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At centennial of Martyrs' Monument, some worthy reminders

Sometimes we forget our history. On November 14, 1908, a crowd of 30,000, including President-elect William Howard Taft, gathered at Fort Greene Park--in pouring rain!--for the dedication of the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, designed by Stanford White.

Yesterday, on the occasion of its centennial, that 148-foot Doric column gained renewed power. It commemorates prisoners of war, most of them merchant seamen, who died after cruel treatment by the British; their bodies, more than 11,000, washed up on shore during the early part of the 19th century. "Surely this ground is as hallowed as any in our history," historian Edwin Burrows said yesterday at the celebration.

The crowd yesterday was perhaps 300-400 [I earlier estimated 600] , the weather pleasantly misty, the MC City Council Member Letitia James, who as a woman and African-American would not have been eligible for the franchise that the patriots fought for. Elected officials gave requisite speeches; several connected the martyrs' efforts to the symbolism of the recent election. Broadway star Cady Huffman, a resident of Fort Greene, led the crowd in the national anthem. There was a procession of flags and a 21-gun salute and a performance by youth musical group.

But the event belonged to Burrows, author of Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War. In declarative sentences, he focused the crowd and set out the bravery of the martyrs. Only ten percent survived, but many more could have. Their captors invited the able-bodied to join the British armed forces. Some did. "Thousands did not, preferring certain death to dishonor," he declared.

So when the monument's eternal flame was lit for the first time since 1921, the audience was reminded of a thread of patriotism that still stirs, and has helped inspire a more perfect union.

The monument now will remain lit, a beacon of sorts, a reminder of painful ideals as Brooklyn continues to change. (Hint: from the back of Borough Hall, walk east on Joralemon Street toward Adams Street, and the monument will come into view.)

Today, there are additional events: a parade around the park at 9 a.m. and ceremonies at 10 a.m. Delays in refurbishing the park generated criticism this past summer; it looked fine yesterday, with new benches and once-departed (and controversial) eagles restored. The Daily News yesterday ran a fine editorial.

(Photo by Steve Soblick)

A DDDB angle

The driving force for the centennial celebration was Ruth Learnard Goldstein, chair of the centennial committee of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, who's tried for decades to restore the monument. She also happens to be a board member of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB). So DDDB, which does not frequently have a presence in other civic programs (other than that of the Brooklyn Peace Fair 2008 journal), bought a small advertisement in the centennial journal.

The journal contained advertisements from, among others, the Myrtle Avenue Partnership, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Industrial Park, the Society of Old Brooklynites, the Society for Clinton Hill, and a variety of local businesses. The only developer, for the record, was IBEC Living, which has developed the nearby Clermont Armory.

So there was no advertisement from Forest City Ratner, which is building the 80 DeKalb Avenue project just west of the park's southern border. That may be because the building is under construction. Then again, working with an avowed opponent of Atlantic Yards might have been a bit icky.

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