In a city that is perpetually in motion, a sunset is an irresistible invitation to become still. Our days often have an agenda. Our walks are often preoccupied. But then it happens: At dusk the sun, sky, and water begin their dance of countless subtle movements. In New York’s open spaces edged by sky and water, with the swirl of a surrounding city and the bigness of skyscrapers and bridges, all is in motion and I am in stillness.
This was the experience of a sunset on a recent brisk winter day at Brooklyn Bridge Park, as I watched the shifts of light, color, mood, and shape unfold, minute by minute. It is a glorious place to do this. Sitting at a distance from the moving traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the boats and ships on the East River and in New York Harbor feels like the stationary center of a quieter, calmer, more beautiful world. It is a world of sight and sound apart from the teeming city, a capability that this huge open space – an 85-acre site in various stages of development as a park on the East River – affords. Brooklyn Bridge Park, thus, joins the list of Mindful Walker “Great Sunset Spots” in New York City. (For the others, see a list following this column.)
Each sunset offers a certain unpredictable twist in color. When I first arrived at the park a short time before sunset, the sun was emerging from a deep bank of dark gray clouds, sending shafts of light-golden rays to the horizon below. Gradually, as the sun edged closer to the horizon, the gold became stronger and tinged with spots of red and pink. Silhouetted shapes and cloud strokes changed constantly. With each passing minute, the pink deepened to rose pink.
Finally, as the sun edged downward minutes before dipping below the horizon, bright rose-pink and gold flashed and were topped by deep lavender clouds above, all etching the roofs and treetops in the distance. As twilight darkened, the lights of Lower Manhattan came up and the skyline shimmered against the deep blue sky.
The park is an oasis tucked amid the towering city around, from the Brooklyn Bridge above at its north to Brooklyn Heights in the other direction and Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers across the river. Yet for all its intimacy with the city, it feels open to the world beyond when looking south and west to the waters of New York Harbor, Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty, and New Jersey. The sunset on this winter day lay across these waters, opening to the horizons beyond. The immensity of what one’s eyes can behold, from the commanding towers of the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan’s skyscrapers and the great harbor, made me feel like I was on a small stage gazing at a large, in-motion world around me.
From Bustle to Decay to Resurrection
This quieter world of strolling paths, grassy spots, and promenade was once a bustling part of Brooklyn’s industry, commerce, and transportation, stretching back a few centuries. Part of the park, where Old Fulton Street terminated, was the site of the original ferry linking Brooklyn and Manhattan, established in 1642. By the late 1700s and the time of the American Revolution, this area had shops, inns, breweries, and slaughterhouses.
The area’s fortunes ebbed and flowed, shaped by the transitions in commerce and transportation. After the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, the ferries were no longer in demand and died out. Then, at the turn of the 20th century and in the first-half of the century, plenty of the world’s cargo passed through a busy port here, with many piers and warehouses. Mid-century brought a time of decline, as the city’s port areas lost out to competition from other cities and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cut off the waterfront from Brooklyn Heights. In those decades, the waterfront had the seedy atmosphere one associates with the 1970s movies set in New York.
But if New York’s waterfront spots have many lives, a glorious one lay ahead for these acres near the Brooklyn Bridge. For at least a couple of decades, many advocated restoring it for public use, especially once cargo operations ceased and the Port Authority said it would sell the piers for commercial development. The advocacy and planning led in 1998 to the creation of the Downtown Brooklyn Waterfront Development Corp., which began planning Brooklyn Bridge Park. Ten years later, park construction began, and the first section opened in 2010. By the time the park is completed in several years, the park’s designers and planners hope its green space and six open piers match the powerful, wondrous achievement that New Yorkers enjoyed when those with similar visions created Prospect Park nearly a century and a half ago.
Many people stop to look at the sunset or take pictures of a skyline becoming luminous with twilight. As they did this on the afternoon I was there, I witnessed how much it matters that people turn the once-abandoned, forbidden, and inaccessible parts of New York’s waterfront to places where a person can be near the river and harbor and seemingly touch the sky. As the sky turned deep blue with dark slate-gray clouds above the water and the lights twinkled from the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, I was in awe – remaining still as the final act after sunset played out. City dwellers know the value of these places – open patches where they can take in the sunshine and the starlight. It’s a daily, ever-varying, and priceless gift of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
View the slide show larger at Flickr.
New York’s Great Sunset Places
Check out Mindfulwalker.com’s other great New York spots for sunsets: