Photo by Emily Frances

The Forgotten History of the Owl’s Head

The Forgotten History of the Owl’s Head

Owl’s Head Park has a mystical hold over many Bay Ridge residents, one that’s difficult to explain to outsiders. Sure, it’s 24 pleasant acres of woods, hills, playgrounds, curving paths, breathtaking views and a skating ramp, but are they worth a trip on the R train? It’s not even the nicest park in Bay Ridge, a superlative that surely belongs to Shore Road Park, the winding network of waterfront trails and baseball fields that extends more than 30 blocks, from Owl’s Head to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. But the more time you spend in Owl’s Head, watching sunsets from atop its massive hill or riding Flexible Fliers down it, the more it sticks to you, the more you realize what the neighborhood’s early settlers realized: this is one of the finest pieces of land in Brooklyn.

Looking at how previous generations failed to preserve it as well as they could have offers a cautionary tale to the people of today who would stall the preservation of or destroy our remaining natural wonders: it all boils down to petty bickering over insignificant-in-hindsight sums of money, a story of how putting indifference and greed above a capacity for timeless wonder—of how the developers and the penny pinchers, the myopic and the unimaginative, the industrialists and the highwaymen won a few victories if not the war. The park’s history has hitherto been mysterious, usually glossed over in local chronicles with a sentence or two: the guy who owned the land sold it to the city, according to the terms of his will, and a few decades later it became a park. But the more you uncover in old books and newspaper archives, the more you see that the park’s story is a microcosm of the story of Brooklyn, of urban America, going through economic booms and busts, periods of investment and austerity, beginning with the Native Americans, through Dutch ancestry, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the rise of industry, the Spanish-American War, the Great Mistake of 1898, the creation of the Federal Reserve, the building of the subways, failed preservationist battles, Robert Moses, the Great Depression, postwar prosperity, the decline of the 1970s—even Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

The one thing that has stuck over a century and a half is its unusual name, whose origins have been forgotten, even by the parks department. Everyone has a theory, dating back to even before it was private property: that the land itself resembled an owl, that owls used to live in a barn there, that stone owls framed the entrance gate. But the answer is much simpler: the guy who named it “Owl’s Head”? He stole it.

The history of the land extends immemorially. The Nyack Indians called the area home, though they are not known to have settled near the park. (They may have used the hill as a burial ground; a little more about that later.) Teunis Van Pelt was the first European to lay claim to the land, just a small corner of the vast swaths he’d acquired from present-day Bay Ridge to Bensonhurst throughout the 1670s, after he’d emigrated from the Netherlands. He sold a piece of his property on the north side of what became Bay Ridge Avenue, “fronting on the bay,” according to Teunis Bergen’s register of early settlers, to Swaen Janse on April 13, 1680, and it’s a part of this farm that became Owl’s Head Park. (The buyer was also known as Swaen Janse Van Lowaanen, or Luane, which may have been intended to suggest he was from Sierra Leone or Luanda, Angola. Janse, a black man, had probably emigrated to the colony in 1654. Some people say he was a slave, though more likely he was a freeman.)

In 1715, the land belonged to Bernardus Janse, probably a descendant. At some point it transferred to the Bennet family, to Winant, then John, then Hermanus, whose children auctioned it off in lots when he died. Henry C. Murphy purchased from Harmanus’s descendants the piece that would become the southwestern edge of Owl’s Head Park and transformed it into his personal estate, building in 1856 a grand mansion, where he could summer on the bluff overlooking the sea, to replace the farmhouse that had stood there—something worthy of the bibliomaniac’s famous holdings, which were worth something like $40,000 in 19th-century dollars. (The rest of the land was bought by other families, some of whose names are familiar from local side streets, like Sedgwick.)

One of the most eminent citizens in the borough’s history, Murphy was elected the mayor of Brooklyn in 1842 and served as a member of Congress and ambassador to the Hague, where he uncovered and translated many historical records of Brooklyn’s Dutch history. He also cofounded the Brooklyn Eagle. “He was the closest thing to a Founding Father Brooklyn ever had,” an uncited source says in Jerome Hoffman’s 1976 Bay Ridge Chronicles. But he’s best remembered as the state senator who wrote the bill that would begin construction on the Brooklyn Bridge; it was signed in the famous library of his Bay Ridge mansion, Brooklyn’s Alexandria on the Narrows, giving the Owl’s Head estate historical import. The bill was drawn up in the middle of the night, after robust debate, before an adjournment of the legislature so as not to delay construction any longer. According to legend, a group of colleagues called a carriage downtown and told the coachman, “Bay Ridge—and don’t spare the horses!” Senator Street, five blocks that run from Sixth Avenue to the present-day park, was named in his honor.

Murphy is also the one who named this land Owl’s Head, and the source of the name has perplexed local historians. But an examination of the historical archives suggests that Murphy simply lifted the name from another property in the area. The Van Brunts were one of the area’s oldest families, whose homestead is long gone but which once stood on Shore Road and, roughly, 81st Street, about half a mile south of the present-day park. They first settled there in 1625 and called their spot Owl’s Head. A commonly reprinted map of Bay Ridge from 1873, after Murphy had already bought and named his plot, clearly shows “Owl’s Head” just south of Van Brunt Lane, which became 79th Street. “The name of Owl’s Head was given to the point…because the strip of land with the coves on each side actually resembled an owl’s head with spreading wings,” an anonymous letter writer explained to the Brooklyn Eagle in July 1890. “It is very appropriately named, for one standing on the point can see the strong resemblance from which it derives its name.” Charlotte Rebecca Woglom Bangs, in 1912’s Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus, agrees: “There the land is shaped like an owl’s head.” A photograph by George Bradford Brainerd from around the same time, which survives in the Brooklyn Museum’s archives, purports to be of “Owl’s Head,” and may in fact be of the Van Brunts’ property: the land juts out, like a great raptor’s head, while the shore curves inward, like an outspread wing.

“No need to ask us old fishermen where Owl’s Head is,” said one who lived near the local military base, Fort Hamilton, as quoted in Bangs’s local history. “We all know it’s by Van Brunt’s.” (Later in her book, prominent citizen Teunis Bergen corroborates this point, and Colonel William Cropsey does, as well.) “If majority counts for anything in an argument of historic value the weight of the argument is assuredly on the Van Brunt side,” Bangs writes, “not on the late Hon. Henry C. Murphy's claim to Owl’s Head.”

It was a well-known spot among the boating set, “a byword to every yachting, and, for that matter, every nautical man,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in August 1890. A rather large hickory tree stood there, which pilots used as a navigation landmark. When the tree died, the Van Brunts cut it down. “When the pilots heard that the tree was to be taken away they sent a committee,” the 1890 letter-writer wrote to the Eagle, “which offered to give Mr. Van Brunt as many gold dollars as would go around its base if he would let it remain, but he would not.” They hoped he would at least build a lighthouse in its place, but they struck out there, too.

“Despite the prayers and threats of the pilots…no light house has yet stood on Owl’s Head,” the Eagle reported, “and probably never will.” Today, however, on this point does stand a large flagpole, “erected by the citizens and school children of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton” in 1899, according to a plaque in the ground, in honor of national hero Admiral George Dewey, upon his homecoming a year after the Battle of Manila Bay, the first battle of the Spanish-American War, historic because it drove Spain from the Philippines forever. It’s no lighthouse, but it’s surely as good as a hickory tree.

Not that the captains of the 19th century would recognize the area today; the shore is crammed with high-built houses with picture windows overlooking the bay, and an expressway built atop landfill divides the street from the new shoreline, forever altering the original owl’s head-shaped land, preventing us from confirming its appearance for ourselves. (Though Shore Road, built roughly to follow the curving shoreline, bulges outward at about 81st Street, one more piece of circumstantial evidence.) It was once a renowned lookout. “The view from this spot is the finest in the United States and is said by some to the finest in the world,” the epistle to the Eagle reads. “One can see the picturesque Narrows, with the beautiful Staten Island as background and also the upper bay, with New Jersey, New York City and Brooklyn in the distance.” Those landmarks are mostly visible today, and the view is still something to see; the crowding of concrete and cars has just made it less spectacular.

This answer about the origin of the name only raises another question, though: why did Murphy lift it, especially when he was friendly with the Van Brunt family? The Eagle letter writer suggests “he was wrongly informed that it was so called by the pilots.” “The Hon. Mr. Murphy went to great trouble to explain why Owl’s Head existed on his own property by 65th Street,” Bangs writes, though she doesn’t detail his reasons. (Perhaps stories of barns filled with owls started with him.) Henry R. Stiles, who knew Murphy and wrote his “memoir” (a short biography) the year after the senator’s death in 1882, writes that Owl’s Head was “a name supposed to have been applied to the spot by the Indians.” (Uh-huh.) “Upon the stone posts of the Third Avenue gateway to the grounds”—because Murphy’s property extended farther east than the park’s present boundary of Colonial Road (the equivalent of First Avenue)—“two graven owl’s heads perpetuated the name and legend,” which explains the source of that rumor, anyway.

