A funny thing happens if you Google “best kept secrets in New York.” Well, “funny” might be the wrong word. “Depressing” or “terrible” or “embarrassing” would probably be better. You see, if you Google “best kept secrets in New York,” you wind up with link after link to articles that (shhh! don’t tell!) want to let you in on a little known, locals-only destination called, uh, the High Line. Yeah, that’s right: the High Line.
But so, even though it sometimes seems like there are no more secrets anymore, at least not about New York, we felt like we could do better than that here in Brooklyn. After all, there are a lot of really strange, specific to Kings County factoids that, frankly, delight us. And so in the same spirit with which we shared our favorite secret Brooklyn beach, we’d like to let you in on some of the borough’s best kept secrets. These are the quirky things that will forever prevent Brooklyn from being totally mall-ified or condo-ized, or other invented, yet still sinister words, and while Brooklyn doesn’t have anything truly top secret, like the High Line, there’s still a lot of interesting, little known things to learn about this borough of ours.
The Wild Parrots of Brooklyn
There are very few times in my life that I felt like I literally couldn’t believe my eyes (what? I’ve seen a lot), but one of those times was a few years ago when I was walking in Midwood near the Brooklyn College campus. The air around me was full of vaguely tropical chattering, which gave my walk a feeling of slight cognitive dissonance—this was Brooklyn, after all, nothing tropical to see here. Or so I thought. And that’s when I noticed that the trees around me were filled with birds. Not pigeons or sparrows or anything so humble, but with bright green wild parrots. These birds have lived in Brooklyn since the 1970s, when they escaped from a shipping container that had come to JFK from Argentina. Mostly, you can find these birds in the area around Brooklyn College (nests are built high up on top of light poles surrounding the athletic field) and Greenwood Cemetery. For the Jonathan Franzen-wannabes of the world, Brooklyn is an ornithological treasure trove.
58 Joralemon Street
Sure, this quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn Heights looks pretty normal, but number 58 is anything but. With it’s blacked-out windows, it’s the kind of place that kids might assume is haunted or occupied by a coven of witches. But, you know, kids are stupid and frequently wrong. This house is actually occupied by something far more frightening than witches: the MTA! That’s right, this unassuming building is an MTA-front which houses a subway ventilator and evacuation tunnel. Though it was once a private residence, the MTA has been in possession of the building since 1908, making it “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator.”
Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park
Built in 1849, this Quaker burial ground is actually older than Prospect Park itself, which is the reason that it was allowed to remain within the park proper. Although it is gated off and private, access to the cemetery is possible because there are occasional tours and events held there. It’s an active cemetery, meaning that people are still buried there, they’ve just got to be Quakers when they die. And there is one notable person who’s spending eternity in Prospect Park: Montgomery Clift, whose mother had him buried there when he died in 1966.
If you head down Ocean Parkway toward Coney Island, you’ll bear witness to the avenues assuming letter-based names. There’s Avenue J, followed by K, L, M, N, O, P… but no Q. Instead of Avenue Q, Brooklyn has Quentin Road. But why? And was it always this way? No! Quentin Road used to be Avenue Q, but the name was changed in honor of Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin, who died in World War I.
The Brooklyn Bridge’s Cold War Bunker
The history of the Brooklyn Bridge is fascinating (perhaps that’s why it’s going to be a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe) and involves tragic deaths and a brilliant, enterprising woman, and, well, all sorts of made for the big screen details. But one cool factoid that will probably not be in the movie is this: the bridge contained a vault storing a stockpile of supplies in the event that New York had been hit with a nuclear attack. The New York Times reported in 2006 that “city workers were conducting a regular structural inspection of the bridge last Wednesday when they came across the cold-war-era hoard of water drums, medical supplies, paper blankets, drugs and calorie-packed crackers—an estimated 352,000 of them, sealed in dozens of watertight metal canisters and, it seems, still edible.” The public doesn’t have access to the bunker, but it’s kind of reassuring to know that New Yorkers have always been a very specific blend of both paranoid and prepared.
Brooklyn Public Library Missing Child
There’s a lot of places in Brooklyn that may or may not be haunted (well, ok, they’re not because ghosts aren’t real, but whatever), but perhaps the creepiest story of all took place in the Brooklyn Public Library, where, in 1977, a little girl named Agatha Cunningham* disappeared in the library during a school trip. She was never heard from again. If you want to find out more, there’s a short film on the subject, but maybe this is one of those things that’s so disturbing you just don’t ever want to think about it ever, ever again? Yeah, maybe that.
Death on the Cyclone
Have you ridden the Cyclone? You should, maybe. (Or maybe not. We think it’s kind of overrated.) There’s nothing quite like it, though; it is, after all, an almost century-old wooden roller coaster pretty much guaranteed to give whiplash to the delicate-necked among us. But the Cyclone isn’t just scary in the way that most roller coasters are scary (i.e. designed to give you a thrill while still embracing you within their safety constraints). No, the Cyclone is legitimately scary: it has killed before. In 2007, the New York Post reports, a tourist from California rode the coaster, broke his neck, and died from complications. So, you know, consider the Thunderbolt is all we’re saying.
For a more complete history of Coney Island accidents, read this.
Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims: The Grand Central of Brooklyn
It is sort of sad that Brooklyn doesn’t have anything to match the architectural majesty of Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, but it does, in a sense, have its very own Grand Central—one which might be even more majestic, in its way. Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims on Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights was known as the “Grand Central Depot” for its importance as a stop on the Underground Railroad leading up to and during the Civil War. Although slavery was legal in New York as late as 1827 (and much of Brooklyn’s farmland was worked using slave labor), Brooklyn still had a strong enough abolitionist movement that by 1849, Plymouth Church asked Henry Ward Beecher (famous abolitionist and brother to Uncle Tom’s Cabin novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe) to be its preacher. Beecher’s sermons were so renowned that no less a personage than presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln went to hear the preacher way back in 1860.
Celebrities of Brooklyn
At this point, we’re all a little sick of famous people descending on Brooklyn, aren’t we? After all, how interesting is Anne Hathaway, really? (Not very!) But if you really want to get your fill of famous folks, there’s one place you can go where there is a higher concentration of well-known names than anywhere outside of Hollywood. We’re talking, of course, about Greenwood Cemetery. Take a stroll through its hallowed grounds and see if you can find the graves of Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Boss” Tweed, Bill the Butcher, and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. There’s also a bunch more names that you might not be as familiar with (though you should be!) but that are nonetheless integral to New York, and even American, history. Sure, Girls might not be filming there on the day you visit, but you should definitely take the opportunity to take a stroll and familiarize yourself with one of the most beautiful spots in the city.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen