These past two Fridays I visited the Brooklyn Historical Society, last week the new satellite facility on the waterfront and yesterday the main site in the Heights. If you live in New York City I cannot recommend the BHS strongly enough. The DUMBO facility, situated in an old warehouse, is quite striking. Their inaugural exhibition is a long-running (four year) exhibit discussing the significance of the waterfront. I found the snippets of oral histories with Rosie the Riveters to be poignant. I ruefully texted a friend noting that the interviews were mostly from the 1980s and 1990s and that the subjects were probably deceased by this time. It saddens me to see the end of the World War 2 generation.
Yesterday at Pierrepont Street I took in a small exhibit about Prospect Park. Part of it dealt with the 1966 centennial observation of the Olmsted and Vaux masterpiece. The two won the commission for the Brooklyn park on May 29, 1866, about six months after Olmsted returned from California after the Civil War. I had never heard of the 1966 Prospect Park commemoration and so did a bit of digging. I noticed that May 29, 1966 fell on a Sunday and am therefore curious as to why they did not have the event on the anniversary itself. Perhaps Sunday blue laws were still stringent enough to move it to another day; or, maybe a weekday was better to accommodate school groups. I’ll never know.
There was an 8-10 minute film from the period produced by the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, today part of National Grid, with wonderful images. The signage next to the plasma screen noted that Brooklyn Union had placed the film in a time capsule to be opened for Prospect Park’s bicentennial in 2066. Apparently they made a few copies and gave one to the BHS. Civil War veterans were a frequent sight at events like this in Prospect Park well into the 1930s. That is why they changed the name of Prospect Park Plaza to Grand Army Plaza in 1926. By 1966 they were of course all gone. I was a little surprised however not to see any Great War veterans, who were still very much around in significant number, at this time.
To read the old New York Times articles about this event is to see a Brooklyn that is no more. The borough had not yet hit rock bottom but the post-industrial decline and white flight are there for the observant to notice. A May 30, 1966 headline reads “Centennial Celebration Will Open Thursday for City Oasis, Now in Decline Attendance Falling off.” Still, there were signs of hope. Mayor Lindsay and Robert Moses were both on hand and addressed the park’s issues. Federal and local funds had already been appropriated to renovate the boathouse and other venues. The park would fall much farther over the next three decades before turning around in the mid-1990s but is heartening to know that there were people, some prominent, others less so, studiously holding the line and doing what they could in what was a difficult situation.