The emerald jewel of Brooklyn, Prospect Park is often called the borough’s backyard and has been a serene and idyllic retreat for Brooklynites for well over a century now. In fact, the park recently celebrated its 150th anniversary with great fanfare, attesting its historic importance and role it’s played in city life for generations. Few people, however, know the true history of the park, such as its connection to Central Park and the role it played in the development of Brooklyn real estate in the late 19th century. To that end, here’s a quick look at the hidden history of Prospect Park and the key role it’s played in the city’s history over the years.
Before the actual development of the parkland, the area that comprises the park today was the site of the Battle of Long Island on August 21, 1776, one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War. Although the colonial army lost the battle, they bought precious time for Washington’s army to escape and live to fight another day. Later, in 1856, a reservoir was established in what today is the park by the City of Brooklyn. Preserving the area of the battle and the greenery around the reservoir became key impetuses in establishing the park.
In the middle of the 19th century, Brooklyn, then a separate city, was growing rapidly. Like neighboring New York City, then confined to just the island of Manhattan, the civic and political leaders of Brooklyn saw the desperate need for new parkland to accommodate their growing population and offer respite from the crowded, industrial cityscape. In 1859, the New York State legislature created a commission to recommend new sites for parkland in Brooklyn. In 1860, the largest and most ambitious planned park was centered around Mount Prospect on the outskirts of the city. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the designers of Central Park in Manhattan around the same time, were hired to landscape the new park.
By the end of 1860, the land for the planned park was bought up by the City of Brooklyn. Complications arouse, however, due to the outbreak of the Civil War and commercial and residential land speculation already underway in the area of the park at that time. Olmstead and Vaux’s proposal was finally accepted in 1866 and the park officially opened on October 19, 1867 while still under development. The 1873 financial panic caused work on the park to largely cease, scrapping the more ambitious elements of the planned public space but finally giving Brooklyn a premier public park.
Real estate boomed around the park in the late 19th century following its completion. The park underwent a number of redevelopments in the late 1800s and early 1990s as well, adding neoclassical buildings and a memorial to French General Marquis de la Fayette. In 1934, Robert Moses, the powerful yet controversial commissioners of parks in the city, made his mark on Prospect Park by creating new playgrounds, a bandshell and the Prospect Park Zoo.
Like many parks in New York City, Prospect Park fell into decline after World War II but was revitalized thanks in large part to the establishment of the Prospect Park Alliance in 1987. Today the park is known as Brooklyn’s crown jewel and hosts nearly 10 million visitors each year as well as popular food festivals, concerts and other events.