The Fort Hamilton Armybase Should Close!

The entrance to Fort Hamilton army base
The entrance to Fort Hamilton armybase, via Google

Fort Hamilton, the armybase opened in 1831, occupies 151 acres on the waterfront between Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights—one and a half times the size of Shore Road, Owl’s Head, McKinley and Cannonball parks combined. It houses a presumably classified number of “active duty Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Reserve Components, retired military, DoD appropriated and Non-appropriated fund employees, contractors and family members.”

Those people can go somewhere else. The armybase should close.

This idea isn’t new. Leaders of this community have wanted, and pushed for, the armybase to close for more than a century. The earliest example I found is from 1906, when the fort’s abolition was advocated by a local booster organization called the West End Board of Trade of Brooklyn. Its recommendation? Turn the military base into a park. At the time, however, Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, future president William Howard Taft, thought the base was still essential for the protection of New York Harbor. “The proposed abolishment of Fort Hamilton comes as a surprise to War Department officials,” the Eagle reported, “who have been busy planning for its enlargement and development into one of the most important forts on the Atlantic coast.”

“Now, while we would like a beautiful park where the fort is located, we must consider the proper defense of the metropolis of this country which promises to be the future metropolis of the world,” the local congressman said a month later. These arguments no longer hold. We would like a beautiful park where the fort is located, period.

Fort Hamilton army base
Brooklyn Eagle, 1906

The issue continued to be raised, because even if the U.S. military couldn’t see, people in Bay Ridge knew that an enormous waterfront park would do much more for the community than an armybase ever could. “Old Fort Hamilton…is due to pass away, if the residents of the vicinity have their way,” the Eagle reported in 1924.

The Fort Hamilton Chamber of Commerce last Wednesday [passed] a resolution…directing the secretary of the association to write to the City Government, to the members of the State Legislature and the Congress at Washington requesting action toward having the fort remodeled into a park…It is contended that the guns have become obsolete and worthless as far as modern warfare is concerned, and it is emphasized that the recent strengthening of fortifications at Sandy Hook and Far Rockaway are sufficient to guard the entrance into New York Bay…

And why not, say the citizens, turn the area into a park—a much-needed park in that vicinity?…[the] commanding officer has thrown the gates open, and on almost any day children are seen making their way in and around the fort. This, instead of helping matters, has brought home more keenly to the residents the possibilities that exist should the fort be turned into a park…

There appears to be no opposition to the movement among residents of the section. The hue and cry comes from army officials. Practically every civic organization is behind the park plan, and there is every indication…that a big fight is in prospect.

That fight was apparently lost by the community, as the base remained open, but the dream persisted. “It is hoped that the United States Government will some day turn the Fort Hamilton reservation over to the city for a shore front park,” the Eagle reported in 1925. This is still our hope!

Fort Hamilton army base
Brooklyn Eagle, 1932

In 1926, a new idea was suggested: what about making it a university? The big guns protecting the harbor had already been moved to Fort Tilden, in the Rockaways, rendering the fort mostly unused. “What a wonderful location this…would be for the Brooklyn university,” this plan’s main booster told the Eagle. (A few years later, the old Crescent Club site, now Fort Hamilton High School, was also considered for a university, as was Owl’s Head Park, but eventually a 40-or-so-acre field in Flatbush was selected—where Brooklyn College is still today.)

The university plan didn’t gain traction, but people kept pushing the park idea. “There are many who believe that Fort Hamilton has outlived its usefulness as a unit of coast defense and have advocated its abolition,” the Brooklyn Standard Union reported in 1927. “It is suggested that a large fort has no place immediately adjacent to a congested city area, which Bay Ridge has become. The Bay Ridge Citizens Association and Chamber of Commerce, among other civic organizations, has been active in crystalizing sentiment for the removal of the fort and the acquisition of the land by the city for park purposes.”

Local congressmember Patrick J. Carley, a Democrat, proposed an ambitious plan in 1931. “The land on which the reservation is located would be very valuable as a national park,” he said. “It overlooks the Narrows when many visitors to America could see it. A beautiful structure would give them a good impression of America…Every one would find real value in a national park and museum.”

Carley added that the war department could still use the park to mobilize troops if it were ever necessary, the Eagle reported.

“How much would development such as you suggest cost?” [Carley] was asked.

“I have no way of ascertaining that,” he replied. “Certainly it would be less than it now costs to maintain it as a military post.

“Posts may be needed by small cities in remote parts of the country for economic reasons, but Fort Hamilton is not required here for any such purpose,” he added.

