Last week, Palmetto Playground in Brooklyn Heights was renamed Adam Yauch Park in honor of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who passed away last May 4. Yauch grew up just a few blocks away from the small neighborhood playground and frequented it as a young boy. Yauch's parents, Noel and Frances, attended the ceremony and noted that, when raising Adam, "The whole idea was we were going to introduce him to music and make him love it all his life. Well, we succeeded. He loved music all his life, but he did it on his own terms." Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz also spoke at the ceremony, saying, "It's fitting that we're here today to dedicate a playground to Adam Yauch because like the Wu-Tang Clan, Beastie Boys is for the children. I was trying to think of what to say today, and I was thinking what it means to be a New York kid: People come to New York to be themselves, to express themselves and to be who they want to be."
It was a beautiful and fitting tribute to a person who represented Brooklyn at its best: unique, innovative, aware of its past yet always looking to the future, and just a little bit crazy. But so it also got me thinking about all the other parks and plazas, bridges and streets named after famous Brooklynites past and present. Many of the people who were honored this way have faded from our collective memory, not because they weren't important contributors to this borough's past and present, but because, well, time makes everything fuzzy and almost nobody has a good head for history anymore. In any case, here's a little rundown of some of the more notable namesakes of Brooklyn landmarks. But first, a few more words from Ad-Rock about MCA: "I'd like to thank the New York Parks Department and the people of Brooklyn for honoring my friend and brother, and recognizing how cool it is to have an Adam Yauch park for other crazy New York kids." Crazy New York kids are the best kind of kids.
This Brooklyn Heights park was rumored to be the one which would undergo a name change in order to honor Adam Yauch, but Kathleen Hanna (who, besides just being Kathleen fucking Hanna, is Adam Horowitz's wife) soon squelched that conjecture, saying last year that her husband had "already begun working with the Parks Commissioner to fix up and rename State Street Park where Yauch actually played as a kid to Adam Yauch Park. It would be great to get people behind THIS idea as it won't hurt the Squibb family and it would be awesome to fix up the bball court there as a tribute." But so anyway, who is the Squibb family? And who is the Squibb that this park is named for? Well! I'll tell you. Squibb Park is named for Edwin Robinson Squibb (1819-1900), a doctor and innovator who founded Squibb Pharmaceuticals, which would later become Bristol Meyers Squibb. Squibb is known for having been the first person to figure out a way to distill ether for safe use as an anesthetic and also for having impeccable standards of cleanliness when it came to medical care, standards that he tried to make industry-wide. The site of the current playground is also the site of one of his first laboratories. And if you stand in the middle of the playground and breathe in really deeply you just might pass out from ether residue. No, you won't. That part's not true at all, but the rest of it is!
Squibb Park; Middagh St. between Columbia Heights & Furman St., Brooklyn Heights
Calvert Vaux Park
Calvert Vaux (1825-1895) designed, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, many of the most celebrated parks in New York City, including Central Park, Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park, and Morningside Park. So, why then, is this little park in Gravesend named after Vaux (which, by the way, rhymes with fox) ? What's the connection? Well, unfortunately, it's a sad and weird one. Vaux was apparently out on a boat in Gravesend Bay one foggy, late autumn night and drowned. Even at the time the circumstances were mysterious and were never made clear. And now? Now the answers seem completely lost to the churning waters on that cold and desolate night. A sad end for the man who not only designed the city's most iconic parks, but was also responsible for the design of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. Yeah. He was a pretty big deal.
Calvert Vaux Park; Gravesend Bay, Bay 44 St. to Bay 49 St., Shore Pkwy., Gravesend
The Pulaski Bridge connects Greenpoint to Long Island City, and was named in honor of Kazimierz Pulaski (1745-1779) in tribute to Greenpoint's considerable Polish population. But also because Kazimierz Pulaski was an incredible bad ass who helped America pull out a win in the Revolutionary War. Pulaski was born a Polish nobleman and fought the Russians for freedom in his birth country before being driven into exile. And just where did he escape? To America! Which was not, at the time, "America" yet. No, instead, it was the colonies which were engaged in war with the British. Pulaski was welcomed by no less a personage than Benjamin Franklin, who thought Pulaski could get shit done over here. Pulaski was into the idea and said, "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it." Well, sadly, die for it he did. But before that happened, he gained notoriety for being an incredibly effective (if sometimes difficult to deal with) military leader. Pulaski is also one of only seven people to be granted honorary American citizenship. And this bridge. He also had this bridge named after him.*
*In fact, it's not just this bridge. Pulaski is thought to be one of the most honored and celebrated people worldwide and has literally hundreds of things named after him. Hundreds!
Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817) was, like Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish freedom fighter who came to America to participate in the American Revolution. Unlike Pulaski, Kościuszko survived the war and, because of that, left an incredibly fascinating legacy that proves he was a man who did not discriminate which men do or do not deserve freedom. Following the revolution, Kościuszko returned to Poland in order to continue fighting an ultimately unsuccessful war against Russia. After the Polish defeat, Kościuszko returned to America where he revisited his old friend Thomas Jefferson, whose portrait Kościuszko, a gifted artist, had once painted. Kościuszko wrote a will while he was in America, and in this will, he left all of the pay from his time as a soldier in the Continental Army to a trust that was meant to grant the freedom and education of slaves—including Jefferson's slaves. But you guys? He had entrusted Jefferson to carry this proviso out. And, well, Jefferson didn't do that. Oh, there are all sorts of reasons why he didn't do that—it was against Virginia's laws etc. But, also, let's not forget that Jefferson didn't even free his own slaves upon his death. So, this isn't too surprising. But it is nice to know that Kościuszko was an alright sort of a guy, who wanted freedom for all people, no matter the color of their skin.
