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Setting the Scene: The Viewing Platform in Brooklyn Heights

By Katrina Bernhardt

 

The downtown skyline from the south tip of Manhattan up to the Brooklyn Bridge prevails as one of the most popular and iconic images of New York City. This, as is evidenced by the many offers of helicopter and boat tours around the southern tip and east side of the island of Manhattan, and by the crowded tourist spots on the Staten Island Ferry, Ellis Island, and Governor’s Island. Nearly everyone wants to gaze at the skyline and get several snapshots of it. Whether the view be from an aerial, water, or land perspective, this part of the skyline has attracted millions over the years.

Brooklyn Heights, the oldest neighborhood in Brooklyn and one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the outer boroughs since the early settlements of New York, contains one of the greatest tourist magnets for a view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Opened to the public in October of 1950, the Promenade was an unexpected result of a deal made between the Brooklyn Heights Association and Robert Moses. It was an innovative addition to the construction of the new highway connecting the outer boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens, in the mid-1940s.[3]
 

In the early 1940s, Robert Moses, “New York State’s most powerful official,” got himself involved in the planning of a Brooklyn-Queens highway project, which the City Planning Department had just begun.[4] Robert Moses took their initial idea and envisioned his own plan for an inter-borough highway. He desired the construction of an expressway right through Brooklyn Heights along Hicks Street, connecting Brooklyn and Queens, “not only to relieve congestion on local streets but also to aid industry and business by shortening transportation time between the boroughs.”[5] While he “met no effective opposition from south of Atlantic Avenue,” he received a strong objection from the Brooklyn Heights Association, an organized board of local residents who are strongly committed to the neighborhood, and that had been stable and established for thirty-two years with “politically connected lawyers and other savvy professionals.” [6] 


The Brooklyn Heights Association argued against the construction of this expressway because they did not want a busy highway cutting through their peaceful neighborhood of wealthy residents, and destroying their high quality of life. Ultimately, Robert Moses and the Brooklyn Heights Association settled on a compromise in 1943 with “a two-tiered highway above the waterfront” and a public promenade above this highway that would run along Furman Street, which was on the outer edge of Brooklyn, instead of cutting through Brooklyn Heights on Hicks Street.[7] 

 

Although “landowner and early developer Hezekiah Pierrepont had proposed a promenade atop the Heights embankment facing the East River” over a century earlier in 1827, residents of Columbia Heights, the street closest to the embankment, had “refused to cooperate” with the proposal at that time.[8] A little over a century later, during correspondence between Robert Moses and the Brooklyn Heights Association regarding the compromises with the new highway, Robert Moses claimed the idea of a public promenade above the highway. Even before the City Planning Commission hearing took place in March and the Brooklyn Heights Association finally approved its construction during a meeting in May of 1943, Robert Moses had begun designing it and planning its construction. Demolition of old warehouses and other buildings on the east side of Furman Street began in 1946, and the construction of the Promenade took off. 

After the execution, completion, and great success of the whole construction project several years later in 1951, several individuals who had been involved with the project wished to be accredited with having the idea for it all. The ownership of the idea of the Promenade is unclear because of correspondence records among the main individuals involved in the decisions regarding the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. However, Robert Moses remained firm that was his original idea. Even years later, when questioned about the Promenade being nearly exactly, if not exactly, the same as Pierrepont’s idea, Moses clearly responded that he had not known about Pierrepont’s idea at the time of his proposal, design, and construction of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. As one of New York City’s most powerful and influential individuals in construction, Moses insisted on claiming credit for, and thus control of, this successful Promenade.


Demolition on Furman Street began in 1946, and the construction of the highway, which became known as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and the Promenade above it proceeded soon after. The building of the Promenade dragged on slowly with strong objections from residents of the neighboring streets in newspapers and journals. The wealthy Brooklyn Heights residents, whose families had owned the property in the waterfront area since the early settlements of New York City, preferred the construction of small private gardens and plots of land over the public promenade space. One, mentioned in an article in The New York Times, even “offered to waive the condemnation fee for taking a portion of his backyard if the Promenade were eliminated from the plan.”[9] Many residents and landowners on the waterfront in Brooklyn Heights expressed similar negative sentiments toward the construction of the Promenade. They thought that the Promenade would bring noise and unwanted visitors, who could peer into their homes, ruining their quality of life and the value of the wealthy, historically established neighborhood. However, when the first section of the Promenade opened in October of 1950, “most of the worries had quickly dissipated” because it became such a great success and asset for the neighborhood.[10] The popularity of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade spread rapidly, resulting in an even grander opening ceremony with eager city officials in attendance for the last section of the Promenade in December of 1951.

