Former Naval Hospital Cemetery turned publicly-accessible native plant habitat
The Naval Cemetery Landscape (NCL), a nearly two acre memorial meadow and pollinator habitat, is the perfect escape to nature in New York City. It is the site of the former Brooklyn Naval Hospital cemetery, but in the last five years, it has been thoughtfully restored from a vacant derelict lot into a beautiful, fecund, wildflower meadow.
This place is magical, and everyone that visits can attest to its beauty and restorative powers. Off of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway, nestled into a forgotten corner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, most people don’t come to the NCL as destination— but tend to happily stumble upon it en route to somewhere else. These types of places tend to be the best in somewhere like NYC, since they’re unexpected and you can let yourself be taken away by them with no prior expectations. In the wintertime, the elevated boardwalk allows you to stroll through a snowy wonderland. You might see a bright red cardinal flying from tree to tree, a sign of life and movement in the quieter months. In spring and summer, you can spend hours closely examining a miner bee, a Monarch butterfly, a native plant that you might have never seen in the city before. Or you can spend hours sitting in the amphitheater watching the dance of pollinators and birds as they fly in patterns above the meadow. In fall, the changing colors or leaves on the Red Maples signal the change of seasons and mark the beginning of the meadow’s dormant period. All of this in less than two acres of rich habitat, adding to the history of the site. From pre colonial times, to Brooklyn’s heyday as an agricultural hub, to working orchard, to hospital burial plot, to ball field, to abandoned lot, to now a magnificent urban green space, the NCL’s layered history reminds visitors of the buried stories that all of NYC’s best places have.
The physical details of the place are impeccable. You notice first that there is really no signage at this “park.” Sometimes people wander up to the entrance threshold and ask, “What is this? What do we do? Can we go in?” But those who stay awhile are rewarded with the satisfaction of having discovered the possibilities of not being told what to do, of enjoying nature, of pure observation. The perceived lack of details allow the trees, flowers, insects, and birds to shine. But once you dig deeper, you realize that the details in design were heavily agonized over. The boards walk is seamlessly weaving through the meadow, constructed of native Black Locust timber. The amphitheater seating appears to have been lifted from the boardwalk, with its wooden beams perfectly symmetrical to the boardwalk below it. The plants that were established in the meadow appeared first in a linear pattern, but have since drifted to mimic a more natural palette. These are the physical details of a place that is “new”— the NCL has only been open to the public in this form for five years, but the details are an homage to the land’s past. This sacred ground will remain untouched for what I hope is centuries. There is no way that this land can be bulldozed to build condos, its a cemetery after all.
Since this urban meadow is off of the beaten path, most people that come across it refer to it as a “hidden gem.” On most days its quiet, with less than ten people visiting in the hour. On weekends it gets busier, with more than a hundred people visiting during open hours. As more and more people discover this place, the amount of people that visit will have an impact on its energy and perhaps an impact on the bird and bug population. However, since it is a cemetery and there are still remains of burials at the site, there is very little threat to develop or change it in the near future.
I’m nominating this place because it has been a home to my beehives for the past five years. Since I’ve been in NYC it has been their home. The bees have connected me with the natural world in the concrete jungle, and visiting them at the NCL has opened up my senses and forced me to notice the change in seasons. I miss going there and connecting with other humans over a common sense that this place matters. That in the middle of development, a small urban meadow is vital to the health and well being of humans, since it slows our heart rates and gives us fresh air to breath. I miss connecting with other humans through sharing our love of pollinators. When was the last time you stood with five strangers just to bear witness to a migrating Monarch butterfly? When the Naval Cemetery Landscape reopens to the public, I am excited to commune with people in nature again. I hope that it reopens before spring has passed, before all of the bearded foxgloves come into bloom. I’ve already missed the blooms of service berries and redbuds and fruit trees, but there are still sunflowers and goldenrods to look forward to!
(added April 2020)