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An Overgrown Naval Cemetery Is Reborn as a Park

Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
The Naval Cemetery Landscape, part of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The curving boardwalk of the new park at the Brooklyn Navy Yard is respectfully raised above the earth where the remains of unknown sailors may still be interred. Wildflowers and grasses wave along the path’s edges, while a grove of trees shades one corner of the 1.7-acre site. The Naval Cemetery Landscape, opened by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, strikes a balance between offering public green space on the Brooklyn waterfront and respecting the memory of those forgotten beneath the soil.

“This site was a ball field, after they removed most of the known remains and took them to Cypress Hills National Cemetery, and the police used to train their police dogs on the site as well,” Milton Puryear, director of project development at the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, told Hyperallergic. “What happened, the story that’s around, is that someone kicked a bone sliding into base, and then they did further investigation and found that there were quite a few remains still there, some as high as 18 inches, and the results of that was the site was closed and it remained closed for about 40 years.”

Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Wildflowers in the Naval Cemetery Landscape

The closest glimpse for the public was through a fence to an overgrown field, wedged on the eastern edge of the Navy Yard alongside the busy intersections of Kent and Flushing avenues where the Brooklyn Queens Expressway slices past. That is, until May 20, when it reopened to the public in its new park form, designed by Marvel Architects and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. While visitors don’t have to worry about any dead rising from the landscape, the biggest challenge was remediating the invasive plants and creating a meadow of native species.

“Until the last 15 to 20 years, when redevelopment started to occur, [the Brooklyn waterfront] was mostly asphalt, concrete, very little vegetation, and what little vegetation there was, was invasive species,” Puryear said. “Our goal with creating the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway was to restore native plant communities. They’re more resilient, but they cannot compete with invasives that have no biological controls.”

For example, the invasive mugwort isn’t consumed by any local fauna. Yet there are challenges to planting flora that’s more friendly to Brooklyn wildlife, as Puryear noticed during our conversation that some rabbits had stripped a couple of saplings. However, he also stated that in recent weeks, monarch butterflies, attracted to the milkweed on which their larvae feed, had been plentiful among the sprawl of wildflowers, which includes bee balm, goldenrod, purple cornflowers, mountain mint, and brown-eyed susans. A couple of beehives nestled in the trees are also brimming with insect visitors.

“Basically for us, it’s a three- to four-year effort that involves intensive plant management and weeding,” Puryear said, with the heaviest work in the first year, until in the “succeeding years the plants that you intended to be here, they start to dominate the space and allow less sunlight to stimulate the seed bank [of invasive species].”

Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Beehives in the Naval Cemetery Landscape
Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Walkway to the amphitheater in the Naval Cemetery Landscape

Despite the natural beauty, you never forget that you’re at a former cemetery while wandering the site, as a sign right at the wooden gateway to the park reads in bold letters: “The Naval Cemetery Landscape Is a Cemetery.” The meandering pathway, small amphitheater, and meadow with its walkway of large stone blocks are all aimed at peace and contemplation. The one bench at the “sacred grove” section contains a small notebook where visitors can sketch or leave notes responding to the space.

The cemetery held around 2,000 burials between 1831 and 1910, mostly members of the Navy and the Marines, many of whom were treated at the Naval Hospital, the worn architecture of which you can just glimpse through the trees of the park. The Brooklyn Greenway Initiative notes that among the interments were “two Congressional Medal of Honor winners, a Fijian Chief, and individuals from more than 20 different countries. It is estimated that roughly 10% of all the service members buried at the site were of African descent.”

In 1926, there was an effort to relocate the remains to Cypress Hills National Cemetery. But they didn’t get everyone. After the site had spent time as a baseball field, there was a thorough 1990s investigation into the archives and the archeology of the cemetery that identified 987 people, who were then relocated. It’s likely hundreds are still buried somewhere at this site. The New York Times recently featured the 1999 study from the Navy, which cites that this was in part due to the poor condition of grave markers before the end of the Civil War, when they were “most often wooden headboards and less often iron markers,” as well as a lack of thorough plot plans and clerical errors.

Other parks in New York City were once cemeteries, such as Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, and Bryant Park, yet that memory is mostly invisible. The rejuvenation of the Navy Yard cemetery with active life honors the dead by assuring that they are not again forgotten.

Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Sign at the entrance of the Naval Cemetery Landscape
Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Bench in the Naval Cemetery Landscape
Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Journal kept below the bench in the Naval Cemetery Landscape for visitors to write or sketch their thoughts
Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Stone walkway in the Naval Cemetery Landscape
Naval Hospital Cemetery Park
Entrance to the Naval Cemetery Landscape

The Naval Cemetery Landscape is open Wednesday to Sunday, 8am to 8pm, at the eastern edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard (Williamsburg Street West, between Kent and Flushing avenues, Brooklyn).

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