Governor’s Island: What Might Have Been

Governor’s Island, Detail, 1911 New York Dock Dock Company Lithograph
Governor's Island
When we bought our house about three years ago, one of the attractions was “old house romance.” The previous owner believed the house had been in her family since it was built in 1900. I’ve written previously about finding a 1911 lithograph of the New York Dock Company in the basement. Earlier this week, Peter Miller, the new owner of Freebird books in Columbia Waterfront/Red Hook, contacted me by email asking for permission to use one of my photos of it:

Anyone living in the neighborhood, particularly Red Hook, will be familiar with the New York Dock Company’s remnants–hulking gray warehouses that must make Dumbo-drooling Corcoran agents weak in the knees. Seldom however do we get a chance to see a bird’s eye view of their domain, which once sprawled over two and a half miles of waterfront. The lithograph provides a rare peek at the commerce that transpired along the banks of Governors Island and Brooklyn.
– December 28, 2007, Peter Miller, Freebird Books

Miller goes on to write more about the history of Governor’s Island, and how it was nearly lost to infrastructure development.

In 1898 (the year Brooklyn became a borough of New York City), an assemblyman proposed using the island as a center span anchor for a bridge between Red Hook and the Battery. Proof that real estate value has never been far from New York’s beating heart, the assemblyman argued that the bridge “would cause a phenomenal development in South Brooklyn.”

That cheap promise would be reprised forty years later when Robert Moses demanded the very same public works project–but on a far grander scale. Given wide-ranging powers by La Guardia in 1938, Moses tried to reallocate the money meant for a tunnel to build a monumental (in all senses of the word) bridge that would hopscotch across Governors Island.

Today we have this view from Valentino Pier of both Governor’s Island and Downtown Manhattan.
Governor's Island, Downtown Manhattan, and ATF Pier
This view was saved, in part, by opposition from community leaders in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, and, in part, by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt:

Moses’s threats and ultimatums cowed city and state officials into submission. All he needed was the federal government’s rubber stamp. But, unforeseen, Eleanor Roosevelt publicly questioned the bridge’s impact: “Isn’t there room for some consideration of the preservation of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us on an overcrowded island?” The bridge’s opponents had infiltrated the White House. FDR allowed the War Department to kill the project and favor a tunnel out of national security concerns (but more likely out of spite).

Related Posts

1911 New York Dock Company Lithograph


Freebird Books, 123 Columbia Street (GMAP), Brooklyn, New York 11231

December 8, Red Hook: Observing the Edge

This looks interesting:

Brooklynites know better than anyone the havoc that development can wreak on a habitat. So on Saturday, Dec. 8, the Kentler International Drawing Space in Red Hook will host an artist’s talk on “Observing the Edge,” the gallery’s current show, which features works on paper relating to flora and fauna with habitats threatened by progressive development.

… anyone who has seen plants, or any other living creatures, displaced by development will surely want to take notice.
Cutting ‘Edge’, Daniel Goldberg, The Brooklyn Paper

(Note: The Brooklyn Paper gave the date incorrectly as 12/4.)


Kentler International Drawing Space
353 Van Brunt Street
Red Hook/Brooklyn, New York 11231
Tel: 718-875-2098

Gowanus Nursery under threat

Updated 22:00 EDT: Added links, maps, and legend.

Gowanus Nursery, as it appeared on their opening day this Spring
Gowanus Nursery
I received the following email this afternoon through the Gowanus Nursery mailing list.

On Wednesday August 22, a small group of business owners, employees and clients attended a city planning meeting that was to decide the fate of a few parcels of land located on Summit and Carroll streets.

The likely outcome is that Gowanus Nursery (45 Summit Street) will be forced to move, once again.

Remarkably, this change is a thinly disguised ‘spot zoning’ to allow for a residential development in a grandfathered commercial zone. This action, in the words of Community Board 6, has been the most aggressive use of ULURP (re-zoning) procedures that the current board has ever seen, forcing out active and flourishing businesses to make way for residential development.

