Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Jan 10, 2022
The past, present and future of Prospect Park
Susan Donoghue, park administrator and president of the Prospect Park Alliance, discusses the year ahead for Brooklyn's best park
The first time Sue Donoghue visited Prospect Park was in 2001, in the dizzying and traumatic days after 9/11. She lived by the water with her husband and son, where the horizon presented a daily reminder of the horrifying events that played out days earlier in Lower Manhattan.
“I was very pregnant with my second—he was born in November—and we were living in Brooklyn Heights at the time. It did not feel like a good place to be. There was soot raining down and it was very, very difficult,” she recalls. They decided to take a family field trip to Prospect Park for a change of scene.
“It was just a revelation to think that not far from where we were living was this incredible open space,” she says.
Since 2014, Donoghue has been the administrator of the park and the president of the non-profit Prospect Park Alliance, where she oversees the maintenance and restoration efforts around the park—not necessarily a gig that someone with a Wall Street background would have predicted for herself in 2001. She discusses that revelatory visit, among other things, as this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.”
If the pandemic did anything, it threw into stark relief just how valuable the borough’s parks are to the mental and physical health of the city—mirroring the experience Donoghue herself had the first time she walked the length of the Long Meadow 20 years ago.
And all things considered, Prospect Park has had a good pandemic (even if a huge influx of covid-weary visitors left it with a little more wear and tear than usual): Since 2020 alone, the Endale Arch entrance to the park’s Long Meadow was restored to glorious 19th-century effect; the park got two new entrances along Flatbush Avenue; the concert grove pavilion was refurbished.
So when Mayor Bill de Blasio cut a $40 million dollar check to the park on his way out of office, it was an exclamation point at the end of a particularly busy 18 months for the 526-acre green heart of Brooklyn. That massive cash infusion will go toward the restoration of the Vale of Cashmere and the Rose Garden in the northeast corner of the park. The refresh should help bring back to life an overgrown section of the park that had been secluded and neglected (and as a result, somewhat sketchy) for years, if not decades.
“It’s been on our to-do list for five, six years,” says Donoghue in our interview. “A lot of people don’t even know that that area is there and available, don’t feel comfortable going there … We really feel like we can’t afford to have areas that aren’t actively utilized, where there aren’t people spreading out and exploring.”
An argument can be made that Prospect Park is the best park in the city. But don’t take our word for it: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert B. Vaux, the team that built the park, considered it to be their masterpiece. To design it, they took what they had learned while building Manhattan’s Central Park the previous decade … and perfected their methods.
Take the Endale Arch, which was painstakingly restored over the course of five years and reopened to the public in November of 2020.
“In Olmsted’s vision, walking through that corridor was leaving the dirt and grime of the city behind,” says Donoghue. “This is 1860s Brooklyn and it was dirty and grimy. You’d walk through that and it would be a portal to another world. It still is. That still exists.”
The first section of the park opened in 1867, while still under construction. It was an instant hit. By 1871 the park was seeing a quarter of a million visitors a month. In 1873 the New York Times reported that Prospect Park “seems to have become an indispensable Sunday resort for the toiling thousands of Brooklyn whom the demands of an incessantly busy life keep away from the sea-shore or mountains during the warmer months of the year.”
A century later, the park had become underfunded and plagued by crime.
“Thirty years ago, 40 years ago people didn’t feel walking in the woods in the park,” says Donoghue. “That’s why some of our earliest work was in the ravine, to redo those paths and make them more accessible.”
That early work was done after the non-profit Prospect Park Alliance was formed to help the parks department with restoration and prioritization. (Think of the park as a big school. In some ways, the Alliance acts as its PTA, holding fundraisers, courting volunteers and weighing in on policy priorities.)
“My role is not only advocating for Prospect Park, but for parks across the city to get the care and support they need,” says Donoghue.
We discuss what that entails, plus Donoghue offers her own guided tour of the park—starting with the Endale Arch. She also shares what to look for next, namely a monument to Shirley Chisholm that will be going up at the Parkside and Ocean Avenues entrance.
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