How a Beautiful Bay Ridge Park Became Its Most Overlooked

McKinley Park in the fog
Photo by George Krauss, via Flickr

In January 1903, Alderman Patrick H. Malone, a Tammany man, put forward an idea to the parks committee of his fellow Aldermen (like city councilmembers): “that the city acquire eight blocks of land at Seventy-third street and Fort Hamilton avenue…for a public park, to be named after President McKinley,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported. Malone said the land, which belonged to Fred Cocheu, a prominent local citizen, could be had for $150,000. (The government’s inflation calculator doesn’t go back to 1903, but ten years later, that amount was the equivalent of almost $3.6 million today.)

Republican William A. McKinley, the country’s 25th president, had been assassinated just two years before, during his second term (having twice defeated William Jennings Bryan), in Buffalo, by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. McKinley today is best/barely remembered for raising tariffs, establishing the gold standard, annexing Hawaii and winning the Spanish–American War. He might be totally overlooked today, except he was murdered in office (and followed by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, who would soon grossly overshadow him), so parks and schools and more were named in his honor at the turn of the 20th century, while many American cities were expanding and seriously modernizing—including Bay Ridge.

McKinley Assassination
Czoglosz shoots McKinley; detail of a drawing by T. Dart Walker, via Wikipedia

“The people of the district approve the plan,” the Eagle reported, “it being understood that the cost will be borne by the city at large.” (At the same meeting, it was also decided to acquire the southern third of present-day Sunset Park—43rd to 44th street, Fifth to Seventh avenues—for $100,000.) But not everyone approved.

“We trust the proposition to give the name of McKinley Park to the tract of land at Seventy-fifth street and Fort Hamilton avenue, which was recently acquired by the city[,] will not be adopted,” Brooklyn Life reported in January 1903.

Outside of the fact that the country has been sufficiently McKinleyed for the present, this park is too small an affair to be called after such a big figure in the nation’s history. It is also too remote from the center of the city, or even the busy part of the borough, for any appellation but a local one to be appropriate. A larger reason for protest in this matter, however, lies in the simple circumstance that in Highlawn Woods the new park already has a name that could not possible be improved upon. As such the beautiful little stretch of woodland has been known for half a century or more, and as such let it continue to be known so long as it remains a charming bit of forest in one of the most charming sections of the metropolis.

Bay Ridge map 1891
Detail of an elevation map, 1891. Green splotches at bottom right presumably Highlawn Woods. From the New York Public Library

(A few years later, “Highlawn” became the name of a residential development in Bensonhurst, and a few years after that it became the name of a section of Avenue R.)

“Where McKinley Park is today,” one woman, who moved to the area in 1891, remembered to the Eagle in 1932, “were beautiful woods where we went chestnut picking. All we had to do [w]as to gather them up from the ground. They were so plentiful. High hills were everywhere, and grownups as well as youngsters, in the Winter time, enjoyed some sleighing. Oh! such sport. The slope on some hills extended over two blocks.”

The earliest mention I found of the park was in July 1902. That was when the borough president, J. Edward Swanstrom, visited the “small stretch of woods of Fort Hamilton Avenue,” the Eagle reported.

Some time ago David Porter, a resident of Bay Ridge, called the attention of Borough President Swanstrom to the fact that by the expenditure of a comparatively small amount of money High Lawn Woods, a well known spot in that neighborhood, could be converted into a park. Mr. Porter stated that the woods consisted of natural park land, which, with improvement, could be easily converted into an ideal recreation spot.

In fact, for a long time the woods have been used as a picnic ground by the churches and Sunday schools of Bay Ridge. The woods abound in large trees of many varieties and wild flowers grow there in profusion.

By April 1903, the Eagle mentions that the park should be done soon, but I can find no other mention of the park that year, not even in December, when it was officially designated. You have to turn to the minutes of a meeting to find that on December 21, 1903, the Parks Commissioner of Brooklyn and Queens, Richard Young, brought before the city’s other commissioners a resolution that the land between Seventh Avenue, Fort Hamilton Parkway (then, “Avenue”) and 73rd Street “hereby is designated and named McKinley Park.” It was adopted unanimously. (Also named at this meeting: Seaside Park, in Coney Island, and several others which have since changed their names or disappeared.)

Fort Hamilton Parkway, with McKinley Park
December 1904, From the New York Public Library

It took ten years for Young’s successor, Michael J. Kennedy, to request corporate stock funds for the laying out and paving of walks. Before that, the park was largely untouched. The parks department’s annual report in 1905 describes it this way:

It is covered largely with a native growth of fine trees and has been used by the residents of this neighborhood. Little work has been done there so far except the cleaning up of the woodland, the removal of dead and decaying trees and the pruning of the trees and shrubbery on the street lines. It is not the intention to expend any considerable sum on this park during the coming year, as it can be used in its present condition for some time to come.

(This report describes the park as “about nine acres”; today the parks department describes it as 5.66 acres.)

McKinley Park
Southmost corner of McKinley Park, 1939, via Brooklyn Public Library. Today, this is the location of the Kathy Reilly Triangle.

Gilbert Sorrentino cheekily refers to the residents’ enjoyment of such native growth in his 1981 novel Crystal Vision, set in Bay Ridge after WW II, during a bit of neighborhood gossip.

Costance Maria LaNord…was quietly married several weeks ago in Bensonhurst to ex-Marine John McGlynn…The svelte ceremony took place at the new bridge’s spanking-new apartment on Fifteenth Avenue. She also maintains a pied-à-terre on Fifth Avenue over Fritz’s Tavern, the latest spot for the glitter-and-guzzle crowd, and a beautiful teeny-tiny room in her mother’s house on Fort Hamilton Parkway . . . The deliriously tinkly couple are spending the Christmas holidays there because of its proximitness to the sylvan delights of McKinley Park.

McKinley Park Brooklyn
The northwestern corner of McKinley Park, 1959, via Brooklyn Historical Society

But McKinley Park’s picturesque qualities didn’t attract the attention of anyone beyond the local community, just as Brooklyn Life had feared. (Fortunately, McKinley settled into a historical relevance consummate to the status of this deep-in-Brooklyn, locals-only park; historians rank McKinley low on Best Presidents Ever lists.) It never achieved noteworthiness; no postcards and few photographs exist in the available archives, unlike Shore Road, Owl’s Head, Leif Ericson (then the “Bay Ridge Parkway“) or Cannonball Park (then “Fort Hamilton Park”).

Even though, apparently, it had quite a few amenities. “By the 1910s a parkhouse had been erected,” according to the parks department, “a skating pond was created, and tennis courts were built.” Joseph N. Muzio recalls skating there, ca. late ’30s or early ’40s, in his book about his parents, Buddy Remembers.

It was winter and a group of us were ice-skating in McKinley Park. Some children raced around the ice rink, sometimes slamming into one another, while others tried to improve their novice figure skating moves. Since it got dark early, my mother had told me to come home before dark; there were no lights at the rink and it was not safe to skate after dark. We were having such a fine time that I decided to disregard her instructions and stay with my buddies. As I was speeding around the ice in the dark, I tumbled right into the snow piled up on the side and opened a huge gash above my left eye…Someone called an ambulance, which took me to a neighborhood hospital, where it took many stitches to close the deep gash. (In those days, I guess this could be done without any parental permission.)

If I had to guess, this lake was on the southern side, probably where the concrete ballfields are now (between 76th and 77th streets). The park also enjoyed some popularity in the 1960s, as the terminus of the Norwegian Day parade. (Googlers may find records indicating that, in 1916, the U.S. Congress donated two condemned cannons and cannonballs to McKinley Park, but I can find no other reference to this; there were once, however, condemned cannons on display at McKinley Square, in the Bronx, and I’m inclined to think the report from Congress confused the two—or that the cannons were delivered to the wrong park!)

Serious redevelopment was undertaken in the early 1930s. “McKinley Park has been so perceptibly embellished as to make those marvel who know the unseemly appearance is presented formerly,” the Eagle reported in November 1931.

Its walks, shrubbery and trees have been laid out with such excellent judgment as to evoke the admiration of all who have seen them. Its playground facilities are so ample and so perfect that they might well serve as a model for similar undertakings elsewhere. It’s a genuine pleasure to behold the many children who avail themselves of them. For grownups there are several tennis courts and equipment for basketball. In the park adjoining these there is need of benches, and these should be in place by Spring.