Borough President Marty Markowitz’s recommendations suggest that the nursery occupied lot provides property owners the opportunity to lease under-developed land with minimal investment (part true since the only investment came in the form of our own labor and financial funding.) There seems something fundamentally wrong with labeling well-used open ‘green’ space as ‘under-developed’.

On a personal note, I am frustrated not only by the futility of the work we have already logged here, but also by the casual way that zoning change is happening in ‘our’ neighborhood. Last year, you, my customers and colleagues came to offer your services during the first move. Now, I ask for your help to help save this ‘green oasis’ from perishing in the changes affecting all of Brooklyn.

One of the questions asked by the city planning commissioners was “We have heard a lot of testimony about how this is the ‘best’ nursery, could you please give some definite examples to support this statement?” Well, we hope that our garden making has been successful; stimulating ideas and offering advice, suggesting different ways of seeing plants and how they affect our environment directly and indirectly. Of course, something akin to a mission remains: providing to gardeners experience-based knowledge and the broadest selection of perennial plants for Brooklyn gardens.

We hope that you can take the time to email the following parties to let them know in a few words what makes us an important part of the neighborhood and the whole Brooklyn experience.

Council representative – Bill de Blasio,;
City Council Speaker – Christine Quinn,;
Land Use Committee Chairperson – Melinda R. Katz,;
Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The following are some statements to paste into your appeal:

It’s impossible to run a nursery without land.

Businesses such as these provide necessary services to the community, and are the reason we choose Brooklyn.

Please help Gowanus Nursery to remain a Brooklyn institution.

I located a map of the proposed zoning change. This was certified to begin ULURP as far back as May 14th of this year.

Proposed Zoning Change Affecting Gowanus Nursery

The area enclosed by the dotted line is proposed to be rezoned by changing from an M1-1 District to an R6 District. The heavy solid lines indicate where the Zoning District Boundaries would like after the proposed zoning change. To become effective, the proposed changes must be approved first by the City Planning Commission, then the City Council.

Here’s a map, courtesy of OASIS-NYC, that shows the current uses of 45 Summit Street and nearby properties:

Gowanus Nursery, 45 Summit Street

Legend image1 & 2 Family Residential
Legend imageMulti-family Residential (3 or more Residential Units)
Legend imageMixed Use (Residential and Commercial)
Legend imageCommercial
Legend imageInstitutions
Legend imageTransportation & Parking
Legend imageIndustrial (corresponds to Zoning’s “Manufacturing” designation)
Legend imageVacant Lots

Comparing these two maps, it appears that most of the properties along Carroll Street within the proposed zoning change are already in residential use. The proeprties along Summit Street, however, are in industrial use, consistent with their M-1 Zoning designation.

The question of whether or not Gowanus is “the best” nursery is a red herring. This seems like a suspiciously convenient carve-out for someone. Who is going to reap the windfall from eminent domain-style tactics that strip privileges from one group and class of residents to benefit another?


Other Gardens: Red Hook’s Summit Street Community Garden

[2007.04.05: Corrected some typos.]
[2007.04.02 21:00: Updated with my notes from Saturday’s visit.]

Locations of Gowanus Nursery (red outline) and nearby Community Gardens (labelled light green areas) in Red Hook
Location of Gowanus Nursery and Community Gardens in Red Hook

A pleasant discovery when I visited Gowanus Nursery on Saturday is that there are three community gardens within one block of each other:

  • Summit Street Community Garden, at the corner of Summit Street and Columbia Street
  • Backyard Garden, at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Van Brunt Street
  • Amazing Garden, at the corner of Carroll Street and Columbia Street

I was able to visit the first two gardens before and after, respectively, I visited Gowanus Nursery. This post is about the Summit Street garden. I’ll have another for the Backyard Garden.

Let me walk you around the garden, roughly in the order I experienced it.

The garden is surrounded by a simple and attractive green steel fence. A really nice inviting feature is the round, head-sized hole interrupting the vertical bars in the gates. Yes, I tested them; they really are head-sized. You can stick your head through and look around inside without the bars in the way. It’s a simple touch, a grace note, but it says, to me, at least: Sorry we weren’t here when you were. Please come back again.

