Freed slaves once gained a step up in Brooklyn society by working as skilled shipbuilders and seamstresses in Fort Greene.
Peter Caesar Alberti, the first Italian to arrive in Brooklyn, established a tobacco plantation in 1639 in what is today Fort Greene. In 1781, the plantation became a shipyard and started a legacy of shipbuilding in the area. Construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard soon followed and by the 1840s, it provided work to many African-Americans and other residents.
By 1870, more than half the African-American population of Brooklyn lived in the area.
The neighborhood’s revolutionary history is remembered with Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument at its peak.
The monument stands as a grave to over 11,000 prisoners who died in British prison ships in nearby Wallabout Bay. The park itself, once called Washington Park, was established in 1848 and adopted its neighborhood nickname after colonial general Nathanael Greene in 1897. Greene supervised the construction of Fort Putnam, which survived the Battle of Brooklyn but was abandoned during General George Washington’s retreat across the East River.
During World War II, more than 71,000 navy personnel and civilians worked at the navy yard and in 1944, the New York City Housing Authority built the Walt Whitman and Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses to house the wartime workforce.
For a brief time in the 1970s, Fort Greene seemed to be losing residents and businesses but the community worked to make public housing a success and brownstone enthusiasts moved in to renovate and resettle.
How Fort Greene Got Its Name
The military connection implied by the name Fort Greene is accurate for this northwestern Brooklyn neighborhood delimited by Flushing Avenue to the north, Flatbush Avenue to the west, Vanderbilt Avenue to the east and Atlantic Avenue to the south.
When Gen. George Washington prepared for the British attack in 1776, Gen. Nathanael Greene, “The Fighting Quaker” from Rhode Island, was put in command of the troops on Long Island. He supervised the building of Fort Putnam, named for Col. Rufus, on the hills overlooking Wallabout Bay. Illness prevented Greene from taking part in the Battle of Brooklyn, but he would go on to distinguish himself in the war’s Southern campaign in the Carolinas.
Fort Putnam, abandoned during the retreat of Washington’s army from Brooklyn, was repaired in advance of an expected British attack in 1812 and a garrison was stationed there until 1815. The fort was then renamed for Gen. Greene.
In 1801 the U.S. government purchased land on Wallabout Bay for construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the northern border of the neighborhood, which was then known as The Hill, and was home to several large farms, including that of shipbuilder John Jackson, who had also created a burial ground on his property for the remains of those who died on British prison ships in the Revolutionary War.
Brooklyn’s first park, then called Washington Park, was established in 1848 around the site of the old fort. It became Fort Greene Park in 1897, after it was redesigned by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux of Central Park fame.
At the highest point of the park, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and crypt was erected to hold the reinterred bones of some of the more than 11,000 Revolutionary War prisoners who died on British ships in Wallabout Bay and whose bodies were thrown off the ships and later washed ashore. A new monument was dedicated in 1908.
Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook.
He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism.
He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.