The Accidental Playground
Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: Fordham University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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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...
1. Discovering and Engaging
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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...
2. The Rise and Fall of Shantytown Skatepark
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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...
3. March and Burn
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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...
4. Outside Art
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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...
5. Local Tales
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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...
6. Residential Life
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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...
7. Neighbors Against Garbage
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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...
8. Unplanned Postscript
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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...
9. Planning for the Unplanned
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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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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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Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 16 4/c, 50 b/w
Publication Year: 2013