Entrance Gate
Entrance Gate, Summit Street Community Garden, Red Hook

But the gates were open when I got there. Just inside the gates is a dry-laid bluestone landing area, with dry-laid brick paths guiding you forward. The walls of the adjacent buildings ahead of you are at the North side of the garden. We’ll see the border there in a bit.

Entrance Path
Entrance Path, Summit Street Community Garden

I got to meet and speak with two of the gardeners, Kevin King and Claire Merlino. They explained that all the brick and stone used in the garden came from the buildings which used to stand here.

Note to all demolition sites: There is no excuse for throwing out brick and stone in dumpsters destined for landfill. Every garden wants brick and stone. Gardeners, community and others, have lots of creative uses for these durable and attractive materials.

The Rock Garden

To the right of the entrance is the rock garden. Whenever you have to clear a building site for gardening, you will have building debris which is unsuitable for paving, wall-building, and so on. This got piled up near the edge of the property, with the thought that it would eventually get cleared away. As time passed, it also got put to creative reuse, and became a rock garden.

Rock Garden
Rock Garden, Summit Street Community Garden

Rock Garden
Rock Garden, Summit Street Community Garden

Iris reticulata in the Rock Garden
Iris reticulata, Summit Street Community Garden

Erica carnea, Spring Heath, in the Rock Garden
Heath, Summit Street Community Garden

Community in the Garden

The garden got its start in late 1993. The first clean-up was in Spring of 1994. Trash and rubbish had to be removed, but they also needed cleanfill.

There are three building lots here. With the buildings collapsed, there was a large central depression which had to be filled. Gardeners used rocks to tag piles from the nearby Snapple warehouse excavation which they could use for fill in the garden. One of the workers on the site went one better and selected the darkest material he could find and delivered it to the garden; darkest, because it was contaminated with oil from the excavation site. With that teachable moment, the workers came back and removed the “good” stuff and replaced it with the real soil the gardeners had tagged.

Every community garden also needs to balance common and individual planting areas. I like these raised beds as a flexible solution for private planting areas. They’re rectangular with 2:1 proportions; I’m not sure if they’re 4×8 foot or 3×6 foot. Members can subscribe to a full- or half-bed. I also like that the beds are aligned but not on a regular grid, which creates interesting paths through the garden.

Planting Beds
Planting Beds, Summit Street Community Garden

Every community garden also needs to coordinate the needs of the garden with the availability of its members. To the left of the entrance is this sign-up station. The book and pencil are protected, and the stand itself is an attractive garden feature.

Sign-Up Station
Sign-Up Station, Summit Street Community Garden

The West Border

Along Columbia Street is the West Border, one of the common areas.

West border
West border, Summit Street Community Garden

Daffodils and Crocus
Daffodils and Crocus, Summit Street Community Garden

The North Border

Opposite the entrance on Summit Street, against the adjacent building, is the North Border.

The North border
Hellebores and Narcissus in the North border, Summit Street Community Garden

Hellebores and Narcissus in the North border
Hellebores and Daffodils, Summit Street Community Garden

There seemed to be hundreds of Iris reticulata in bloom when I visited. Claire said that there would have been more except that the squirrels considered them a delicacy and devoured most of what had been planted last fall.

Finally, Claire is looking for someone to adopt this Castor Aralia tree. Leave a comment if you or someone you know is interested.

Kalopanax septemlobus (syn. K. pictus), Castor Aralia
Castor Aralia, Summit Street Community Garden

Cinder Block & Razor Wire: Opening Day at Gowanus Nursery in Red Hook

Signage, Gowanus Nursery
It was a beautiful day to visit Gowanus Nursery. I bought six plants, just enough to fill the two shopping bags I brought. They threw me off when they gave me an extra Columbine, a survivor from their old location which they were giving to customers today to celebrate their re-opening. They also had some beautiful pre-planted trough gardens. If I’d had personal transportation I would have given them more attention.

