Six hidden secrets of Fort Greene, Brooklyn

Put your knowledge of Fort Greene to the test, and see if you know these neighborhood secrets.

brooklyn fort greene park
Photograph: Shutterstock

As I stepped out of Lafayette Avenue station and into Fort Greene, I could have sworn I had walked into a sitcom set in New York City. The neighborhood looks and feels like a highly curated set—in the best way. 

As a Manhattanite, the first thing I noticed was the beauty of the neighborhood’s elegant brownstones. Then there were the sidewalks, which were crowded with toddlers and dogs. People were stopping to talk to one another outside stores. Gaggles of septuagenarians chatted and laughed on the corners. Children played unsupervised in the park. 

Fort Greene is one of the few remaining slices of a bygone New York. One where the neighborhood is your entire universe—not just a place you come to lay your head. One where you actually know your neighbors. Where you really, truly live and not just exist. It’s even been named NYC’s coolest neighborhood for 2023 and 15th coolest in the world!

But don’t let this idyllic setting fool you. Fort Greene has its secrets and its scars. It’s witnessed war and loss, gentrification and resistance, and even a candied catastrophe. Here are the essential secrets you should know about Fort Greene. 

RECOMMENDED: A guide to Fort Greene, Brooklyn

1. Fort Greene is named after an actual Revolutionary War-era fort 

The tranquility of Fort Greene’s leafy, brownstone-lined streets belies its dark origin story. It was here that the Continental Army suffered its worst defeat of the American Revolution. 

In late August of 1776, the British attacked Brooklyn and New York (then two separate cities), with the goal of cutting off rebellious New England from the rest of the colonies. 

The Continentals knew the British were coming. To prepare for the Redcoat surge, George Washington directed a series of forts to be built across Brooklyn’s hills. The largest of these forts was called Fort Putnam. It was placed under the command of General Nathanael Greene, a promising young officer known as the “Fighting Quaker.” 

Nathanael Greene portrait
Photograph: artist John Trumbull, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The star-shaped fort was no match for the British army, however, which numbered over 30,000 professional soldiers. Greene and his men were eventually forced to abandon the fort and retreat across the East River under the thick cover of fog. 

After the war, the fort fell into disrepair. It was rebuilt during the War of 1812, when it was renamed Fort Greene in honor of its original commander. The British threat never materialized, however, and, by the mid-19th century, Brooklynites were campaigning to turn the old fort into a city park. The effort was led by a young Walt Whitman, whose great-uncle fought in the Battle of Brooklyn and was said to have died during the struggle. 

The city of Brooklyn designated the site as its first official park in 1845 and hired the famous landscape artists Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux—the same pair responsible for Central Park and Prospect Park—to design it. 

2. The remains of over 11,500 people lie buried underneath the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 

In the aftermath of the Battle of Brooklyn, the British seized control of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New York harbor. The Redcoats anchored prison ships in Wallabout Bay, the tiny body of water that now lies between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. The British imprisoned thousands of rebels on 16 decrepit barges. 

The British captors offered their prisoners a simple bargain: if they turned coat and signed up to fight for the British cause, they were free. Remarkably, only a few individuals accepted this offer.  

Fort Greene’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument
Photograph: Walker Schulte Schneider | Stanford White’s 1908 column stands atop the crypt built into the park’s hillside.

The most infamous of these ships was the HMS Jersey, which was stuffed with prisoners at nearly 300% of its physical capacity. According to the Fraunces Tavern Museum, “[a]t least 8 people died a day on the Jersey, from disease, malnutrition, and the overcrowded conditions.” 

Those who died in captivity were buried in shallow graves along the water’s edge. After the war, in 1808, many of these remains were re-buried in a crypt near Hudson Avenue. But the task was enormous and not all of the remains were re-buried. Walt Whitman recounted that, as a child, he would find bones from these unfortunate prisoners washed up on the shore. 

In 1873, the remains of over 11,500 individuals, in 22 bluestone boxes, were moved to Fort Greene Park and buried in a crypt built into the hillside. In 1908, the current monument—a 149-foot-tall Doric column crowned with an 8-ton bronze lantern—was erected in a somber ceremony attended by President-elect William Howard Taft. The monument was designed by the famous New York architect Stanford White, but he never got to see the finished product. White was shockingly murdered in 1906, two years before the completion of his monument to the dead. 

3. “Pigdom”

During the mid-19th century, as Fort Greene’s iconic townhouses were being constructed around the park, the far western edge of the neighborhood (in an area that now spills over into Clinton Hill) was a shantytown known as “Pigdom.” 

The inhabitants of Pigdom were mostly poor Irish immigrants who lived in one-story shacks made out of mud and trash. These impoverished families often kept animals for their sustenance, including pigs and cattle. 