His plan received the backing of the New York City park department. “All waterfront property that can be acquired by the city would be welcome additions to the park system,” the Eagle reported. Carley also received the support of many local civics. “Bay Ridge gets little from the fort,” the president of the Bay Ridge Chamber of Commerce told the Eagle. “It would get a great deal more with the reservation removed from that site.”

This holds true today, but somehow the community position became reversed. Douglas MacArthur, then a major general and chief of staff of the Army, refused to consider Carley’s plan, according to the Eagle.

According to General MacArthur, Fort Hamilton is a vital point in the inner defense scheme of the City of New York. He stated that it served as an ideal location for the concentration of troops in times of emergency.

Representative Carley…informed [the War Department] that he would withdraw his request if he could be convinced that the fort was a vital need. He did not say that he was yet convinced by the general’s reply.

Over the ensuing decades, MacArthur’s position became the mainstream, and it’s now shibboleth in the neighborhood: save the army base, save Bay Ridge. It comes up every few years when the Pentagon announces it needs to save money by closing inessential bases, which always puts Fort Hamilton at risk. “It’s always going to be on the block [because] it’s not an active training base. It’s not a Fort Dix. It’s not a Fort Campbell,” the chairman of the Fort Hamilton Citizens Action Committee told the Daily News in 2011. (In 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to relocate off the Fort Hamilton base. Supporters of the fort worried this would make it more vulnerable the next time its closure were suggested, and then-Congressmember Michael Grimm got language into a bill that essentially forbade the Corps from moving.)

Fort Hamilton canons
Via Brooklyn Daily, 2015

There’s always a new reason why we supposedly have to save it. Originally, as Taft knew, it was to protect New York City. Fort Hamilton flew its first flag in 1831, built to protect (with Fort Wadsworth opposite) the entrance to New York Harbor; but it was obsolete by 1948, when the last gun was removed. “Never in its history was the fort fired upon, and no combat training takes place there,” the Times reported in 2013.

More recently, new excuses have been offered. After September 11th, it was to fight terrorism; after Superstorm Sandy, it was to coordinate emergency responses. “Times have changed, and so have our nation’s military requirements. Today, much has to do with surveillance, information-­gathering, the detection of potential attacks by terrorists—and the readiness to effectively respond to any that do occur,” according to the FHCAC website (which makes it sound like the army is spying on us). “Fort Hamilton is a very different installation than it was years ago; it has become a key player in all of the areas just mentioned.” But I’m not convinced that military presence requires 150 acres of prime real estate in the middle of our neighborhood—that these jobs couldn’t be performed from elsewhere.

Why should Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights bear the burden of a military presence for the city? That land could be used for the tens of thousands of people who call the neighborhood home, who have put down roots to build a community—as opposed to those who are assigned to live on the base for a few years, re-creating the city in the image of suburban America: calling ICE on the pizza deliver guy, eating fast food from chain restaurants and driving everywhere. (As one local put it on Facebook, “As far as I’m concerned the residents of the Army base are guests in this neighborhood, not the other way around.”) “You may have noticed that Fort Hamilton is not the Pentagon or NATO headquarters,” a character says in the middle of Nelson DeMille’s novel Word of Honor, half of which is set at Fort Hamilton. “The Army considers it the waiting room to oblivion.”

Fort Hamilton
Fort Hamilton army base, via Google

Why keep that waiting room open when it could be a park instead? In New York, we have a rich history of decommissioned military installations going on to become attractive greenspaces, from Fort Wadsworth and Fort Tilden to Montauk Air Force Station. Governor’s Island was transformed from a coast-guard base to the most cutting-edge park in the city (excepting the High Line, perhaps).

Under no circumstances should the base be closed and sold to private developers. It should become public land, with investment from the city and even the feds to adapt its use. The Harbor Defense Museum should be kept (and now people could actually visit it!); the Veterans Hospital wouldn’t have to close; the swimming pool could become a public swimming pool; the fort could continue to host weddings, and the bar and restaurant could even continue to function, raising revenue for the city and the upkeep of the park. Meanwhile, sites such as Robert E. Lee’s old house could be taken over by artists to create public works that honestly grapple with the fort’s Confederate legacy, rather than celebrate it. The apartment complexes along Fort Hamilton Parkway could become senior housing. NYC Ferry could create a stop here under the bridge, making it a destination for people from around the city.

Right now it seems like the armybase offers Bay Ridge nothing but controversy and embarrassment. We don’t need it—and we haven’t, since at least 1906.

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