This space is on a much wider lot than their old 3rd street location, better suited to wandering amongst the generous displays of plants. They have lots of elbow room to bring in more plants, and spread out their stock as it gets larger during the season. Construction of shelters and other structures was still going on when I visited. Will be interesting to see when everything’s put together.

Many more photos below. Or visit the Flickr set.

Gowanus NurseryGowanus NurseryRock Garden Plants, Gowanus NurseryTrough Garden and Rock Garden Plants, Gowanus NurseryTrollius laxus, Gowanus NurseryBee and Tulips, Gowanus NurserySignage, Gowanus NurseryGowanus Nursery

Gowanus NurseryFlats and more, Gowanus NurseryFlats of Pansies, Gowanus NurseryFlats of Pansies, Gowanus NurseryFlats and Plants, Gowanus NurseryFlower and foliage, Gowanus NurseryNursery Stock, Gowanus Nursery

Related content

Flickr photo set of opening day

Off to Gowanus in Red Hook

I’m off to visit Gowanus Nursery on their Grand Re-Opening Day on Summit Street in Red Hook. I’ve got my eye on some native plants, especially Opuntia and Aristolochia, neither of which I’ve grown before, nor are they common garden plants. I’m also on the lookout for some unusual drought-tolerant flowering plants for the front garden window-boxes.

Without a driver’s license, and with my partner not being a morning person, I have to solve the problem of finding the shortest path over the direct acyclic graph of Brooklyn transit on the weekends. We’ll see how long it takes me to get there and back!

Native Plant Offerings at Gowanus Nursery

[Updated 2007.03.28 13:00: More notes, and started adding references.]
[Updated 2007.03.27 13:00: Added more notes, comments and links.]

I’m looking forward to the re-opening of Gowanus Nursery this Saturday. I really liked their old location on 3rd Street (I think it was) in Gowanus. Now they will be on Summit Street in Red Hook.

Their Web site indicates they will have the same great selection they had at their old location. Here are all the plants listed under Perennials, Native Species, on the Offerings page, along with some of my notes and comments.

