by Aisling Murray
The geographic location of Williamsburg, Brooklyn is an area that constantly evolves like the ebb and flow of the East River that moves along its shoreline. Gone are the days of horse pulled ferries and cows walking along Metropolitan Avenue. At one time or another it became a destination for Dutch, German, Italian and Polish immigrants who found employment working in the dock yards and factories that sprouted up along the East River. Today Williamsburg has transformed from heavy industrial manufacturing and artists lured from Manhattan by cheap rents from landlords who just wanted someone living in their buildings into an thriving urban area filled with budding green spaces. Long gone are the days of friendly homeless people who had the best view of Manhattan while sharing their waterfront dwellings with migratory Canadian geese. The diversity of plant and animal wild life have increased tremendously both on my fire escape and along the East River, which I have walked alongside for the eighteen years I have called this neighborhood home. The redevelopment and cleanup along the East River is man made, thereby creating opportunities for trees and plants to flourish throughout the Seasons, while providing shelter and food for the ever increasing population of birds that have chosen Williamsburg for their home.
Brooklyn historian and author Brian Merlis writes in Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh City within a City that Williamsburg was part of the Town of Bushwick. In August 1638, the Dutch West India Company in Manhattan bought the land now known as Williamsburg from the Canarsee Indians (Merlis Page 5). They mostly fish, hunted and farmed this land that was mostly wetland morasses with dense oak scrub according to the New York City Park records (5., Ch. 2). In 1661, Governor Pieter Stuyvesant visited the early Dutch settlements and decided to call it Boswijk meaning “Town of the Woods,”(6., Merlis). Farming remained the main industry and at one time the area had twenty-three farms, ten of which were located along the East River, thus providing a prime location for goods brought to Manhattan via boat. Williamsburg became a village in the township of Bushwick in 1827(17., Merlis). Even back then this created much interest from developers who bought the farms from which 100 x 100 lots were created and sold for two hundred and fifty dollars. During the mid-nineteen century the economy and population grew substantially in Brooklyn. This growth began the urbanization of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, especially along the waterfront. According to New York City records (5., Ch. 2), shipyards and worker housing and numerous manufacturing factories replaced the majority of the farmland. To accommodate this huge development waterfront property was needed, therefore tidal marshes and wetlands were filled creating new land, which ultimately meant that native plants and species were removed.
Photographs of Williamsburg from the early twentieth century show streets devoid of trees and plant life. This may indicate that there were little if any wild animals roaming the streets, let alone birds. Situated in hardiness zone 6B, Williamsburg has a temperate climate which indicates that the following native plants ought should be discovered, according to Gardening with New York Native Plants: wild anemone, woolly-pod milk weed, virgin’s bower, wild ginger, culvers root, eastern red columbine and American bittersweet to name a few. An abundance of trees native to this area listed on New York City Department of Parks and Natural Resource Group include pin oak, forest pansy, linden, Shawnee brave bald cypress, dogwood, cherry and elm. Many of these trees are thriving on the street where I live. Numerous lindens and pin oak trees line sides of North 7th street between Kent and Berry Avenues with three newly planted Shawnee brave bald cypress trees. All of which keep me company whenever I walk to the subway. In front of my building, a Japanese pagoda tree has grown up over the years to the point that I am able to touch it from my third floor apartment. This is a favorite of the non-native European starlings, which may be the reason they visit the bird feeder on my fire escape anymore.
