Celebrate Walt Whitman’s Bicentennial In Brooklyn

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Several events are planned across the borough in the coming weeks to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth (May 31, 1819).

Walt Whitman (Photographer George C. Cox, 1887) via Wikimedia Commons

Whitman lived in Brooklyn for 28 years, working as a printer, teacher,  journalist, and an editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. According to the Walt Whitman Initiative, the poet completed and first published Leaves of Grass while briefly residing at 99 Ryerson Street in Wallabout (at the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill border) in 1855.

The Brooklyn Public Library has several events lined up to honor the life and legacy of Whitman, kicking off with Whitman Weekend on Saturday, May 18 at the Central Library including:

On Sunday, May 19, the library will host “lightning lectures“; a Second Read of Leaves of Grass, reevaluating and debating the work; poetry and crafts; readings of Whitman’s poems by Mahogany L. Browne, Sam Roxas-Chua and more; and readings by Gregory Pardlo, Vievee Francis, and Marvin Bell of their own poems honoring Whitman. Click here to see the full list of BPL events.

On Friday, May 31, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership will host “A Reading of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and Concert” at Albee Square (corner of Fulton and Bond). Starting at 3:30pm, the Phil Woodmore singers will perform music from the era, followed by poets Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, and other guests reading “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” This downtown event will happen concurrently with readings of the poem taking place at all 59 branches of the Brooklyn Public Library.

On Sunday, June 2, Parachute Literary Arts will welcome visitors to celebrate Whitman’s bicentennial on Coney Island. The day-long Whitman Was Here: Walt Whitman In Coney Island festival will feature poetry, music, free workshops, and site-specific walks, as well as readings by LaTasha Nevada Diggs, Cliff Fyman, Stephanie Gray, Patricia Spears Jones, Tracie Morris, Barbara Henry, Urayoán Noel, and more. Walt Whitman’s letters from Coney Island will be read by Carol Lipnik.

And on Saturday, June 8, head over to Fort Greene Park for a Walt Whitman Walking Tour where attendees will learn about the history of Fort Greene Park and Whitman’s contributions to the green space.

Also on June 8, the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, Brooklyn Public Library, and Coney Island USA will host the Walt Whitman Beard and Mustache Competition. The all ages and genders competition will feature the following eight categories: Barbaric Yawp (Best Natural Moustache); Leaves of Grass (Best Natural Beard); Song of Myself (Best Costume Beard); Sea Drift (Best Styled Beard); Flag of My Disposition (Best Styled Moustache); Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking (Best Kids Beard); The Sleepers (Best Teen Beard); and The Good Gray Poet (Best in Show).

With 2019 marking the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth, the Walt Whitman Initiative is renewing its call to landmark Whitman’s former home at 99 Ryerson Street in Wallabout. Of the more than 30 homes Whitman lived in across Brooklyn and Manhattan, the house at 99 Ryerson is the only one that still exists, according to the organization. The “Leaves of Grass House in Brooklyn,” as they call it, is “one of the city’s earliest LGBTQ landmarks.”

The Walt Whitman Initiative requested that the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) consider 99 Ryerson a landmark in October 2017, however the agency determined that the building did not qualify for landmark designation since the poet only lived there for a short period and the structure had been significantly altered over the years. The Walt Whitman Initiative’s online petition to support the landmarking of the Ryerson Street home has collected nearly 5,500 signatures of its 7,500 goal. Click here to learn more and to sign the petition.

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