Past and Present: Aerial View of Cadman Plaza

Photo by McBrookyn

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Atlantic Yards, the high rises on Flatbush Avenue, the changes in Downtown Brooklyn: these projects have certainly altered the streetscapes and silhouette of Brooklyn. But they don’t hold a candle to the changes that took place when Cadman Plaza was created. Most of us either grew up or moved here long after the Plaza was created, so what we see on a daily basis now has a comfortable familiarity. The trees in the park have reached full growth. The benches, monuments, statues and buildings have all gained the patina of age that the city bestows. We can’t imagine anything else. That is, until we see the photographs.

The aerial photograph of the Cadman Plaza area (above and below) was taken in 1935, and what a difference. It was taken from about Court Street and Montague Street. Borough Hall and the old court house are just outside of the photograph. The view looks out towards the bridge. There are two big stories here, shown graphically in black and white. The first is the presence of the elevated train lines. For fifty-some years these tracks cut through Downtown Brooklyn from the Brooklyn Bridge and then up Fulton Street, running right by Borough Hall.

The closest experience you can find today to what downtown must have been like is the busy shopping corridor beneath the J train on Broadway on the Williamsburg-Bushwick border. Only it would have been even worse in the early 20th century since those trains gave off much more pollution from smoke and ash. The Sands Street terminal was the last terminal on the Brooklyn side, and was a huge transit stop. It can be seen at the top of the photo, just underneath the factory buildings. Almost at the center of the photo, a rail yard with stored trains can be seen.

With the exception of the post office, prominent at the center right side of the photograph, and some of the factory buildings far to the back in Dumbo, everything else in this photograph is now gone. That’s a lot of gone. The Cadman Plaza project was the largest urban, civic center project to be completed in the city after World War II, although it was started well before the war. This photograph was probably taken to document the destruction that would soon follow.

By 1936, buildings closer to the Brooklyn Bridge began to come down in order to widen the roadways to the bridge. In the early 1940s the elevated train tracks began to come down, and by 1944 the tracks and terminals were all gone, opening up the entire downtown area. The plans for the civic center, as well as the memorials, the parks and later, the housing, were being developed. By the early 1950s, the entire area shown in this photograph was razed, leaving only the post office. The entire Cadman project was completed before the decade was out. There are, of course, many side stories to the building of Cadman Plaza, and it’s rather fascinating. In one enormous project, the entire municipal area of the city was permanently changed.

Today, as seen in the modern photograph, we have a huge extended park flanked on all sides by new courthouses, housing and municipal buildings. There is now a vast expanse of parkland all leading to the new approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge. The trains are now all underground. We lost some great buildings in the process, and closer to the bridge viable neighborhoods were eliminated. As always happens, little thought was given to the details, and the entire area was felled like a hand clearing off a table.

It’s rather amazing the post office is still here — the only 19th century building in the footprint to survive aside from Borough Hall. But all in all, few would argue that Cadman Plaza was a bad idea. In the middle of urban hustle and bustle, parkland, open spaces and places to gather and rest are good and necessary things, and the Plaza is being enjoyed by more and more people every year. GMAP

1935 aerial photograph by John Rutter, showing the Cadman Plaza area. Brooklyn Public Library.

Cadman Plaza today. Photo: McBrooklyn

7 Comment

  • This is one of the very few urban renewal projects from mid-century that actually worked to some extent. You are correct that it was a miracle that the post office was saved. Such buildings were regarded as Victorian monstrosities and post office officials wanted it gone but somehow a tiny glimmer of enlightenment guided the planner/bulldozers to keep the post office as a counter-balance to Boro Hall. Good call.
    The problem with the development of Brooklyn was that it was laid out as a farm village with no thought given to any concept or urbanity or amenity. It was more like Dogpatch than Paris. The incredible growth happened and downtown became a jumbled mess. There were some very fine individual buildings but they were in a mishmash context made somewhat hellish, according to contemporary accounts, by the cinders and ash falling down from the trains. The ground-level streetcars were constantly running over pedestrians. It must have been something.
    Cadman Plaza is getting better as it ages and is a welcome bit of open space and greenery in the still congested downtown neighborhood.

  • I live near Cadman Plaza and find it to be a cold, heartless urban space. It’s narrow, but long dimensions give it a suffocating, claustrophobic feeling. The brutalist monstrosity called the Brooklyn Supreme Court hovers over it in a menacing way. It’s not the grand urban epicenter Brooklyn deserves.
    “Greenery” it is certainly not.

  • Agreed. I’m surprised that TWO people are calling cadman plaza a great idea. It is cold cold cold and paved paved paved. An urban oasis it is not. I’ve lived in brownstone brooklyn for 5 yrs now, come through here often enough, and i am desperately struggling to picture cadman plaza as anything other than dark, cold, and wet, like on a rainy day. Like in the picture you posted.

  • I am of two minds here. As a preservationist, I wish a more nuanced hand had decided what stayed, and what was destroyed. Frank Freeman’s Brooklyn Savings Bank, which was pulled ostensibly for widening the roads to the bridge, was an unnecessary loss. They didn’t need to tear down the Brooklyn Eagle Building, right next to the Post Office, either. Not to mention the old Court House and Hall of Records.

    I think the Supreme Court building is an ugly behemoth, and you are right, it looms. Can’t imagine what they were thinking there, either.

    But…. as Minard says, and as you can see from the picture, the area was a mish mash of buildings that went up with no rhyme or reason, and had long ago lost their charm, and some of them were ramshackle wood frames, and ancient tenements that were dangerous. The el had made this area an urban nightmare. It was the perfect place for a plaza.

    The problems is that it is incredibly long, and relatively narrow, and it is cut off by cross streets, and does not have a unified feel to it. I tend to think of it as several parks next to each other, rather than one. In spite of that, I don’t find it cold, I find most of it underutilized. I think if more of the Plaza was used and opened up, it would be less of a tunnel and more of a park. It’s what we’ve got, we should make the most of it.

  • I had always thought that the buildings pulled down where all beautiful and stately row houses; but i dan see from the old photo that it was a mess of ramshackle buildings. I don’t feel so bad about it now. I don’t spend much time in the park, but it is a nice space, and it was good that they did consider adding public space.

  • Folks, remember that just a few years earlier, the city fathers tore down Walt Whitman’s home and office and tore down the brownstone where the Roeblings oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge from a top floor window.
    It was not an era given to historical appreciation or appreciation of the city as a pedestrian-oriented place. In that context, Cadman Plaza was a near miracle of urban planning.
    They should have named it something else though. “Cadman” sounds vile. It should have been “Leaves of Grass Plaza” or “Emily Roebling Plaza”.

  • No on remembers S. Parkes Cadman now, and they even renamed Washington Street inland of the BQE as Cadman Plaza East. Also tore down major office buildings, including the Brooklyn Eagle Bldg. All this because with the Manhattan-centric view at the time, what did Brooklyn need a “civic center” for, when we all have Manhattan—aka “the City”.

    I agree that there is way too much paving in this area. No one seems happy with that, unless you count the thousands of rats who frolic on the edges of the paved area in the photo above.

    I have lived in the North Heights for more than 4 decades and avoid this area, unless I have to mail a letter. The renovation and restoration of the block-square Post Office—now the PO, Bankruptcy Court, and offices—is a bright spot in this area. (Although it was supposed to be finished in 2001, and is now a mere 12 years behind schedule.)