Even if McKinley never achieved boroughwide popularity, it became the defining feature of its environs, the focal point of eastern Bay Ridge—what we’d define today as the westernmost part of Dyker Heights. The public library down the road, on Fort Hamilton Parkway and 68th Street, opened in 1911 as the McKinley Park Branch, a deposit station in the back of Smith’s Pharmacy; the proper library building that’s there today was built in 1959, and today serves as an essential resource to the local Chinese-American population. (You can see a photo of the groundbreaking here.)

McKinley Park Library
The original McKinley Park Library, in the back of Smith’s Pharmacy, 1939. Via Brooklyn Public Library

The middle school across the street from the park, opened on February 23, 1939 and dedicated in June, was called the William McKinley Junior High School; PS 127, catercorner to the south end of the park, was built no later than 1903, and no later than 1916 had been dubbed “the McKinley Park School,” which it’s still called today. You not infrequently see references in old newspapers to “the McKinley Park section” of Brooklyn. (Here’s a photo of IS 259 from 1962, via the Brooklyn Historical Society.)

The park has clearly evolved over the past century, as the community around it urbanized. Bisected by 75th Street, McKinley Park’s halves feel distinct: the north retains some of the hilly, forested mystique of the old Highlawn Woods, while the south now feels to me more like a typical Brooklyn park, balancing activity fields with benches and plant life. The two halves feel so distinct that today they technically bear separate names: in 1979, the southern half of the park was officially renamed after two late pastors at St. Epherem’s, across the parkway: Father Richard A. Kennedy and Monsignor Edward J. Sweeney.

Kathy Reilly Triangle
Kathy Reilly Triangle. Photo by Michael Gaffey, for Hey Ridge

To make it more confusing, the southernmost tip of the park, where Seventh Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway collide, was named in 2000 after Kathy Reilly, a civically active local. Behind this triangle park is a lovely square of dense garden-growth, either part of Kathy Reilly Triangle or a separate square named after Harold P. McDonald, “a likable WWI veteran who died in 1934, so distressing his American Legion friends that they petitioned to have the square named after their friend, which the city council granted three years later,” according to an earlier Hey Ridge post.

All city parks seem to have had a lowpoint during the “bad old days” of New York—Owl’s Head’s, for example, would probably be 1974, when a teenager was shot for his bike—but McKinley’s came surprisingly late, in the early 1990s. In October 1994, an off-duty transit cop who had just moved to an apartment on 72nd Street, at Fort Hamilton Parkway, went to confront a group of youths who for months had been getting drunk in and around McKinley Park and causing trouble. According to the New York Times:

He donned a jogging suit, took his 9-millimeter Glock semiautomatic service weapon, went out and confronted about 10 youths, the police said. Soon after, as thugs scattered into the night, Sgt. Cosentino lay bleeding and unconscious in the street, his face unrecognizable from the barrage of punches and kicks that had torn it apart and broken his jaw, nose, cheekbones and eye sockets.

Sgt. Cosentino Brooklyn
Via Daily News

This act of violence did not occur in a vacuum, according to a followup in the Times the next day.

Early last month, an immigrant was beaten to death with boards and pipes by a group of youths in Dyker Park. Four weeks ago, according to residents, eight or nine members of a group calling itself the Lords of Brooklyn pummeled several Navy officers on 83d Street and Fifth Avenue. Around the same time, another group of youths stabbed someone outside a bar on 84th Street and Third Avenue. Roughly a year ago, members of the Lords of Brooklyn and another group called the Verrazano Boys reportedly tore apart Penny Lane, a bar on 92d Street and Fourth Avenue. It has not reopened.

Last April, two 13-year-old girls got into a fight and one was slashed in the face with broken glass; she needed 77 stitches. And last March, teen-agers torched the park building in McKinley Park, burning it to the ground. According to park authorities, the teens were angry that the graffiti they inscribed on the park house was repeatedly being blotted out. The park house was rebuilt and just recently reopened.

McKinley Park house
Via Forgotten NY

That was thanks to the community, which had raised $5,000 for its restoration. “The structure was refurbished with new walls, door, flooring, paint, and utilities,” according to the parks department. “Mayor Giuliani held his first town hall meeting in the park in 1994,” making it something of a symbol of his urban-renewal project.

Today, the park, like the neighborhood, is sleepier than it was in 1994, though it still fights for attention as it always has: in 2011, after intervention from the local congressmember, the parks department announced it would repair the bathrooms—just three years after they’d gone out of order.

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