 

The Brooklyn Heights Association quickly warmed up to the Promenade, and welcomed and cared for it, as well. Many residents grew to accept it and actually enjoy it, as well. The powerful New York individuals, officials, and the Brooklyn Heights Association, who rose to manage the Promenade, were even able to protect the views of Manhattan from the Promenade. Against the threat of the Port of New York Authority’s plan to build four-story buildings that would limit the views from the Promenade, the city enacted “spot zoning” laws in 1974 that continue to protect the views from the Promenade today, mainly the view of the downtown Manhattan skyline, which was climbing in value and level attraction for all.[11]

This stronghold of power over the Promenade to protect it did not only raise tourism in Brooklyn Heights, because of the Promenade’s attraction as a viewing platform of Manhattan, but it also raised property values for the land along the Promenade and nearby in the neighborhood. This economic spark in real estate of Brooklyn Heights certainly helped to quell the frustrations and complaints of the Brooklyn Heights residents, who had originally strongly objected to the proposal of a public space for recreation and enjoyment. Currently, property values in Brooklyn Heights are some of the highest in all of New York City. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade certainly adds to the value of the real estate in Brooklyn Heights. Since the Promenade’s clear view of Manhattan is so strongly protected by the Brooklyn Heights Association and the “spot zoning” laws, the views of many apartments in Brooklyn Heights are subsequently protected. This particular view of Manhattan’s downtown skyline is especially valuable because it is a world icon; while a picture of it is worth a thousand words, an apartment window framing it is worth a million dollars. The popular public value placed on this view of the skyline is most clearly evident in the strong attraction to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade as a viewing platform and in the climbing values of real estate in this waterfront neighborhood.


In addition to its monetary benefits and values, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade conveniently helps block the noise from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway beneath it, and it provides a beautiful 1/3-mile stretch along the waterfront with a perfect view of the downtown Manhattan skyline. While a few complaints from Columbia Heights residents can still be heard today, they are scant, and “on the whole, the Promenade must be accounted an overwhelming success.”[12] Since its opening, it has been a desired venue for art shows, fairs, and other community events, as well as a major attraction for tourists and local residents alike.

Regardless of the weather, through the cold snow of winter and the dry heat of summer, you are sure to find people walking along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, whether they are local residents walking their dogs or just taking a relaxing stroll themselves, or tourists from countries throughout the world, capturing pictures of the skyline and embracing the view from the elevated Brooklyn Heights Promenade on the Brooklyn waterfront. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade is a very versatile public space that each person may use for a different reason, but regardless of why you’re there, you can’t help but notice the downtown Manhattan skyline, since the Promenade is set up to provide a perfect platform at the Brooklyn waterfront for viewing the skyline.
 

In addition, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which had served as “a site of bustling commerce, a transportation terminal, an entry point for immigrants, [and] an artistic and activist center” in the past, now functions as a public park that is in the process of redevelopment and renovation for new sites of recreation.[13] Just below the peaceful Brooklyn Promenade and the busy Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park stretches 1.3 miles alongside beautiful pathways down by the water and the structures from previous ship docks and piers, which are now used for various recreational activities.[14] In addition to the special events and activities, the even-closer view of the downtown Manhattan skyline draws local New Yorkers and tourists down to the park. The smell of the salty sea air, the sounds of the tour boats leaving the dock, and the highly sought-after view of the skyline keep many down at the edge of the park on benches facing the skyline and along the railing taking pictures. This recreational space, still under development and renovation, now serves as another viewing platform for the Lower Manhattan skyline. 

 

[1] “New York City Official Visitor Guide” (tour guide book, New York City, 2012-2014), 11. See the rest of the tour guide book that contains information about various attractions throughout New York City in PDF version at http://www.nycgo.com/official-nyc-guides/. This book is also available to order in print.


[2] These websites have lists of major attractions in New York City, easily found on the web for visitors to New York to find and use to plan their trips to New York City. Both websites have ratings for their attractions; on nyc.com, the Brooklyn Bridge Park is rated with five stars, and on TripAdvisor, the Manhattan skyline is ranked #3, based on public ratings.


[3] “Brooklyn Heights Promenade,” NY Harbor Parks, National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, 2008-2014, http://www.nyharborparks.org/visit/brhe.html


[4] Henrik Krogius. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (The History Press, 2011), 11.


[5] “Brooklyn Queens Expressway,” NYC Parks, The City of New York, Nov. 7, 2001, http://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/historical-signs/listings?id=11721


[6] Henrik Krogius. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (The History Press, 2011), 13.


[7] “Brooklyn Heights Promenade,” New York Harbor Parks, 2008-2014. http://www.nyharborparks.org/visit/brhe.html

See map of Brooklyn Heights in this book, Henrik Krogius. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (The History Press, 2011), 12.


[8] Henrik Krogius. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (The History Press, 2011), 11-12.


[9] Claude Scales. “Times on Brooklyn Heights Promenade History,” Brooklyn Heights Blog, Jan. 2012, http://brooklynheightsblog.com/archives/34587


[10] Henrik Krogius. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (The History Press, 2011), 30.


[11] Henrik Krogius. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (The History Press, 2011). The “spot-zoning” laws protected the views of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. When other individuals saw the growing popularity, demand, and value among the public of the view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, several tried to build on the waterfront, where the Brooklyn Bridge Park now stands. However, since many strong powers were committed to the continuing success of Brooklyn Heights Promenade, including city officials, Robert Moses, and the Brooklyn Heights Association, the city instituted these zoning laws that would protect the views from the Promenade from being blocked by other, higher structures and buildings.


[12] Henrik Krogius. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (The History Press, 2011), 55.


[13] “Park History: History of the Park,” Brooklyn Bridge Park, http://www.brooklynbridgepark.org/pages/history


[14] “Overview,” Brooklyn Bridge Park, http://www.brooklynbridgepark.org/pages/aboutbbp