The Origin of Cobble Hill Park

The story of the neighborhood park that was almost a supermarket.

By Peter Justice

(originally published on BoCoCa Patch. July 5, 2011 4:37 pm ET)

In the 1950s, neighborhood kids used to play in the empty lot off of Verandah Place. Next door, at the corner of Clinton and Congress streets, was the old church, with its low, wide sides and protruding front porch, that people in the neighborhood called the Church of the Holy Turtle. The lot itself was strewn with rubble and debris. How it turned into what it is now — the leafy, landscaped Cobble Hill Park — is a small example of how the neighborhood has changed in the past several decades.

Before the park, the Church of the Holy Turtle or the rubble-filled lot, the neighborhood belonged to an Irish fur trader named Cornelius Heeney. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Heeney arrived in 18th-century America as a poor immigrant, became a partner of John Jacob Astor and ended up rich enough to own a sizable piece of Brooklyn farmland. A 1969 report on the Cobble Hill Historic District locates his land’s southern edge at what is now Verandah Place. Heeney had no wife or children, and when he died in 1848 — his body is interred in the chapel of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, near the corner of Court and Congress streets — he left his money and property to be overseen by an orphan welfare group called the Brooklyn Benevolent Society.

During the 19th Century a wave of New Englanders moved onto the former farmland, building brownstones and mansions and establishing the Church of the Holy Turtle, actually the Second Unitarian Church. Built in the 1850s, it became one of Brooklyn’s main cultural centers. Samuel Longfellow, brother of the poet and abolitionist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was its first pastor.

By the early-to-middle decades of the 20th Century, the area, like much of what was then called South Brooklyn, was a working-class community intertwined with the industry of the nearby waterfront.

“In the 40s and into the 50s, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights were not hot ticket neighborhoods,” said Barbara Krongel, of the Cobble Hill Association and Friends of Cobble Hill Park. “There were a lot of boarding houses that served the docks.”

Even in the 70s, when Krongel first moved to the area, it was still a neighborhood where “longshoremen went home for lunch.”

It was during the 40s that two old mansions next to the church were demolished and the rubble-strewn lot was born. In the 50s, according to a New York Times article from February 1960, the area was becoming run down, and in turn, residents “began selling their brownstones and brick dwellings at low prices, and it seemed that cheap rooming houses would engulf the area in a few years.”

In the late 50s the supermarket chain Bohack’s bought the property from the Brooklyn Benevolent Society, looking to put in a store. The next step was to obtain a zoning variance to allow a supermarket in the mostly residential area.

But Bohack’s ran straight into a powerful emerging force in city politics.

The Times piece describes an influx of middle-class, professional homeowners from Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village beginning to move in during the late 50s and early 60s. The new “brownstoners” were attracted to the better housing value they could get for their money south of Atlantic Avenue. But as historian Suleiman Osman writes in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (), they also craved exactly what the area offered: a small-scale, traditional community of close-knit neighbors and 19th century buildings.

That preference placed them at odds with a school of urban planning that had been in fashion since the New Deal of the 1930s. Planners like parks commissioner Robert Moses prized the modern, large-scale efficiency of high-rise towers, public housing projects and multi-lane expressways. The newly arrived brownstoners, on the other hand, identified with writers like Jane Jacobs, the Greenwich Village urban theorist and activist whose opus The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed thinking about urban life in the 60s. “In contrast to the universal, integrated and modern cityscape championed by modernist planners, anti-renewal writers commemorated diversity, mixed-use buildings, historic architecture, ethnicity and distinctive local neighborhoods,” writes Osman.

The brownstoners saw the arrival of a large chain supermarket — Bohack’s was ubiquitous in the city at the time — as a threat. As the Times recounts, they organized other neighborhood residents and testified against the zoning variance at a city hearing, eventually defeating the supermarket plan.

In 1958, Osman writes, neighborhood activists revived a name that predated even the days of Cornelius Heeney. Cobble Hill had been the name of a Revolutionary War fort that once stood in the area. The coalition of neighborhood activists that defeated the supermarket plan became the Cobble Hill Association, patterned after the Brooklyn Heights Association across Atlantic Avenue.

The vacant lot remained into the early 60s while the property repeatedly changed hands, a Times article from July 1962 reports. The abandoned Second Unitarian Church was demolished in 1961. A developer wanted to put up a brick, six-story apartment building, but the Cobble Hill Association wanted a park. In 1962, the Parks Department came through, agreeing to acquire the property for an experimental “vest-pocket park,” a pilot for what would become a major, citywide initiative under Mayor John Lindsay a few years later.

The new park opened on July 14, 1965. According to historian Francis Morrone, author of Brooklyn: A Journey Through the City of Dreams, the names of well-known people who had lived in the area were proposed for it, among them novelist Thomas Wolfe, who had roomed for a while on Verandah Place. In the end it was given the name of the neighborhood, although it is sometimes unofficially known as Verandah Park.

Influenced by Jacobs’ theories, vest-pocket parks were small green spaces meant to be located in the middle of neighborhoods, a departure from the larger parks and ball fields Moses tended to favor. To Jacobs, parks would only be popular if they were small enough, far enough from other parks, and placed in accessible enough locations to feel full and thriving.

“Greatly loved neighborhood parks benefit from a certain rarity value,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

For his part, Moses advised Lindsay that such parks would be too expensive and hard to oversee, as the Times reported in 1966.

“These tiny parks will not bring light and air to the neighborhoods where they are built and will in the end prove to be neighborhood nuisances,” he warned in a private note the press got hold of.

In fact, the park “fell on hard times” during the 80s, according to Krongel. Part of the problem, she said, was that it was built over the original foundations left behind from the buildings that had been at the site. That created sinkholes in the park that had to be repaired. The Cobble Hill Association once again got involved and persuaded local politicians that the park needed a renovation. In 1989, a new design was unveiled.

The Parks Department Web site notes that where the original design had featured steel fences and concrete walls, the new layout featured cast-iron fences and herringbone-patterned walkways. The renovation gave it the look of a 19th Century leisure park, complimenting the surrounding architecture.

“It’s a small park but with great symbolic value because it represented the triumph of neighborhood residents — many, if not most, of them being young ‘brownstoners’ — working together,” said Morrone in an email. “This was exactly the kind of small neighborhood park that Jane Jacobs advocated as something that would bring people together but not isolate one part of a neighborhood from another.”

As Osman writes, there are those who have criticized the brownstoner movement for paving the way for gentrification, inadvertently helping transform the old working class character of neighborhoods like Cobble Hill into an affluent place. It was, after all, a movement of middle-class professionals, and there are few signs of longshoremen or rooming houses in the area today.

But others say larger economic forces have changed the neighborhood, and the legacy of the brownstoners has been to help preserve, not displace, much of its culture in the face of that change.

There seems little doubt that Cobble Hill Park has defied Moses’ expectations. Today the park is often crowded, with children, their parents and babysitters in the playground in the rear of the park, adults and teenagers using the tables near the front and dog-walkers circling the large, grassy mound in the center.

Krongel and a group of volunteers meet in the park on designated mornings to plant flowers, like the tulips that were donated this past fall by a local florist and the Parks Department.

“The neighborhood won, because Cobble Hill Park is the jewel in the neighborhood,” she said. “And it is fussed over to keep it a restful oasis.”