The land’s downfall begins with its improvement. In 1881, a year before his death, Murphy sold the land for $80,000 to Eliphalet Williams Bliss. Bliss had opened his first business in 1867, at the age of 31, producing metal containers (like cans), and made his fortune by growing his business to include munitions. At its height, the E. W. Bliss Company occupied a two-block-long complex at Bush Terminal on the Sunset Park waterfront, as well as factories and workshops in present-day DUMBO. (His main structure there still stands, on Plymouth Street between Adams and Pearl, though it no longer produces weapons.)

Bliss and his family, Bangs writes, “maintained all the beauty and dignity of the [Owl’s Head] estate as originally planned by its first owner.” In fact, they built up its beauty, buying neighboring plots—for Murphy’s estate occupied a narrow parcel of land, a mere sliver of Van Pelt’s once-immense holdings, winnowed down from buyer to buyer—including nine acres from the Sedgwicks, 25 acres from the Bergens, and another six from the Browns, as well as more from the Traceys and Kidders. When First Avenue/Colonial Road was first cut, he enclosed the roughly 50 acres from there to the bay and built what the Eagle called in 1894 a “splendid winding drive,” a lodge, famously impressive stables (more stately than many homes in the area, then or now), and an observatory known as Bayard Tower, “made accessible by a flight of steps over a sloping mass of unhewn stones strongly suggesting an old European ruin.” It cost $75,000 to build, or more than six times the cost then of the average brownstone. Bliss’s old gates were discovered in parks-department storage and reinstalled in 2002, so that the southeastern entrance once again bears his initials: E.W.B.

Among Bliss’s enterprises was a torpedo factory, photographed here sometime between 1910 and 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

From the 1890s to the 1920s, this impressive estate was under constant threat of destruction by private development. But the earliest came in 1893 as a public roads project, when New Utrecht Supervisor Cornelius Ferguson (something like a modern city councilmember) threatened to extend Narrows Avenue, which today runs north and dead-ends into the middle of Owl’s Head, to the shoreline on the other side of the estate, “from Senator Street to Latting Place” (the latter a proposed street between First and Narrows avenues, Sixty Seventh Street and an unopened leg of Wakeman Place, later demapped by the park itself), which would have sliced up the land and disrupted its breathtaking view. The idea, which the Eagle called “about as useless and unnecessary a thing as could be imagined in the town,” had been rejected five years before when Bliss personally showed Ferguson and two other supervisors around his property. “They did not take five minutes to decide” against the plan, Bliss told the paper. Subsequently, though, Bliss became a public critic of Ferguson, who then revived the plan and had a petition of support signed by local residents, whom Bliss called “gin mill keepers and a class of men who would be repudiated by the sterling citizens of the place.” The plan was again not approved.

We can trace the idea of converting the estate into a park at least to the following year, 1894—the year New Utrecht and two more of the six original Dutch towns became a part of the City of Brooklyn, and four years before that city became a borough of New York City—when an unnamed advocate outlined his ambitious ideas for the Eagle: the lodge could house a gardener, the stables could house the park police, the house could be a casino, and the grounds could host band concerts.

On a nice bright day, we will say, you want to take a ride in the suburbs with your wife or sweetheart. You get your horse and carriage and drive down one of the new parkways which will connect the Shore road with the city, give your conveyance to the care of an attendant and sit down to a quiet téte-à-téte dinner, with the breezes of the bay floating in through the window and a magnificent panorama of earth, sky and sea to enchant the eye. Dinner over, you get your carriage again, help your wife or your girl in, as the case may be, and take a spin along the beautiful Shore Road, with its terraces, rows of trees and undulations of hill and dale. From Fort Hamilton, another parkway will lead down to Bensonhurst and Coney Island, or if you wish to come directly back to Brooklyn, you have the option of a delightful ride through the New Utrecht country and home by way of Prospect park. Yes, sir, I think Owl’s Head is just what this city wants to connect the system of parkways and small parks around the southwestern end of this island.

