The story of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade—the iconic walkway that lines the edge of ritzy Brooklyn Heights and gives tourists and locals alike amazing views of the East River and Manhattan—is the story of a potential eyesore that became a world-class tourist attraction. It owes its existence to the power of the well-to-do to sometimes literally say “Not In My Backyard.”
In the beginning: Brooklyn Heights in the 1830s
Brooklyn Heights stretches south along the East River from the Brooklyn Bridge and for several blocks inland, marked by mansions, townhouses, fancy apartments and leafy streets. But, in the 1940s, master builder Robert Moses planned to route a new highway connecting Brooklyn and Queens through the center of it, demolishing blocks and buildings and even part of a newly-completed courthouse, and splitting the neighborhood.
Furman Street at bottom, then two decks of highway, and on top, the Promenade
South of Brooklyn Heights, that’s exactly what happened, but under pressure from the Brooklyn Heights Association and others, it was agreed to shift the highway to the edge of the bluff. That didn’t satisfy the Heights Association either; it would have put six lanes of highway in the backyards of the row of houses along the river edge of the bluff. More pressure, more planning, and the final plan was arrived at. The highway would be built on the face of the cliff, cantilevered over the street below the hill, and covered by a platform, also cantilevered.
A planning sketch shows more highway, less Promenade (middle) and a wider street
However, they didn’t get all they wanted: Instead of the platform being restricted to the homeowners, it would become a public park.
Construction started in 1946, and the newly-named Promenade opened in 1950-51, three years before the highway. It immediately became popular with Sunday strollers and summer sun-worshipers, and has also been prime viewing territory for fireworks displays on the 4th of July, and most memorably on the 100th Anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983. And it has great views of the harbor, the bridges and Lower Manhattan.
When my children were younger, an evening visit to the Promenade was always popular; a chance to run, to people-watch, to indulge in snacks, and to look over the edge at traffic below and at the piers, warehouses and ships below. The children are in their 30s and 40s now, and the scene has changed.
With the shipping moved elsewhere in the harbor, the piers and warehouses have given way to a new park—Brooklyn Bridge Park—that includes walks, bike paths, sports fields, shaded lawns, picnic areas and more. A new small bridge connects the Park and the Promenade. These days, the park is still under construction and more areas open every month—but even the construction is a sight for "sidewalk superintendents."
Lest you lose yourself, though, in the pleasant stroll, it only takes a glance over the railing to realize how "up close and personal" the traffic can be—although surprisingly, you hardly hear it unless you do lean over!
Except for the historic images above, these pictures are from a walk-with-camera in March, visiting the new park and then climbing up to the Promenade. There are a few extra pictures in the slideshow below, and there’s a Brooklyn Bridge Park blog here on TravelGumbo from that trip. Hope you enjoy the pictures, and hope you come to New York to enjoy our view!
At the north end of the Promenade (above), children explore an armillary, while one grandfather explains its purpose (below).
Walking south on the Promenade, looking toward still-operating piers in the distance
Houses along the Promenade have their rear gardens adjoining it. Some lost part of their gardens to the construction. Newer houses (lower picture) along the Promenade mostly keep the scale and feel of their 19th-c. neighbors
Near the southern end, another entrance, and finally, from the end, a view
of a still commercial-industrial area to the south.
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