Tuesday, March 24, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 6) - Brownstone Brooklyn & Prospect Park

On day 6 it's back to Brooklyn to explore some of the historic neighborhoods and major landmarks of the city's most populous borough. Brooklyn was once an independent city with its own government, parks, landmarks, and culture. Brooklyn grew up around its waterfront and the ferries to New York, but with the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, development multiplied in Brooklyn. Day 6's itinerary covers some of Brooklyn's most notable historic landmarks as well as neighborhoods that have become some of the trendiest in the city. This is an itinerary best done on a weekend to take advantage of programs like the Brooklyn Flea Market.

DAY 6 - Prospect Park and Brownstone Brooklyn

Morning: Head to Grand Army Plaza to start the day. Don't confuse this with the landmark of the same name on 5th Ave in Manhattan. Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza is New York's answer to the Champs-Elysees. It's not quite up to the grandeur of Paris, but it's not too shabby either. As Flatbush Avenue approaches Prospect Park a large traffic circle forms around New York's biggest triumphal arch, the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument. The arch was built to honor the fighters for the Union in the American Civil War and is actually much bigger and grander than the Washington Arch in Manhattan . This is the central intersection of Brooklyn and it also forms the northern entrance to Prospect Park, Brooklyn's 585 acre emerald jewel.
   Prospect Park was designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead in 1865. Both were in the midst of building their first project, Manhattan's Central Park, when they were brought in to propose a new plan for the new Brooklyn park. They proposed a realignment of the park's borders and designed a sylvan, rustic park in the same style as Central Park. Vaux and Olmstead's parks heavily borrowed from nature and shunned formal architecture. In Manhattan, they had been forced to create many small natural spaces but in Brooklyn they amplified their design scheme and created three major landscapes: a large lake and shoreline, a rugged woodland, and the first sight when you enter Prospect Park the Long Meadow. The designer's themselves thought the Prospect Park design superior to Central Park and many New Yorkers agree. Have a walk through the meadow, which undulates and winds almost a mile down the spine of the park. Just past the picnic house on the right, you'll see a lake and stream on the left side of the meadow. Cross the rustic Esdale Bridge into the Ravine. This is a rugged, rocky, hilly forest built onto the natural glacial hills of Long island. These hills provided a line of defense during the Revolutionary War and George Washington led the ill-fated Battle of Long Island among these hills in Prospect Park and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Ravine is easy to get lost in so stick to following the stream downriver through the woods. Eventually you'll reach the beautiful Prospect Park Boathouse. From here you can walk behind the boathouse and exit the park.

A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
    When you exit the park, find Flatbush Avenue where it intersects with the park and Empire Blvd. Across Flatbush Ave from the park is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This land was originally part of the proposed site of Prospect Park, but Vaux suggested the park be moved slightly west to avoid incorporating Flatbush Ave into the park itself. So today, the gardens are across the street from the park. One construction note, the southern entrance at Flatbush and Empire is closed for renovations until June 2015 so for now you'll have to walk along the east side of the garden on Washington Ave to reach the east entrance.
   The larger NY Botanic Gardens are in The Bronx, but I personally like the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens even better. The more compact layout provides nonstop beauty, especially in the Spring when lilacs, magnolias, and peonies are at their peak. But the most famous attraction at the BBG is the Cherry Blossom Festival. Not only are the grounds filled with flowering cherry trees, but the traditional Japanese pond and garden creates a lush, transporting experience. Every year, the Sakura Matsuri festival weekend is the highlight of the year at BBG if you're in town in late April. Exit at the north end of the garden onto Eastern Parkway. Immediately on the right is the imposing classical entrance to the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn's answer to the Metropolitan Museum. The building is lovely, but I generally skip the museum since much of the same eras and types of art are covered better in Manhattan's museums. But if there's an exhibit that piques your interest, go in and check it out.
Japanese garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Lunch: Prospect Heights and Crown Heights are the neighborhoods across the street from the BBG and Brooklyn Museum. Washington Ave, Franklin Ave, and Vanderbilt Ave are the main commercial strips that are home to most of the food options in the area. These areas are quickly gentrifying and have increasingly sophisticated food options. But Eastern Parkway is also home to a NYC Labor Day tradition, the West Indian parade, and so the food of the Caribbean is easy to find. Just up Washington less than a block is The Islands. A shoebox sized Caribbean eatery with a steep stair leading to a few tables in a loft space. The lunch portions are plenty big enough, and if the weather's nice, the steps of the Brooklyn Museum make a good seating area for takeaway. Meanwhile on Franklin Ave, just past St. Mark's is Kelso, a simple, friendly, bare-bones Panamanian restaurant and bar. The next block on Franklin is Bergen Street, take a left to visit the Berg'n food hall, featuring favorite food vendors from the Brooklyn Flea Market including Pizza Moto and the famous ramen noodle bun burger. Berg'n is open all year, but on weekends from November to March an attached building is home to the Brooklyn Flea Market. It's the biggest and best local craft and vintage market in the city If you're there when the market's open, it's an awesome shopping experience and a great way to get something unique to take home as a memory of NYC. If none of those strike your fancy, just head over to Washington Ave and take a stroll until you find something that hits the spot. Particularly famous on this stretch is the venerable diner Tom's, one of the most beloved traditional breakfast and lunch spots in the city. It's a go-to for old timey drinks like egg creams. Just be ready to wait for a table on the weekend.

