In a bid to rewrite a wrongly re-written history, a group of Park Slopers wants to change the name of J.J. Byrne Park so that it re-honors its original namesake — the one and only George Washington.
The park, which is bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues and Third and Fourth streets, is currently named for an obscure Depression-era borough president.
The Beep vs. the Father of our Country? That’s about as fair a fight as Ron Paul vs. John McCain.
And J.J. Byrne is the loser in that metaphor, said Kim Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House, the recreated 17th-century Dutch farmhouse in the park.
“J.J. Byrne usurped the park,” Maier said, explaining that the current site had been Washington Park, the first professional baseball field in the country, since the 1800s. The site earned the name because it was near a pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of a group of Maryland soldiers under the command of General William Alexander (don’t worry, he has a junior high school named after him nearby), Washington and the rest of the rag-tag American army was able to flee across Gowanus Creek and to safety in Manhattan.
“We’re merely changing the name of the park back to what it originally had,” said Maier.
Perhaps, but let us take a moment to praise J.J. Byrne before he’s buried forever.
Byrne was appointed to the borough presidency in 1926, after the death of legendary Beep Joseph Guilder. Byrne completed the term and was re-elected in 1929, but himself died in office the following year.
He’s credited with initiating or completing construction of the Municipal Building on Joralemon Street and the Central Court Building (now Brooklyn Criminal Court) on Schermerhorn Street.
His proclivity for grand construction was foreshadowed by his previous work as Brooklyn’s Commissioner of Public Works.
In that context, Maier’s support for the return of George Washington is particularly ironic, given that Byrne was the borough president who rebuilt the Old Stone House in 1930.
The possible switch at the Park Slope park is part of a larger “name change fever” in the city. Last year, PS 94 in Sunset Park changed its name from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow School to the School of Diverse Languages and Cultures. In Bedford-Stuyvesant in February, residents put up signs on portions of Gates Avenue, re-naming it after Sonny Carson, even though the city had voted against the name change.
“The whole politics of renaming in New York has taken off,” said Leonard Benardo, co-author of “Brooklyn By Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names.”
Benardo said the Sept. 11 attacks catalyzed the naming frenzy with more than 40 streets being co-named for victims — but the curious case of J.J. Byrne Park is an example of a different force: the erosion of local memory.
But the most famous man with wooden teeth already has phallic monuments, bridges and universities named in his honor, so why demote a Brooklyn Beep whose memory will forever fade?
Because the public tends to focus on historical luminaries.
“We place primacy on those who represent the more significant progenitors of American democracy,” Benardo told The Brooklyn Paper.
Hence, we remember only the people we would remember anyway.
Naming everything after George Washington or Thomas Jefferson “limits our scope of how local history unfolded,” said Benardo.
The full Community Board 6 was scheduled to vote on rechristening J.J. Byrne Park on March 12.
©2008 Community News Group
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