When Transmitter Park finally opened in 2012, many longtime Greenpoint residents were shocked to realize that for decades they had been denied amazing views of the East River. They wondered how they could have lived so close to the East River, yet missed its stunning vistas. They also wondered why the community had been shut off from their waterfront for generations. The 1.61-acre park on the East River offers spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline and is a much needed urban oasis, but to understand why it took North Brooklyn decades to develop a park at the site lets take a look at the history.
The park is a natural estuary with wetlands that were once the hunting ground of the Keskachaugue Native Americans. The land is also susceptible to floods and when the park was planned, the designers incorporated a bridge into the park design that allows for the periodic high waters of the East River to enter the park. Sometime in the 1840s, the area was chosen as the site for a primitive ferry that was nothing more than a small rowboat with a sail that carried a few passengers over to the sparsely settled Brooklyn shore. Remnants of that first ferry are still visible from the park’s bridge, but the undeveloped shoreline of the park would soon change with the advent of our area’s first industry: shipbuilding.
The rapid development of shipbuilding in Greenpoint coincided with a huge demand for sailing ships. Trade with China and the gold rush in California created a massive need for ships and the East River shoreline became the nation’s largest center of shipbuilding. The first wooden ship was built locally in 1850 and within five years a dozen shipyards producing wooden ships lined the East River shoreline.
John Englis joined his father’s business in 1850 at his yard at the foot of East 10th Street in Manhattan and created the famous shipbuilding firm John Englis and Sons. Manhattan was booming, forcing shipbuilding across the river and John Englis and Sons moved to Greenpoint in 1872. The Englis family yard, located where the park is today, built several famous ships there. The family constructed one of the largest wooden ships ever built, The Grand Republic, which was more than a football field in length. Today, the bar ‘Grand Republic’ is just up the street from the park and recalls the huge wooden ship.
Shipbuilding was proving unprofitable in the early 1900s, and slowly the Greenpoint yards closed, but John Englis and Sons alone held out. Finally, Englis and Sons too could not find orders and in 1911 the last surviving shipyard in Greenpoint closed, ending a colorful era.
The site of the future park must have stayed vacant for about 20 years until New York City’s need for an A.M radio transmitter ended the site’s vacancy. WNYC, a city-owned radio station was having trouble sending its signal from its Manhattan headquarters because of interference from the many skyscrapers rising up in Manhattan and blocking the airwaves. There was serious consideration of shutting down the station, but a citizens committee appointed by Mayor La Guardia proposed the relocation of the transmitter to Greenpoint. In 1937, the WNYC transmitter was moved from the municipal building in Downtown Manhattan to the Greenpoint facility which was built by the WPA. The former WNYC broadcasting building was designed in the Art Deco style and once boasted two 304 foot antenna towers. The transmitter in Greenpoint remained in use until 1990 when WNYC broadcasting was relocated to the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
It would take another 20 years for the vacant area to be turned into a park. The city spent $12 million to develop the park. One of the great attractions that the park offers is a splendid pier with great views of Manhattan, especially at night. A lawn provides the area with a tiny, but much-loved green space. Local artist and the owner of Northern Territory Jamie Toll sponsored a massive mural on the wall just opposite the park with the help of Stephen Donofrio of Greenpoint Innovations and the huge reclining woman in the painting adds to the cool ambiance of Transmitter. Sadly, the park faces a different kind of threat. Six of the low rise buildings that bordered the park on Greenpoint Avenue have been demolished and a residential development is set to be built that will literally cast a long shadow over the park. Let’s hope that the park remains an oasis of calm and beauty in the area even with the imminent waterfront population growth.