by Kevin Walsh

Best known for “Leaves of Grass,” the revolutionary collection of twelve poems (expanded on in later editions) that first appeared in 1855, as well as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “I Sing The Body Electric,” Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island, in 1819. The young Walt worked as a typesetter and pressman in the 1830s for a couple of Brooklyn newspapers. After trying his hand at fiction in the 1830s, he took over as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1846, a post he would keep until 1848, leaving in a dispute over abolition (Whitman was anti-slavery, Eagle owners weren’t. The Eagle continued to publish until 1955).

In 1861, Whitman would move to Washington, DC, to aid in the Civil War effort (he worked as a nurse’s aide in a hospital) and would not spend as much time as he used to in New York City…but not before penning a series of essays published in the Brooklyn Standard called his Brooklyniana.

While editing the Eagle, Whitman pressed for a public park in the area, and in 1847, Washington Park, named for the President, began development. Whitman lived nearby, at 99 Ryerson Street in a building that is still standing, and it’s not surprising he wanted a park near his home.

Washington Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the architects who went on to develop Central and Prospect Parks. It was officially opened in 1850; in 1897 the park was renamed for Fort Greene, which by then had become a handsome residential neighborhood. The two-block stretch of Cumberland Street lining Fort Greene Park’s eastern side is still called Washington Park.

For its part, the 3-story 99 Ryerson, just north of Myrtle Avenue, is still there. It’s seen the Myrtle El come and go (1888-1969) and its original Italianate features have long been stripped away in favor of aluminum siding. No historic plaque marks it as a historic home, and likely few area residents are aware of its status.

The dependable Montrose Morris of Brownstoner has much more.


1 comment

Steve Smith April 3, 2017 - 12:04 am

The Brownstoner item lists architect “unknown” but it is conceivably Walt himself and/or his brothers.
Whitman often lived in buildings his family had recently erected. In his era, developing NYC/Brooklyn homes was similar to “flipping” today; as many who did so were not wealthy and after the construction loans were paid off the profits were small.
Whitman’ s family built many houses, but somehow they were always on the edge of ruin and at times they rented houses they had constructed and owned from the party they had sold it to.


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