Bliss agreed. “No place in the world is better fitted for a park,” he told the paper. “The city [of Brooklyn] is growing rapidly southward, and it seems inevitable that if the place is not preserved in such a way as this, within the next ten or twenty years it will be cut into building lots and its beauty marred, if not wholly destroyed….Rather than have this beautiful property cut into city streets and lots and forever defaced I am willing that Brooklyn should take and preserve it for future generations, and all I ask is that my wife and I may be allowed to live there for a few years until the city shall find it convenient to take possession”—well, that, and a fair valuation.

Bliss was willing to sell for $500,000, but Brooklyn politicians wanted to pay only $450,000 (a difference of more than $1 million, adjusted for inflation). Bliss wouldn’t compromise, and thus the idea came to a standstill—a huge mistake by the city that set the stage for three decades of missteps and missed opportunity. Bliss’s 50 acres were roughly double the size of Owl’s Head Park, which means half the land was lost to such dithering, including the part abutting the waterfront, so the park forever looks out at an industrial plant and a parkway. Money troubles in particular would hold up the conversion into a park and cause trouble almost up to the present.

In 1902, a few days after Bliss returned from a trip to Europe, the Park Commissioner of Brooklyn and Queens, Richard Young, “called on him and suggested Mr. Bliss donate his Owl’s Head estate to the city for a park,” the Eagle reported. “The property is worth close on to $1,000,000, and the request rather staggered Mr. Bliss.” Bliss died the next year, agreeing in his will that the property should be sold to the city for parkland. The Board of Estimate, which determined land-use and budget issues, initially voted against the park (“Existing parks should be improved upon before new ones were decided on,” the local alderman said) but changed its mind by 1905, when plans were begun to acquire the land by eminent domain, or “condemnation.” But that too fell apart, two years later, because the city had gone broke during the Panic of 1907, which was severe enough to have inspired Congress to create the Federal Reserve.

Meanwhile, the price of the land just kept rising, and not buying it was starting to prove costly, as well. In 1908, a judge ruled that the city owed $42,000 (more than $1 million, adjusted for inflation) for what the Eagle called the “Owl’s Head Fiasco,” involving fees to prominent law firms and real estate experts for their appraisal work on behalf of the owners. As the sub-headline explained, “Not Buying Park Site Is Made Pretty Expensive by This Court Order.” And it seemed the city still would not buy it. “A streak of economy struck the city authorities lately,” the Eagle reported, “and the proposition to purchase the property was entirely relinquished.”

By 1910, the city had paid an additional $14,000 to commissioners and experts, and at that point the Board of Estimate scheduled a vote to strike it from the planning maps, which apparently passed, because the estate was up for sale in the summer of 1911, and advocates panicked that this would be the city’s last chance. “Already…[it] has been invaded by commercialism,” the Eagle complained. “A slice of it was bought some years ago by the same industrial concern which, it is reported, is today considering the purchase of the rest of the estate.” That would be the Edison Company plant, which since 1952 has been the site of a smelly wastewater treatment plant. (To think: that famous nose-sore might have been built elsewhere if the site had been protected as parkland, and perhaps even the Belt Parkway, as well!)

Touchingly, residents really worried that such a naturally beautiful spot could be lost to industry. (A neighboring column in the Eagle is headlined “Practically No Vacancies in Bay Ridge,” and the article thanks trolley service for bustling commercial development. Subway service was still three years away.) That summer, Mrs. Lane, a Bliss heir, opened the grounds to the public for the summer, on the first day of which “several hundred persons took advantage,” even though, the paper noted, there weren’t even any benches. “A policeman was on hand to prevent possible disorder,” though it doesn’t sound as if he had much to do.

Supporters scrambled to come up with possible uses for the land, including building piers at the shore to “accommodate the giant passenger craft of the future,” or for the site of an “Indian monument,” as Congress had already committed funds for such a tribute somewhere in the city. (Some people then called the high point of the estate “Indian Mound,” because, they said, Native American bones and relics had been discovered here.) Advocates floated many such ideas at the time, trying to find any way they could to convince officials to acquire the park. In 1923, community leaders urged the construction of a playground “in order to train the school children physically and as a preventive of crime among youth,” the Eagle reported. “[C]lose up your poolrooms and public dance halls and open up parks and playgrounds,” as the Assistant DA put it, “and the future generation will be made of better stuff.” (Also in 1923, construction began on a proposed subway tunnel that would connect Brooklyn to Staten Island. Crews made it as far as the Narrows before political squabbling killed the project, and the tunnel remains unused underneath Owl’s Head Park, in line with 67th Street. The MTA is said to maintain a grating in the park that allows access to this tunnel.)