There was one problem, however: the city of Brooklyn prohibited the “rearing of pigs.” So, the city ordered the citizens of Pigdom to get rid of their settlement’s eponymous animal, but the Pigdomites refused. 

Then, in a particularly poorly thought-out maneuver, the Brooklyn Police swooped down into Pidgom and demolished the settlement’s pigpens … which resulted in the pigs running wild throughout the entire city. 

That was, unfortunately, the last straw for Pigdom. The police came back a second time and destroyed the settlement’s shacks, forcibly uprooting hundreds—if not thousands of its inhabitants. 

4. A Historical Hotbed for Black Culture 

By the mid-1800s, Fort Greene had become the epicenter of Black life in Brooklyn. The first school for Black children, “Coloured School No. 1” (now Public School 67) opened in Fort Greene in 1847. It stood on the same site that now hosts the Walt Whitman Houses. By the 1870s, over half of Brooklyn’s Black population called Fort Greene home. 

But as the 20th century neared, Brooklyn’s spaciousness and affordability began drawing more and more white Manhattanites. (Sound familiar?) Many moved to Fort Greene for its access to its beautiful park and began pushing out the neighborhood’s Black residents. This lasted for nearly a century until many of the neighborhood’s white residents moved out to the suburbs—a phenomenon known as “White Flight.” 

BAM in 1978
Photograph: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

In the 1980s, Fort Greene became what writer (and Fort Greene local) Nelson George called the city’s “crucial black artistic enclave.” Spike Lee, who grew up in Fort Greene, dedicated his first feature-length film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” to capturing the spirit of the neighborhood. 

Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, also calls Fort Greene home. 

After the film’s release, Fort Greene was undeniably the “red-hot center of a national black arts renaissance” where Black artists like comedian Chris Rock, actor Larry Fishburne, and R&B singer Erykah Badu met, lived, created, and hung out.

Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on South Elliott Place
Photograph: Walker Schulte Schneider | Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on South Elliott Place

5. The invention of the potato chip and the “Flurry at Fort Greene Place”

The townhouse at 131 Fort Greene Place is a handsome brick structure on a quiet brownstone-lined block. In many ways, it is the ideal Brooklyn home. But don’t let its dignified and understated exterior fool you—it was once at the center of a headline-grabbing Fort Greene scandal

In the fall of 1894, the white residents of Fort Greene Place were in a panic. They had just learned that Hiram S. Thomas, a Black man, had purchased townhouse No. 131 on their block. Thomas was a successful restaurateur who, at the time, owned the immensely popular Moon’s Lake House restaurant in Saratoga Springs. Moon’s is credited as the first restaurant in the United States to sell potato chips. 

Historians disagree over who invented potato chips. Thomas is sometimes credited with their invention, but his tenure at the Lake House came about a decade after potato chips were first sold in Saratoga Springs. The real inventor was likely someone on staff at Moon’s during the mid-19th century (although the creation of the chip might date back even earlier).

Hiram S. Thomas’s house stands proudly on the right
Photograph: Walker Schulte Schneider | Hiram S. Thomas’s house stands proudly on the right

Nonetheless, the popularity of the potato chip made Thomas a rich man. So rich, in fact, that he could afford to purchase a townhouse on a then-exclusively white block in Fort Greene. The New York Tribune reported that, when Thomas’s future neighbors found out who was buying No. 131, they were “much stirred up over the matter” and attempted to block the sale. One of the neighbors even sued the seller. The entire affair made the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle on October 1, 1894. 

Unfortunately, this was enough for Thomas, and he decided to sell the townhouse two months later. He never moved in. However, he continued to be an extraordinarily successful restaurateur and died a wealthy man in 1907 at the age of 70. 

6. The Great Rockwood Chocolate Flood

In the early morning hours of May 12, 1919, a fire broke out in the Rockwood Chocolate Factory on the corner of Washington and Park Avenue. The fire started in the factory’s shipping department, which was chock-full of burlap bags containing chocolate bars. As firefighters rushed to the scene and hosed the building down, the water mixed with the melted chocolate and created a candy river that rushed down Flushing Avenue. 

“It flowed through the street like molten lava,” wrote the Brooklyn Eagle, and “was deep enough to float a rowboat for two blocks.” 

It was a child’s dream come true. The flood apparently drew over a thousand local children who “fell on their knees before the oncoming flood and dipped it up greedily with grimy fingers.” The police officers and firefighters on the scene merely looked on and smiled. 

Eventually, the children’s parents and the local school board figured out where all the kids had gone and restored order. “Chocolate-gorged truants, some with faraway looks in their eyes, were hauled off school,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported. 

The flood caused approximately $75,000 worth of damages—and the memory of a lifetime for the children of Fort Greene.

A portion of the Rockwood Chocolate Factory, as it stands today
Photograph: Walker Schulte Schneider | A portion of the Rockwood Chocolate Factory, as it stands today


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