Afternoon: The three neighborhoods north of Fulton Street are Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Bedford-Stuvesant (Bed-Stuy). I personally find these neighborhoods to be the most quintessentially scenic and historic neighborhoods in New York City. When you imagine living in New York, it is these classic brownstone blocks that spring to mind. These districts were some of the most prestigious in Brooklyn in the decades at the end of the 19th century. Brownstones were built to house well-to-do professionals and the most successful businessmen built mansions along many of the blocks. In the 20th century, the neighborhoods became the largest district of African-American residents in the city, many fleeing the overcrowded tenements of Harlem. Great cultural figures like Notorious B.I.G., Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Mos Def, former NY Governor David Patterson, Jay-Z, Lena Horne, Richie Havens, and many more all lived in the area. Michael Jordan was born at the former Cumberland Hospital in Fort Greene. But these days, many of the African-American residents of the neighborhood have been leaving, often heading to the South where more jobs and cheaper homes offer opportunity. Meanwhile, new more wealthy residents--often White, but not always--take their place. All the while, the graceful homes remain unchanged and often renovated to original splendor.
A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
   If you have time, you could walk or subway east to the heart of Bed-Stuy. Hancock Street makes a particularly nice walk. But most likely, you'll only have time for Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. So walk west on Fulton Street to Clinton Ave and take a right. Clinton Ave was one of the streets of mansions built in the late 19th century, which largely survive. Many feature beautiful porches and front gardens. Take Clinton two blocks until you reach Lafayette Ave and take a left. One block to the left is a schoolyard that doubles on warm Saturdays as the home of the Brooklyn Flea. I mentioned their winter home in Crown Heights, but if you're around in the spring, summer, or fall then the flea is here every Saturday. It's easily worth an hour to browse the vendors selling cool antiques, crafts, artisan goods, and food. Continuing on Lafayette brings you into Fort Greene. When you reach Portland Ave, take a right. This block of Portland has often been named the best block in the whole city and I find a hard time disagreeing. It's perfectly preserved and magnificent. The grand stoops perfectly frame the block and the huge london plane trees cover the street. Best of all for the residents, at the end of the block is Fort Greene Park.
   The high ground of the park was a military post dating back to the Revolutionary War. As Brooklyn grew and the need for green space became greater, the fort was made Brooklyn's second park in 1847. Vaux and Olmstead would redesign the park 50 years late. The most notable feature is the memorial column standing on the highest point in the center of the small park. The Prison Ship Martyr's Monument remembers the lives lost as prisoners of Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. Prisoners were locked in ships docked down the hill at Wallabout Bay--current home of the Brooklyn Navy Yard--and prisoners were neglected and mistreated. In the end, more than 10,000 American prisoners lost their lives on those ships, more than all the American lives lost in every battle of the war combined. The memorial remembers their sacrifice and houses many of the unidentified remains. It's poignant that the view from the monument looks out to the World Trade Center rising in the distance, the city's other tragic memorial.
A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on

Dinner: There's lots of great options in Fort Greene. Restaurants tend to huddle on the few commercial strips in the neighborhood. Myrtle Ave, the norther border of Fort Greene Park, has a few favorites including Lulu & Po one block east of the park. DeKalb Ave on the south side of the park is stocked with eateries serving American, French, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Latin east of the park. Fulton Street also hums with eateries, including the awesome Habana Outpost, an environmental and community conscious garden space with awesome Mexican and Cuban food.

Evening: Just a few blocks away lie Brooklyn's two most prominent performance spaces, one very old and one brand new. On Lafayette Ave and St. Felix Street is the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the oldest cultural institution in New York City. Their offerings are diverse. They've been known for their modern dance programs over the recent decades, especially incorporating African influences. They offer independent and historical film screenings. The theater is often the best in New York for performances of classic plays. BAMCafe is open for drinks and free live music on Friday and Saturday nights. The main building, from 1908, is a stunning, ornate structure and worth walk by even if you're not seeing a performance. Two blocks south of Atlantic Ave is Brooklyn's new marquee landmark, Barclay's Center. The new arena opened in 2012 and is home to the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, as well as the New York Islanders hockey team starting in fall of 2015. In addition, there's lots of major concerts and events that happen there, particular in summer when hockey and basketball is in their off-season.

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