  • Adiantum pedatum, Maidenhair Fern [My favorite fern, unlike anything else. I established a large colony of it in Garden #1 in the East Village.]
  • Amsonia hubrechtii ‘Blue Star’, Blue Milkweed
  • Arisaema draconitum Green Dragon
  • Arisaema triphyllum, Jack in the Pulpit [I grew this in Garden #1. It’s one of my favorite wildflowers.]
  • Aristolochia durior, Dutchman’s Pipe [Seems miscategorized, as this is a woody vine, not a perennial; dies this really grow back 30′ in one year? Correct botanical name is A. macrophylla, “big leaf”, which is certainly is. NYFA lists this as “Not Native” to New York state, with distributions in eastern Long Island and scattered upstate counties. I want to grow this up the side of our Victorian house. References: NYFA:150, PLANTS:ARMA7]
  • Asarum canadense, Wild Ginger [I grew this in Garden #1. Another favorite. Its foliage is its main garden contribution. I find the flowers interesting, but they’re hidden beneath the leaves.]
  • Asclepias tuberosa, Butterfly Weed [It’s sooo orange, this plant just makes me smile.]
  • Asplenium platyneuron, Harts Tongue Fern [A non-ferny fern, beautiful glossy green smooth leaves, it’s a great foliage contrast for other shade plants.]
  • Caltha palustris ‘Multiplex’, Marsh Marigold [double-flowered]
  • Camassia cusickii, Wild Hyacinth [Often available from bulb vendors.]
  • Chasmanthium latifolium, Northern Sea Oats [A native grass.]
  • Dryopteris erythrosora, Autumn Fern [There are several native Dryopteris, but this one’s a Japanese species, not native. Nevertheless, an excellent shade plant, it doesn’t go brown at the first touch of drought. I grew this in Garden #1.]
  • Erythronium americanum, Trout Lily/Dog Tooth Violet [A sweet ephemeral – it goes dormant in the summer – this is in the Lily family.]
  • Eupatorium ‘Little Joe’, Joe Pye weed [Butterfly and bee magnets. Presumably this is a dwarf variety. I prefer the tall varieties.]
  • Hepatica nobilis, Liverwort [I grew this under the name H. acutiloba in Garden #1.]
  • Iris cristata, Dwarf flag Iris [It’s picky about siting. I grew this in Garden and it moved with us. it thrived in both locations. I transplanted it last year and it vanished. Needs light mulch. Its rhizomes scramble over the soil surface, sending roots out and down. It languishes in a level area. It thrives when grown on a slight slope. Wants consistently moist, but not wet, soil.]
  • Liatris spicata, Gay feather [I love the common name, of course. It’s also a butterfly magnet. Long-blooming.]
  • Lonicera sempervirens ‘John Clayton’, [Trumpet] Honeysuckle [Long-blooming. I grew this yellow-flowering variety of the native trumpet honeysuckle at Garden #2 in Park Slope. It’s not as attractive to hummingbirds as the species and red-flowering varieties are, but it’s a beautiful plant in flower. I started growing a red-orange variety in Garden whose name I forget. It moved with us to my current gardens and bloomed into December last year.]
  • Matteuccia struthiopteris, Ostrich fern [Soft and feathery, this browns and crisps quickly without steady moisture.]
  • Mazus reptans
  • Meehania cordata [New to me. In the Mint family. Not native to New York.]
  • Mitchella repens, Partridge Berry [A delicate-looking groundcover. I’ve seen this growing in the wild, scrambling around the roots of hemlocks.]
  • Mitella japonica variegata, Miterwort [I don’t know this one, but japonica tells me it’s native to Japana, not North America. There are other species of Mitella native to New York state, but none native to NYC or Long Island that I can find.]
  • Opuntia humifusa, Prickly Pear Cactus [I want some of this!]
  • Osmunda cinnamomea, Cinnamon fern [Fiddleheads!]
  • Osmunda regalis, Regal Fern [Needs constant moisture, as it browns easily.]
  • Pachysandra procumbens, Allegheny pachysandra [So much more beautiful than the wretched common Pachysandra.]
  • Polygonatum biflorum, Solomon’s Seal [Another delicate-looking but tough woodland wildflower. Grow this in an elevated position so you can see the flowers, which dangle below the stems.]
  • Rhexia virginica, Meadow Beauty [Also new to me.]
  • Rudbeckia maxima, Giant coneflower [Of course I want to know: HOW giant? HOW maxima?!]
  • Sanguinaria canadensis, Bloodroot [I grew a lovely double-flowering variety of this which looked like white waterlilies in Garden #1.]
  • Scleranthus biflorus [I don’t know this one either.]
  • Spigelia marilandica, Indian Pink
  • Tellima grandiflora [Native only to Western and Northwestern states, not to the Northeast.]
  • Trillium grandiflorum [A classic wildflower, slow to establish.]
  • Uvularia perfoliata, Bellwort
  • Verbena ‘Snow Flurry’ [This seems to be mis-categorized as a “native species”. North Creek Nurseries identifies this as a hybrid yet also describes this as “Native to US”.]
  • Vernonia fasciculata, Ironweed [Good for bees and butterflies.]
  • Vernonia novaeborascensis, Ironweed [More for the bees and butterflies.]
  • Viola pedata, Birds Foot Violet
  • Waldsteinia ternata, Barren Strawberry

Related posts:


  • Drosera, the business Web site of Marielle Anzelone, has lots of plants lists, design tips, and other information for using native plants in New York City gardens.
  • The New York Flora Association Atlas and the USDA PLANTS Database are excellent tools for researching native plants and their distributions and characteristics. They also contain information about invasive plants.

Gowanus Canal at 9th Street, Brooklyn

Gowanus Canal, looking north from the 9th Street Bridge
Gowanus Canal, North of Ninth Street Bridge

Last Sunday, the Historic District Council‘s Walking Tour of Red Hook began with all of us gathering on the “plaza” outside the Smith & 9th Street station. This station is the highest point above sea level in the NYC subway system. The reason: it has to cross the Gowanus Canal.

