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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Prison Martyrs' Monument

"I'll race you up - no using the stairs." "Deal."

This is my walk in Brooklyn Census Tract 0031 - which consists mainly of Ft. Greene Park - I'm saying a climb counts as a vertical walk. Somewhat strangely, the park is not an entire tract in and of itself, which is the norm. Similar sized parks - Sunset Park in Brooklyn, St. Mary's Park in the Bronx - are all their own tracts.

A couple of Aussies who travel the world exploring storm drains are in town (yes, several of these people actually exist - isn't that awesome?) Now, while the History Channel decided to say I'm an underground expert who's been going into drains for 10 years, the reality is I'm only somewhat into storm drains, and was not really up for schlepping out to the boroughs to hang out in the combined sanitary system. Luckily the Aussies were also into my idea of climbing up the scaffolding to the top of the Prison Martyr's Monument - the huge column in the middle of Ft. Greene Park.

After a decent spell drinking, the Aussies and my friends Steve and Ellie head over there. Once we get over the fence Steve has the bright idea to race up by climbing up 150 feet of the scaffolding instead of walking up the steps. Did I mention it had started to rain? Still, the booze gives me confidence - not enough to beat Steve, who wins handily, but enough to make it all the way up to the top.

It's a great view. You're right between the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges, with downtown right in front of you, and the curve of the Lower East Side visible from over 200 feet above the river. It becomes one of my favorite places to go over the next couple years - the renovation drags on and on. I climb it to psyche myself up for a Brooklyn Bridge climb on my birthday, I climb it on the 4th of July for a romantic evening with a special lady, I climb it to show friends the great view, or to go and be away from it all, or just for fun. This lasted until the Fall of 2008, when the scaffolding came down, and there was a grand re-opening celebration in honor of its centennial. I had high hopes this was to be accompanied by at least some increased public access - maybe just to the crypt underneath, which would be cool in its own right, but hopefully also to the top. I had never seen the view in daylight, for starters, and it's really a huge shame that more people couldn't experience the great terrace.

No such luck - with all due respect to the NYC Parks Department, the best thing their 5 million dollar renovation bought was the scaffolding that let whoever wanted to climb up to the top for a couple years. A general cleaning and repair, the replacement of a couple old statues, and some lighting at night were the only things that changed. If you are going to spend 5 million dollars and two years, why not actually spend it on something real, and give people access to a piece of history and a great view of their city? I can't imagine I'm the only person who would rather have a somewhat grimy observation deck you can actually use once in a while, rather than a lit up one where all you can do is look up and dream of the view. Even an Urban Park Rangers-led tour to the top every month or two - similar to what they do for the High Bridge Water Tower and the Soldiers and Sailors Arch - would be worth it. About all you can do since the renovation is peek inside the column every once in a while. And, of course, forget about visiting the crypt.

I'm lucky enough to be fairly young, athletic, and in a position in life where I can afford to be somewhat risk-adverse about this stuff. Most New Yorkers are not, and their tax dollars went to fund this renovation as much as mine did. It is unfair that only two very small segments of the population - namely people like me, and people powerful or connected enough to do it officially - got to experience this great space and amazing view. And unfortunately, this is the case with a lot of interesting, publicly (or quasi-publicly) owned spaces around town. Here's to hoping that one day I - and you - will be able to see what that view looks like in daylight.

Neighborhoods: Ft. Greene. Tracts Walked: BK31

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