During the past ten years I have lived in a construction zone of high-rise residential buildings. Factories and warehouse along the East River have been transformed into luxury condos and rentals. Included in the redevelopment is the creation of the East River State Park a seven-acre waterfront park. Even today historic relics of the days when the waterfront was used as an industrial dock for cargo ships remain, such as the cobble stone path and railroad tracks embedded in cement. A native tree that’s plentiful throughout my area is the pin oak. This can be truly admired in the park, a three-minute walk from my apartment. The park has a variety of native and non-native plants and wildlife that can be observed at close proximity. Along with pin oaks that line the cobblestone walk way to the water, there’s a grove of sweet red cherry trees and a cluster of American mulberry trees with almost ripen dark purple berries ready to be picked. A forest pansy tree welcomes visitors entering the park with its dark red purple leaves that rustle with the gentlest of breeze. A native grass planted throughout the park is spartina for its tolerance in regards to salt water. Standing tall beside the waters edge are box elder trees from the maple tree family which are native to the North East region offer great shade to many who lay under their canopy. Beyond the elders, a golden sandy beach meets riprap made of large stone. Other manicured plantings in the park include native species of yellow pitchfork weed, American bellflower in shades of violet-blue, multi-petal white oak-leaf hydrangeas and purple field balm, with non-native white desert lilies and dark green bushy lemon grass.
It’s not unusual to see adults and children wade in the water up to their knees, especially on long summer evenings while taking in the golden sunsets that silhouette the Manhattan skyline. On quiet days with fewer visitors you can spot barn swallows darting in and out of the riprap snatching insects midair while making their high pitch squeaks. Their distinctive fork tail distinguishes them from other common swallows. Barn swallows are usually found in man made structures such as barns hence the name, but they actually prefer closer residences beside water. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology barn swallows are building their nests among the riprap and under piers. This is the first time I have spotted them in Williamsburg. The northern mockingbird reappeared in the neighborhood about three years ago. Its nightly song during the summer months drew my attention and ultimately a mate. Now there are two that fly high above the park landing on the solar powered panels, which light up the park naturally. Here they sing a medley of sounds making their presence known all the while twitching their long brown grey tails up and down. This couple has a secret that is extremely close to unassuming passersby and sunbathers. Nestled in a non-native bright pink rhododendron bush a nest full of mockingbird chicks, which I discovered while I watched both parents taking turns flying in and out of the bush carrying food their young. Flocks of Canadian geese remind me that the seasons are changing when they arrive during spring and fall as they migrate North or South. Though some stay throughout the year. It’s not unusual to hear them in the early hours right before dawn honking loudly as they begin their journey.
Further north towards Greenpoint there is an inlet that is bordered by Bayside Fuel Oil Depot Corporation and Kent Avenue. Plans for this small patch of uninterrupted wildness include rehabilitating it to become part of Bushwick Inlet Park, but they have yet to achieve this goal. On closer examination I discovered some native plant species would thrive if allowed. Delicate wild white anemone grows on both sides of the chain link metal fence and little purple bittersweet nightshades and woolly-pod milkweed that is a favorite of butterflies are growing without restraint along with the non-native plants such as yellow English ivy, trees of heaven, yellow dandelions and large amounts of mug worth which together create a piece of wilderness. Using my imagination I can almost visualize what the Canarsee Indians may have woken up to every morning as I look beyond the fence towards the water and the unstoppable growth of species. Along my street there are numerous non-native trees. They include Japanese pagoda, London plane, Kentucky coffee tree and honey locust of the non-thorny variety and on Kent Avenue there are callery pear and another Japanese pagoda.
Since I have lived here the wild life has increased, not just on the streets but also directly on my fire escape. Native animal species include eastern cottontail rabbit, American robin, common raccoon, eastern chipmunk, eastern gray squirrel, northern red cardinal, northern mockingbird, house sparrows and barn swallows, peregrine falcon and blue jays. For the first time a northern red cardinal bounced his way unto my fire escape. A handful of years ago I lifted a turned over empty planter on my fire escape; it was no longer empty. House sparrows decided to make it their nest, which is brave of them as my ash-tabby cat Chaton uses the fire escape for his enhanced outdoor access. This nest has since being used every year and currently has four eggs inside. Mourning doves began to land on my fire escape roughly ten years ago with their numbers increasing every year. They are the most widespread bird in the US and hunted with the upwards of twenty million killed each year according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each morning a chorus of sparrows and coos of coupled mourning doves has become my summer alarm clock.
