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December 14, 2017

NEW COALITION: TIME TO LANDMARK WALT WHITMAN’S BROOKLYN HOME

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK – A new coalition called on New York City’s Landmarks
Preservation Commission to reverse course and designate poet Walt Whitman’s former
Brooklyn residence as a city landmark. Whitman, recognized as America's greatest poet,
resided at 99 Ryerson Street near the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1855. In a letter last week, the
Commission claimed the building does not rise to the level of an individual landmark after
an initial assessment. Coalition members vigorously disagreed and some are now
considering legal action.

“Walt Whitman finalized and first published his famed book Leaves of Grass when he lived at
this address,” said Brad Vogel, the Brooklyn poet and preservationist who formally asked
the Commission to evaluate the property. “The site’s significance in American – and world -
cultural history makes it too important not to landmark. Architecturally pristine buildings
are not the only landmarks that mean a great deal to New Yorkers.”

Along with a host of neighborhood groups, LGBT organizations, literary organizations - and
even Ample Hills Creamery, writer Erica Jong and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky -
who provided the Commission with letters of support, the recently-formed Walt Whitman
Initiative is energetically championing the effort to landmark the structure. Landmark
designation would prevent future attempts at demolition of this key site in literary history.

“2019 marks the bicentennial of Walt Whitman’s birth,” said Karen Karbiener, an NYU
professor and a founder of the Initiative. “We hope to celebrate Whitman’s groundbreaking
contributions to literature by landmarking the site most associated with his seminal work
by the time that key milestone arrives. I hope the Commission understands this is not about
the architectural merit of 99 Ryerson Street but rather its incredibly significant cultural
value.”

Whitman’s introduction of “free verse” in poetry marked a watershed change in poetry that
continues to shape modern poetry and literature. His iconic status as an early American
literary voice for the LGBTQ community has also inspired groups like the NYC LGBT Historic
Sites Project, which highlighted the fact that Whitman’s residence was not yet landmarked
in a series of 2016 presentations.

“Whitman lived at a number of addresses in Brooklyn across his decades here in the city,
but this is the only one in New York City that still stands,” said Jay Shockley, one of the co-
founders of the Project. “The city needs more landmarks like this one to help narrate the
histories of LGBT Americans – and it needs to consider cultural landmarks seriously rather
than aesthetic landmarks alone.”

While the rowhouse at 99 Ryerson is a modest structure that has been altered over time,
preservation and neighborhood groups have made clear that it is worth preserving. A
number of supporters of the landmarking effort are currently generating a comprehensive
rebuttal to the Commission’s December 5, 2017 letter rejecting the building, as the
Commission indicated it is open to additional information and could conduct additional
evaluation.
“Although he moved frequently during his life, this is the only one of Walt Whitman’s homes
still standing in New York City. Whitman had deep roots in New York, especially Brooklyn,
and to not preserve his only remaining NYC home is absurd – history best comes to life
when physically encountered,” said Simeon Bankoff of the Historic Districts Council. “This
building could be regulated in the same manner as any of the altered properties already
overseen and protected by the Landmarks Commission but landmark designation is
imperative to ensure its continued survival.”

Indeed, one of the other major sites associated with Whitman and Leaves of Grass was
demolished decades ago to make way for a Robert Moses urban renewal project. The
Brooklyn Heights Association reminded the Commission of the earlier loss of the printing
press where Whitman published Leaves of Grass in its letter supporting evaluation of the
site.

For many poets and poetry groups, the building is a veritable shrine to one of the patron
saints of American poetic tradition.

“If Whitman’s Leaves of Grass gave birth to American poetry, then Brooklyn is the
birthplace of our art,” said Jason Koo, executive director and founder of Brooklyn Poets,
“and 99 Ryerson Street is the last remaining cradle. The Commission needs to reconsider
its initial rejection.”

Whitman’s far-reaching influence on American culture also shone through in the decision of
Ample Hills Creamery, a Brooklyn-based business named after a line in a Whitman poem, to
support the landmarking effort.

“Landmarking Whitman’s former residence would provide our community, as well as future
generations, a meaningful chance to connect with Whitman as a world-renowned literary
figure,” wrote Ample Hills Creamery CEO Brian Smith.

Whitman’s global reach was also cited repeatedly in the letters of support that have been
sent to the Commission to date, including the letter from well-known poet Robert Pinsky.

“During my time as Poet Laureate of the United States, my travels in our country and
abroad gave me a renewed sense of Walt Whitman’s ongoing, central importance,” Pinsky
wrote. “Poets writing in other languages, on every continent have looked to Whitman’s
work for an epitome of what is most liberating in the culture of the United States. Please let
me add my voice to those hoping that you will recognize his house in Brooklyn as a true
landmark.”

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Contacts:

Brad Vogel – Poet who requested landmark status - Brad.Vogel@gmail.com 920.860.6199
Professor Karen Karbiener - Walt Whitman Initiative- kk55@nyu.edu
Jay Shockley - NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project - jay@nyclgbtsites.org