One year a cortege of topless but earnest young hipsters in Hulk-green body paint were lugging the large cardboard corpse of an elephant. As they reached the boardwalk, one pallbearer explained to onlookers that it was in fact the effigy of Topsy, electrocuted in a 1903 demonstration by Thomas Edison’s men at Coney. After erasing the smiles of the boardwalk crowd with this grim account, the group marched Topsy solemnly over the hot sand and into the tired brown waves of the Atlantic.