The Gowanus Canal has had a deserved reputation for polluted, even toxic, waters. Several years ago, a circulation fan at the head of the canal was repaired, returning water flow to the canal for the first time in decades. Almost immediately, water conditions improved, and life began to return to its waters.

Gowanus Canal, North of the Bridge

Gowanus Canal
Gowanus Canal
Gowanus Canal, North Side of Ninth Street Bridge
Gowanus Canal

All along the New York waterfront, bulkheads and piers are failing. For decades, water pollution preserved the wooden pilings. With improved water quality, shipworms have returned and are devastating the wood. You can see a bulkhead failure in the photo below.

Failing Bulkheads, Gowanus Canal, Ninth Street Bridge

I think this planter qualifies as a defiant garden. There were a couple of them along the edge on the northwest side of the bridge. I want to come back in the spring to see what’s growing in them.

Planter, Gowanus Canal

South of the Bridge

South of the bridge, the Gowanus Expressway crosses over the canal.

Gowanus Canal, South of Ninth Street Bridge

Earlier this week, the Gowanus Lounge noted that the Revere Sugar Dome demolition material was being carted to a scrapyard on the Gowanus. When I was there on Sunday, I noticed activity at the scrapyard south of the bridge. I think it’s the same one. If so, here’s the remains of the Revere Sugar Dome in action.

Crane in Action, Gowanus Canal
Crane in Action, Gowanus Canal

The Bridge

The Gowanus Canal is a working waterway. There isn’t enough room for the street bridge beneath the subway station to tilt up, so it lifts vertically, straight up. You can see the cables against the column on the left of this photo.

Ninth Street Bridge

Here’s the hardware connecting the counterweight, the top of which you can see here, to the cables.

Elevator Counterweight, Ninth Street Bridge

The understructure of the subway platform is completely wrapped to contain concrete spalling off beams and trusses.


Every public structure in NYC is a branding opportunity.

Plaque, Ninth Street Bridge

The View from Above

The station platform, and the approach on either side, of the Smith & 9th Street station provide wonderful views of Brooklyn and New York Harbor.

Kentile Floors
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty, from Smith & 9th Street Station Platform


Waterfront Museum, Red Hook, Brooklyn

[Updated 2007.03.14: Added links to Related Posts.]

The Waterfront Museum was one of the highlights of yesterday’s walking tour of Red Hook, Brooklyn, associated with the Historic District Council‘s 13th Annual Preservation Conference. Myself, I could have spent two hours there alone. The story of the barge, not to mention the people and characters involved in saving and restoring it, is fascinating. I want to go back when the water is warmer!

It was also visual overload. I couldn’t capture everything. Here’s what I got.

Waterfront Museum Barge, Red Hook

Waterfront Museum Barge, Red Hook

Pier 41

Statue of Liberty

David Sharps Speaks to the HDC Red Hook Walking Tour

David Sharps

Rope Ball

Hinge and Hasp


Barge Bunny

Block and Tackle

Chest Hardware

David Sharps

Wooden Propeller Blade, Detail

Kinetic Musical Sculpture

Going ...... going ...... gone!

Musical Sculpture

Related Posts:

HDC Red Hook Walking Tour

Beard and Robinson Warehouse, Beard Street, Red Hook
[Updated 2007.03.14: Changed post title to link to my Collection – a feature Flickr just added yesterday – of my Sets of photos from the tour. Added links to Related Posts.]
[Updated 2007.03.12: Added several images.]

Today I went on a Walking Tour of Red Hook, sponsored by the the Historic District Council. This and several other tours were organized to cap their 13th Annual Preservation Conference, which I attended all day yesterday.

Follow the link from the title of this post to see today’s pictures. I managed to whittle down more than half of the photos I took today. That still leaves over 200 photos. I have massive editing to do. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite images of the day.

Lamb Baited Area

Barge Bunny

Entran No 6

School Bus Emergency Door

Fish Heads, Valentino Pier

Our Lady of the Corner of Garnet and Court Streets, Botanica de la Milagrosa

Block and Tackle

Cobblestones, Van Dyke Street

Open and Shut

Gowanus Canal

Salt Dunes

Related Posts: