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The Accidental Playground

Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned

Daniel Campo

Publication Year: 2013

The Accidental Playground explores the remarkable landscape created by individuals and small groups who occupied and rebuilt an abandoned Brooklyn waterfront in Williamsburg. Without formal authority, capital, professional assistance, grand vision, consensus, or coordination with each other, these "vernacular" builders transformed a vacated waterfront railroad yard into a unique setting for recreation and creative endeavor. With the Manhattan skyline as its backdrop, the collapsing piers, eroded bulkhead, and remaining building foundations of the former Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal (BEDT) became the raw materials for various forms of waterside leisure and social spaces. Lacking predetermined rules governing its use, this waterfront evolved into the home turf for unusual and sometimes spectacular recreational, social, and creative subcultures. These included skateboarders who built a short-lived, but nationally renowned skatepark; a twenty-five-piece "public" marching band, fire performance troupes, and a variety of artists, photographers, and filmmakers. At the same time the site also served basic recreational needs of local residents. Collapsing piers became great places to catch fish, sunbathe, or take in the Manhattan skyline; the foundation of a demolished warehouse became an ideal place to practice music or skateboard; rubble-strewn earth became a compelling setting for film and fashion shoots; broken bulkhead became a beach; and thick patches of weeds dotted by ailanthus trees became a jungle. Drawing on a rich mix of documentary strategies including observation, ethnography, photography, and first-person narrative, Daniel Campo probes this accidental playground, allowing those who created it to share and examine their own narratives, perspectives, and conflicts. The multiple constituencies of this Williamsburg waterfront were surprisingly diverse, their stories colorful and provocative. When taken together, Campo argues, they suggest a radical reimagining of urban public space, the waterfront, and the practices by which they are created and maintained. The Accidental Playground, which treats readers to an utterly compelling story, is an exciting and distinctive contribution to the growing literature on the unplanned and the undesigned spaces and activities in cities today.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-x

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pp. 1-8

On June 13, 2000, New York Governor George Pataki announced that the state had agreed to purchase seven acres of waterfront property in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where it would build New York’s 160th state park. With its stunning views of midtown Manhattan, the property was part of a vacant waterfront railroad yard on Williamsburg’s Northside known as the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal or BEDT. Closed in 1983, the yard was for more than...

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1. Discovering and Engaging

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pp. 9-32

From the end of the pier at North 6th Street, I looked back toward the landmass of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A section below me was collapsed, forming an irregularly shaped chasm that stretched across the width of the pier. In a shallow puddle at the bottom of this depression lay a series of well-eroded wood beams in layers both along and perpendicular to the length of the pier—the wood cribbing that had provided the pier’s foundation. Several of these...

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2. The Rise and Fall of Shantytown Skatepark

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pp. 33-66

From the street, BEDT might have seemed an unlikely venue for skateboarding, a sport dependent on continuous paved surfaces. But tucked behind the terminal’s only remaining building were two long expanses of concrete, each slightly pitched toward the water. These were the one-time foundations of freight houses into which bulk materials were unloaded from rail cars that ran on flanking tracks. While concrete is the preferred medium for skateboarders, these surfaces were covered with so much garbage, debris, and weeds that they hardly suggested a potential skateboarder’s...

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3. March and Burn

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pp. 67-100

The skateboarders were not the only creative constituency that made regular use of the Slab. The dynamic conditions of this building foundation—expansiveness, relative flatness, and a lack of obstructions—also lent itself to a number of other practices, performances, and events. Many of these activities occurred on an ad hoc basis, and practitioners appropriated as much concrete as they needed. But the waterfront did have its “resident” performers— a punk rock marching band and a troupe of fire performers—who exploited the lack of rules and supervision, and...

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4. Outside Art

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pp. 101-132

On the first day of December 2001—a Saturday—dozens of people enjoyed unusually temperate conditions at BEDT. In the fading afternoon light, warm air prevailed and the many who remained—some still in short sleeves—were momentarily distracted from their leisure pursuits when an old beat-up truck with Massachusetts plates rumbled onto the terminal, entering from the usually locked North 7th Street gate. Stopping seventy-five yards in, the truck...

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5. Local Tales

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pp. 133-158

Aside from those living there, BEDT’s most regular constituency was a group of middle-aged working-class men from the immediate neighborhoods who came in good weather and bad, on weekdays and weekends, in the day, evening, and sometimes at night. These men—the “locals,” as I will call them—made BEDT their informal social club, spending many hours hanging out, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and an occasional joint, reading, listening to...

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6. Residential Life

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pp. 159-184

While the neighborhood locals were probably the longest-tenured recreators of the North Brooklyn waterfront, they were not the constituency that spent the most time at the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal. As the locals and others socialized, sunbathed, fished, or pursued art or sport, a group of homeless men carried on with the mundane activities of life, often just feet away. Each night somewhere between three and three dozen people slept at BEDT...

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7. Neighbors Against Garbage

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pp. 185-216

Many of the insurgent agents that appropriated BEDT for recreative and other purposes were largely unaware of or unconcerned about the broader conflict over the future redevelopment of the Williamsburg waterfront. As the 1990s progressed, more people began to discover and use the Northside waterfront for more activities, more of the time. And by the turn of the millennium, the sheer volume of users and the regularity of their activities surely suggested, as a...

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8. Unplanned Postscript

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pp. 217-240

In early 2005, I received an unexpected e-mail from Chip Place, the recently hired director of Capital Facilities and Planning for the New York City Regional Office of State Parks. He had inherited the BEDT park project and was interested in my research. Now that the NYU partnership was dead, he wanted to discuss ideas for the design and program of the terminal, particularly those involving interim use. I had been pursuing State Parks for more than three years at...

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9. Planning for the Unplanned

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pp. 241-264

Hanging out with the Hungry March Band one afternoon in 2001, I asked one of the saxophone players, Emily, how she felt about letting her nine-year-old son, Sam, run around BEDT as they practiced. Was she worried about broken glass, rusty or sharp edges, hard surfaces, or something more unsavory lurking in the margins? “You must think that I am a terrible mom,” she replied, somewhat defensively. After thinking about it some more she said, “I’m concerned...


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pp. 265-284

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pp. 285-286

This book was a long and complicated undertaking. It would have been impossible without the contributions of so many people. Foremost, I thank Anne Leonard, whose love, patience, and enthusiasm sustained this project. She also read an untold number of drafts, provided companionship on numerous trips to the waterfront, and kept my my lo-gistics in order. I also thank my parents, Seena and Vincent Campo, who supported and encouraged me in countless ways. They took utter delight in this work, and I enjoyed sharing it with them. Just as I began final corrections in June ...


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pp. 287-292


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pp. 305-320

E-ISBN-13: 9780823252053
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823251865
Print-ISBN-10: 0823251861

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 16 4/c, 50 b/w
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Paper

OCLC Number: 859159630
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Accidental Playground

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Recreation -- New York (State) -- Brooklyn.
  • Communities -- New York (State) -- Brooklyn.
  • Waste lands -- New York (State) -- Brooklyn -- Recreational use.
  • Waterfronts -- New York (State) -- Brooklyn -- Recreational use.
  • Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal.
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