David Ruggles Playground
David Ruggles (1810-1849) was, in addition to being an academic and a writer, a freedom fighter during an era when his own freedom was constantly questioned. He was born into a free black family at a time when slavery was still legal in New York City. Ruggles was educated from a young age and, as an adult, worked tirelessly to bring enslaved people from the south to freedom in the north. One of the people he was said to have helped escape was none other than Fredrick Douglass. So. There you have it. Ruggles also operated a printing press and founded a journal called The Mirror of Liberty. He kind of did it all, and the very least this city can do is name a playground after him. Like, the very least.
David Ruggles Playground; Tompkins Ave. between Halsey St. and Macon St., Bed-Stuy
If you head south from Prospect Park down to Coney Island, the avenues shed their names and assume a simple alphabetical order. Once you get past Foster Avenue and Glenwood Road, you move through Avenue H and I and J. The avenues maintain this pattern for the most part, but there is one glaring exception: Quentin Road. Who is Quentin and why is he more important than having an Avenue Q? Well, in fact, Quentin Road used to be Avenue Q, but was renamed in honor of Quentin Roosevelt (1897-1918), Theodore Roosevelt's beloved youngest son. Quentin was shot down in aerial combat during World War I. He was known for being a daredevil and just an all-around fun troublemaker who, as a child in the White House, "carved a baseball diamond on the White House lawn without permission, defaced official presidential portraits in the White House with spitballs, and threw snowballs from the White House's roof at unsuspecting Secret Service guards." So, basically, he was completely amazing. He was also admired and respected by those who served with him, and even those who fought against him: the German military buried Quentin with full honors. Theodore Roosevelt was said to have been so devastated by the loss of his son that he lost the will to live. He died just months later.
Harry Chapin Playground
There's another Brooklyn Heights playground named after a musician who died far too young. Harry Chapin (1942-1981) grew up in Brooklyn Heights and played at this playground as a boy, much in the same way that Adam Yauch played in the playground that now bears his name. While musically the two men couldn't have been more different (I mean, we're talking about the difference between "Sabotage" and "Cat's in the Cradle" here) they were both Brooklynites whose interests were global. Chapin worked tirelessly for a variety of environmental and political causes, most notably Jimmy Carter's Commission to End World Hunger. After Chapin was killed in a car accident, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Harry Chapin Playground; Columbia Hts. at Middagh St., Brooklyn Heights
There are a lot of Brooklyn parks and playgrounds and bridges and streets named after people involved in the Revolutionary War, but Howard Malls is interesting for the fact that the man who it is named for—while he was an American patriot—helped contribute to the British victory in the Battle of Brooklyn. Oops! William Howard (1725-1777) was the owner of the Rising Sun tavern here in Brooklyn, which "had two bars, segregated so its Dutch patrons would not have to endure the perceived indignity of drinking with their slaves." Oh, history. You're so embarrassing. Anyway, prior to the Battle of Brooklyn, British General William Howe forced Howard to show him where the American troops were stationed. Howe was able to stage a surprise attack on a minimally guarded American garrison, and deliver a resounding victory for the British. Geroge Washington managed to escape New York though and, well, we all know how this story ultimately ends. But, yeah, that's William Howard.
Howard Malls; Blake Ave., Tapscott St., Howard Ave., Brownsville
Lady Moody Triangle
Lady Deborah Moody (c. 1583-1659), first feminist in Brooklyn? Sure! Why not? I don't know that she necessarily would have called herself a feminist. Ok, I know she definitely wouldn't have called herself a feminist. But that's not the point, because she was one anyway. Moody, a wealthy widow, left England in 1645 and settled in Gravesend, "became the first woman in the New World to receive a land patent, to write the first town charter in English in New Netherland, and to established one of the first towns with a square block plan in the New World. Furthermore, Gravesend’s policy of religious freedom set it apart from most colonial settlements." So, yeah, she deserves to have a plaque and a triangle named after her, I'd say. Gravesend was the only English town in Brooklyn (the rest being, of course, Dutch) and wasn't officially incorporated into what was then the city of Brooklyn until 1894. And it all started off with a religious-freedom-loving, bad ass widow who was more adventurous than almost anyone else of her era or any other.
Lady Moody Triangle; Village Rd. N., Ave. U Bet. Van Sicklen St. And Lake St., Gravesend
So, we've all been to McCarren Park, right? But who exactly was McCarren? Did you think you'd just never know? Has this lack of knowledge been slowly killing you all this time? Probably not. But now you will know and you can handily impress your friends with this knowledge. So! McCarren Park is named after Patrick Henry McCarren (1847-1909) who "rose through the ranks of the Brooklyn Democratic Party to win election to the State Assembly in 1881 and the State Senate in 1889." Now, in case you're wondering if the reason the park is named after McCarren is that he was a totally stand-up politician who battled corruption and vice, I have to tell you right now, that this is not the reason. Not the reason at all. In fact, McCarren was an enemy of populist movements and always allied himself with banks and trusts. He was also a major gambler. Basically, he was the archetype of a dirty local politician. And he's the namesake of one of Brooklyn's most frequented and frequently maligned parks! Which, actually, makes perfect sense in its way. Not everyone is Adam Yauch, you guys. Not at all.
McCarren Park; N. 12 St., Lorimer St., Manhattan Ave. bet. Bayard St. and Berry St. - Nassau Ave., Williamsburg
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