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Park of the past: Exhibit looks at history of Prospect

Past master: The Brooklyn Historical Society’s Marcia Ely helped to curate its new exhibition on the 150-year-old Prospect Park, which opened this week.
Brooklyn Paper
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It’s a look back at Brooklyn’s Backyard!

The Brooklyn Historical Society is celebrating Prospect Park’s 150th anniversary with a new exhibit that looks back at the history of the massive green space. “The Means of a Ready Escape,” which opened July 12, explores the many different ways that Kings County residents have used the 526 acres of fields and trees over the years, according to one of the show’s curators.

“The exhibition really looks at how the park has been an escape for generations of people,” said Marcia Ely.

The show looks at five eras of the meadow’s history: its origin as a home to Native Americans, the initial plans from famed Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux; its first 100 years; the park’s graffiti-ridden decline in the 1970s and ’80s; and its modern incarnation under the management of the Prospect Park Alliance.

Among the memorabilia and photos are pictures of people practicing archery, playing lawn tennis, and riding in swan boats — all once-popular activities that might surprise modern visitors, said Ely.

“I think people are going to enjoy seeing all of the things the park was used for back at the turn of the century,” she said.

At one point, 300 lawn tennis courts covered the Long Meadow and the Neathermead, and a “water carousel” on Prospect Park Lake featured a 200-person yacht that circled the water.

Historians dug into the Prospect Park Alliance’s archives over the last year to discover forgotten treasures and personal stories, including a scrapbook made by a woman who babysat kids for Park Slope moms between from 1938 and 1980, often taking them to the park. Ely also tracked down the daughter of the man who started the park’s Drummers Grove, where people gather every Sunday to drum, and got pictures of the activity from the early ’90s and 2000s.

Ely hopes that the exhibit will enlighten people about the rich past of the grassy knoll, which offers a more complete connection to nature than any other spot in the boroughs, she said.

“Being able to go to the park and look down to the meadow and see nothing but grass and trees is really unlike anything else in this entire city,” she said. “Prospect Park is unique in the way that you can get lost in the woods, there’s not many places in New York City where you can get lost in the woods.”

“The Means of a Ready Escape” at Brooklyn Historical Society [128 Pierrepont St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 222–4111, www.brooklynhistory.org]. Open Wed–Sun; noon–5 pm. $10.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill
Updated 5:57 pm, July 9, 2018
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