The next year, the Board of Estimate finally voted to acquire the land—but things still didn’t proceed easily from there. Another four years passed before the Eagle reported that purchase of the land finally seemed likely, the inheritors of the Bliss estate now willing to sell for $800,000 (or more than $11 million, adjusted for inflation), down from a high of $1.5 million—“considered by real estate experts the greatest bargain of the kind ever offered to the city,” and a great savings over what it would have cost by eminent domain. A month later, after some dithering, the deal was finally done, the price set at $850,000, thanks to pressure from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “This is civic wisdom, thirty-five years belated,” the Eagle reported. “[I]n 1893 E. W. Bliss offered all of Owl’s Head to the city for $500,000. Part has been sold. The Edison plant’s site is on what was part of the 1893 offer. A considerable section has gone for building lots. But there is enough left to make the price the city is paying a bargain.”

The mansion remains. Some of the historic curios remain. But it will take a considerable expenditure of money to make the place as beautiful as it was thirty-five years ago when the first offer, dictated by the highest public spirit, was turned down by politicians.

Brooklyn has a right to rejoice in the knowledge that the purchase question has been finally settled. And Brooklyn has a right to insist that there be no niggardliness in providing for the future of Owl’s Head Park. It can never be what it might have been if taken at first. It can be, and is bound to be, one of the beauty spots in Greater New York.

But that considerable expenditure toward restoring its former grandeur never came. It had proved expensive enough just to get the land: after negotiations over the summer of 1928, the city agreed in August to pay an extra $101,000. Owl’s Head was opened as parkland that year, but no significant extra sum was invested; the stock market would crash on Black Tuesday the following year. In 1932, the Bliss mansion was razed, and a few months later the tower followed it, despite some protest from neighbors, when the parks department declared it unsafe—“one of those old things that are a nuisance to the community.”

“Why do they not repair it, keep it and cherish it?” the principal of Charles O. Dewey Junior High School, speaking for the ages, asked the Eagle. “It is again a case of anything to make the parks uglier and less useful and of finding another way to waste money. What were once the nice rolling hills of Shore Road Drive are now wastes of dirt and dust forever. Owl’s Head Park is rapidly being torn to pieces. Our beautiful mansions are coming down to be replaced by $30,000 comfort stations. It is all because we have people in office without taste and without qualifications for office. Now they are running true to form. They simply do not know.”

In a letter to the Times in 1935, local resident John C. Marakle wrote “the once fine lawn is now a material storage yard and a dump for old junk….We live in hope, however, of some day enjoying a ‘park’ which today is only a ‘project.’” Without new investment, by 1940 the stables too had been demolished. “[Then-Parks Commissioner Robert] Moses loved parks,” Montrose Morris explains on Brownstoner, “but he didn’t like old buildings.”

Moses did put some money into the place, though, finally turning it into a real park. He used old existing trees and pathways to create a winding trail through the open space, as well as playing fields, bathrooms (where greenhouses had been, according to a 1929 Atlas), and benches that took advantage of the panoramic views—though he also interrupted them with the stretch of highway along the water that connects the Belt Parkway to the Gowanus Expressway. Within a generation the place was going to seed again, as though the city just couldn’t get this park right. In Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi’s account of the Lufthansa robbery that became the basis of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, he describes the early-60s adolescence of the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the case.

…He was no stranger to wiseguys. He saw his first gangland killing from the social studies classroom window at Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge; five days later, when he went over to Bliss Park [a local name for Owl’s Head, just blocks from the Catholic school] to practice his jump shot, he found that the mob had dumped a corpse on the basketball court.

“At a glance, Owl’s Head Park in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn looks like a good spot for a Sunday picnic or an evening walk near the bay,” the Times reported a few years later, in 1971. “But area residents say that despite its outward well-being, the…park is a victim of some of the social and economic tensions of New York and its future is in doubt.” Young vandals tore up benches, broke restroom windows, and set fires, including to a small building that sold hot dogs and ice cream. Residents were afraid to visit at night. “We get weirdos, hippies, perverts,” the park’s full-time maintenance man told the paper, “and there’s very little police protection.” Garbage pickup was reduced, making more available for miscreants to scatter, and the grass was too plentiful for the limited crew to manage cutting. One proposal called for the construction of a community center nearby, with ice- and roller-skating, an art pagoda, parking lot and reflecting pool—similar to the ideas proposed 50 years earlier to curb juvenile delinquency.

A meandering pathway through Owl’s Head Park. Photo by Emily Frances.

