History in the naming! The great Wallabout debate • Brooklyn Paper

History in the naming! The great Wallabout debate

He’s Wallabout it: Neighborhood booster Chad Purkey leads historical tours of the area some call Wallabout.
Photo by Steven Schnibbe

A naming dispute is simmering over what to call the area between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Myrtle Avenue.

Some are calling it Wallabout, preservationists, The New York Times, and the organizers of the Wallabout Film Festival among them. Others, including residents of the area, say Wallabout is nothing more than a fancy name for the part of Fort Greene that is far from the subway.

“No one near me calls it Wallabout,” said Jennifer, who lives on Cumberland Street a half-block from the Navy Yard and asked that her last name not be used. “I just call it Fort Greene, or I say I live a block north of Fort Greene by the Navy Yard.”

The Wallabout moniker, a historic name drawn from nearby Wallabout Bay, Wallabout being Dutch for “bend in the Harbor,” is “unnecessary,” according to the local.

“If you say Wallabout, you say it with a wink,” she said.

Not so, says a prominent history buff.

“The area’s always been called Wallabout,” said Historic Districts Council head Simeon Bankoff, arguing the neighborhood’s identity dates back 380 years. “In anyone’s mind who has ever thought about Brooklyn that was where the Navy Yard was, and right next to the Navy Yard was Wallabout.”

Some people may not have heard the name before, but “there’s no doubt about Wallabout,” Bankoff said.

One cineaste is banking on the neighborhood’s name recognition, having written and directed a feature-length movie about an underemployed woman who is obsessed with the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, where 11,500 American revolutionaries who died aboard floating British prisons in Wallabout Bay are entombed. The movie, naturally, is titled “Wallabout.”

The film’s creator allowed that Wallabout’s apparent comeback is thanks to realtors’ attempts to create a buzz around the area whose defining features are, besides a 55-building city historic district, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Walt Whitman Houses, and factory and warehouse buildings.

“I think real estate people have tried to readopt the name Wallabout,” director Eric McGinty said. “For a lot of people it’s just that area between the BQE and the Navy Yard“.
Still others believe the name is neither a broker ploy nor an unimpeachable title, but rather a way residents can express their pride in their neighborhood’s history.

“It’s used by neighborhood residents who were interested in preserving the historic character of their neighborhood,“ says Chad Purkey, a preservationist with the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District. “I think it’s the immediate residents [who use the name].”

The neighborhood’s community board administrator agreed that it is up to locals to call the area what they will.

“This is not a hot neighborhood so I think that this currently has more of its roots in neighborhood pride than developer hype,” said Robert Perris, Community Board 2 district manager. “But like most neighborhood names it exists by consensual use.”

Certified old: Vanderbilt Avenue is home to many pre-Civil War homes and is part of the Wallabout Historic District.
Photo by Steven Schnibbe

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