One morning I woke to a scratching sound, thinking it was Chaton, but no he was fast asleep on the bed. On investigation I discovered a dark grey squirrel had clawed his way through the window screen and decided that the filter belonging to the cats litter tray would be his breakfast. He panicked squirming and scurrying all over the window, eventually hopping out. I named him Cyril the Amazing Squirrel. Then there were two squirrels, which created a litter. They would take turns climbing the fire escape via the tree of heaven in the backyard gathering the nuts I left out. They were regular visitors for many years. But then I noticed only the two kits visited, which I thought strange, as it was winter and food scarce. Then the kits never returned either. Even mimicking the squirrel clicking sound I used often to call them, which they always responded to. But there were no sign of them. One day the peregrine falcon came back killing and feasting on an unlucky pigeon as white and grey feathers floated in the air. I believe that is what eventually happened to my bushy tailed squirrels. Now none ever appear on my fire escape or on the block. Squirrels can be observed in McCarren Park, which is a short ten-minute walk from where I live. The falcon has killed many birds using the towering tree of heaven that’s not native to the US as it’s perch. I can always tell when the falcon is close by because nothing but silence is heard from the backyard. All the birds go into hiding. Peregrine falcons were put on the endangered species list during the 1970’s because pollution in the form of pesticides harmed the reproductive cycle thus producing weak eggs that would not hatch as stated by the New York City Environmental Protection Agency. Today they are making a come back with sixteen couples around the New York City metro area, including on top of White Stone Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Unfortunately in my meanderings I have yet to witness a blue jay in my neighborhood. The newly planted oak trees across the street might eventually attract them, as they tend to be fond of acorns and tall trees for nesting as stated on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. There is no evidence of cottontail rabbits in Williamsburg, though they still exist further south in and around Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Raccoons are widespread in Brooklyn, but in my time living in Williamsburg I have only come across one situation that involved a raccoon sighting and it was like a celebrity had come to town. A large number of people gathered around an empty lot that was home for a group of feral cats. Now that empty lot is condos and the feral cats have all disappeared. Often sighted in Prospect Park, another native species that has yet to make it’s way to Northern Brooklyn is the Eastern Chipmunk according to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens website.
Williamsburg has evolved from over time from a farming communities and heavy industry, to today’s revitalization which has included the creation of parks and tree plantings that attract more native species to the neighborhood. Therefore I welcome the day when a chipmunk or blue jay crosses my path. The view outside my back windows includes a wall of vibrant green English ivy creeping up the majestic tree of heaven. A grape vine climbs and hugs the fire escape delivering black grapes at the end of summer while providing hideouts for sparrows and doves. On my street the Kentucky coffee tree drops it’s coffee smelling pods in June, and the aroma from the linden trees creamy yellow flowers fills the air in July and the Japanese pagoda drops it’s white yellow buds in early fall. Just as the migratory geese arrive and leave and the Northern red cardinal appears on my bird feeder but leaves as quickly as he’s landed; these are the gentle reminders of the natural diversity in my neighborhood. The trees and fauna that have grown and bloomed since I moved to Williamsburg has taught me that nature has the amazing ability of returning if encouraged. Maybe then Williamsburg will become even greener and might again be known as the Town of the Woods.
- Merils, Brian. Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh: City within a City. Page 5
- New York City Park Records. Greenpoint Williamsburg Master Plan. Page 5. Web
- Merils, Brian. Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh: City within a City. Page 6
- Merils, Brian. Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh: City within a City. Page 17
- New York City Park Records. Greenpoint Williamsburg Master Plan. Chapter 2 Page 5. Web
- Gardening with New York Native Plants. City of New York, Parks and Recreation. Page 4. Web
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds Guide. Barn Swallows. Web
- New York City Park Records. Greenpoint Williamsburg Master Plan. Page 40. Web
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds Guide. Mourning Doves. Web
- The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds Guide. Blue Jays. Web
- Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Discover Native Wildlife. Web
Merils, Brian. Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh: City within a City. Kent Avenue. Page 230
Merils, Brian. Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh: City within a City. 103 North 7th Street. Page 122
Sweeney, Vincent. Peregrine Falcon on fire escape.
All other photographs by author.