But no such center was built, and the park languished. The low point came in 1974, when a 17-year-old was shot in July, his body found “beside his English racer,” according to the Times, the bike not stolen probably because the assailants became frightened. Not that things remained so bleak. My parents took their wedding photos there in 1977, as my grandparents had decades before, and I began visiting in the late 80s, when I was a boy: my family would take our dog there, a malamute that once ran off while untethered; my father found her as night fell, joined up with a pack of wild dogs. I went sledding down the hill in winters with so many other neighborhood kids—some of the best sledding in Brooklyn—and when it was warmer I practiced baseball with my father, batting against the brick wall of the women’s room, which served as the makeshift catcher and onto which a strike zone had already been marked in chalk.

But I was cautioned not to visit Owl’s Head at night, because it wasn’t safe. In hindsight, I understand this meant it attracted the rowdy sort of people who enjoyed their alcohol (or their drugs) outdoors. In fact, this had always been true of the park. As early as 1932, residents complained that the park was infested by drunkards, who snuck in at night by the unfenced 68th Street side. “Residents…Fear Rowdy Gangs; Women Tell of Hideous Noises,” declared an Eagle article. The place, or at least the name, has always attracted admirers of alcohol: we know there was a place in the 1920s called the Owl’s Head Tavern, on Third and Bay Ridge avenues, because it was the scene of a shootout between prohibition rum runners; an off-duty police officer responded immediately, and a uniformed officer shortly thereafter, and the latter shot the former. Today, Owl’s Head is the name of a wine bar on 74th Street.

In the 90s, the borough president and local councilmember appropriated almost $400,000 for the park toward landscaping, repaving paths and purchasing new playground equipment, and the 68th Precinct cleaned it up as their colleagues did the rest of the city, at least relative to its 70s nadir. By the turn of the millennium, drinking in there was impractical, because police scooters circled the paths; with forty-ounce bottles capped and hid, underage drinkers wandered off to the more forgiving, less patrolled benches of Shore Road and the 69th Street Pier.

When I return now, it’s almost always to the western edge, which overlooks the bay, Staten Island in the distance, New Jersey farther beyond; it’s one of the most excellent vantage points in Brooklyn to watch the sunset, though by daylight its view of the water and the pier, of the large anchored ships of maritime industry, is also remarkable. Squint, and you can imagine yourself as the first Native American who wandered upon this promontory and marveled at the Edenic verdancy beyond. The edge of the park’s northwestern, waterfront ridge is still mostly wooded, one of the last remaining bits of Brooklyn that is, with a trail that runs along the top. Sometimes you pass a condom caked with dirt, or an empty can of cheap beer. At the eastern end of these woods is a skate park built in the early part of the new millennium, one of the few in the city, and thus well-visited and -loved by the skateboarding and trick-bicycling communities citywide. There are basketball courts and a playground along the eastern edge, which look up at a broad, steep, immense hill known by some locals as Dead Man’s Hill for its sheer size. More recent immigrants from the Middle East and South and Central Americas are often found at its foot on weekends, picnicking with their families and kicking soccer balls around.

Today, Owl’s Head is still a resplendent, beguiling piece of land, preserved for parkland seemingly by miracle after the city screwed up for so long. The grandest old plans for the land were never realized, and pieces of it were lost, but it’s a wonder, really, that more wasn’t. The highway that curves around it doesn’t do it any favors, and the lost architecture—the mansion, the stables, and for God’s sake that observation tower—is a minor municipal tragedy. They chipped away at its grandeur year after year, decade after decade, degrading its majesty into mere magnificence. But still: what drew Murphy and Bliss and millions of Brooklynites across generations to this piece of land was the land itself, its hills and panorama, and human neglect has not yet been able to destroy that. Thanks to its poetic name, its highlands and painterly vistas, its trails, windswept hills and pocket of woodland, the park has enjoyed a mystique not even Shore Road Park can match. Owl’s Head today maintains a mere suggestion of its erstwhile grandeur. Yet grand it remains—good enough, and better than nothing.

Henry Stewart is an assistant editor at Opera News. He was previously the culture editor of The L Magazine, and his writing has appeared in Electric Literature, BAMbill, and the Brooklyn Eagle.

Emily Frances is a documentary photographer and teaching artist based out of Queens, NY. Her work has been published by the University of Chicago Press, American Express, and OffMetro.

Also in this issue

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Q&A: Ned Berke of Sheepshead Bites

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