Lost in History, Vol. 41

by |
10/10/2007 12:00 AM |

As one would expect our brilliant borough of Brooklyn has complicated needs that vary as we travel from neighborhood to neighborhood. Of course, each ‘hood should have access to public schools, houses of worship, libraries, public transportation, and commercial districts for all the staples — groceries, clothes, what have you. Rarely do under-serviced neighborhoods receive all the necessities that comprise a healthy life; what’s more, our municipal government has an unfortunate tendency to ignore the plight of the minority and the working class — expect another newspaper article about the high rate of asthma in the South Bronx any week now. Count the Weeksville–Crown Heights neighborhoods about the constantly troubled regions of Brooklyn. And it was a hard pill to swallow when St. Mary’s Hospital, on St. Marks and Buffalo Avenues, closed in 2005.

St. Mary’s was the last Roman Catholic hospital in Brooklyn; it was funded by the Catholic Church and operated by the St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers, which also recently closed their midtown branch, this August. St. Mary’s in Brooklyn laid its cornerstone in 1879 as a 241-bed complex in what was already established as one of America’s earliest free black communities; St. Mary’s is just east of the Hunterfly Road Houses. Once the tree-lined carriage boulevard of Eastern Parkway — the first parkway in the country, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux — had been completed in 1874, the gorgeous, shade-filled street allowed an auspicious inroad to the neighborhood, with its new mansions and limestone row houses. Crown Heights was one of the locus points for the well-to-do black gentry of New York’s financial classes as well as the established white upper class. The original St. Mary’s complex was done in a Second Empire architectural style, and was well received when it opened in 1882, a year before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The declining story of New York’s urban hospitals is a long, transparent and heartbreaking one. St. Mary’s had been operating on a deficit for decades, but its history of declining revenue had only been documented by its parent company since 1999, when St. Vincent started following the hospital’s inpatient occupancy. Since a number of Crown Heights’ residents have little to no health insurance, most of St Mary’s services had come through the Emergency Room, as is the case in densely populated minority neighborhoods without much, if any health insurance. The hospital’s inpatient occupancy had balanced around the 50-60 percent range between 2000 and 2004, which simply wasn’t enough to cover the bills. “In the northeast section of Brooklyn, where St. Mary’s is, 27 hospitals (not counting St. Mary’s) providing a total of 3,689 beds have closed since 1936,” said the Times, two years ago. (NY Times article 10/16/05.) St. Mary’s was losing $10 million a year, and there was no financially equitable solution other than to close.

I had first noticed St. Mary’s while on bicycle, adventuring along different paths between the house I grew up in, in Ditmas Park, Flatbush to my current apartment in East Bushwick. I noticed that the main building of St. Mary’s, Shevlin Hall, was derelict and disused, but hardly crumbling or sealed off from the sidewalk. So, along with an intrepid lady friend, we decided to pick up some West Indian salt fish for breakfast and have ourselves a picnic inside St. Mary’s. The perimeter scaffolding and fence weren’t the most difficult to dodge around and once we found ourselves inside the grounds, it simply took some more adventuring until we found a way inside the complex. The renovating company had been cleaning from the top-down, so the fifth through third floors were cleared of debris, rotted furniture and hospital detritus, and the walls had been repainted. As we made our way back downstairs, each successive floor got grimier and grungier, with drywall and concrete littering the floors, whole rooms crammed with file cabinets and papers, holes in the ceiling (but luckily for us urban explorers, not the floor) and walls, and a foreboding sense of what had been here and was now destroyed.

The future of St Mary’s is uncertain — it seemed that the rooms and floors were being redeveloped for assisted living, but adjacent to the old 1882 building were brand new two-story pre-fab houses waiting for plumbing, insulation and the works. What was certain as we wandered from ghost room to room and from empty floor to floor is that the sensation of being in an abandoned hospital — once the pulsing heart of a vibrant community, now a shell of its self amidst the poor and working class — leaves one with the impression of unfairness, of an underserved community. And there’s no easy prescription for this social malady.

For more photos of St. Mary’s, see my flickr page: