International Tabletop Day Events In NYC – April 30th, 2016

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On Saturday April 30th, 2016, new and old gamers alike will crowd tables worldwide for International Tabletop Day. Now in its fifth year, the day has been spreading with the hobby each year with day-long events packed with gaming, food, drinks, community and yes, even exclusive swag, prizes and discounts at some locations. Even Barnes & Noble is getting in on the event this year with hosted games starting around 4pm at many locations nationwide. I’ll be spending the day with my own group at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, as I do most weekends throughout the year.

Those looking for their own place to play will find many spots throughout New York City. Below are my picks for the day, and I strongly urge you to check out each store’s website for full details.

The Brooklyn Strategist

333 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY. 718-576-3035

The Brooklyn Strategist has an enormous line-up of overlapping events all day from 11am to 11pm. Board game, miniature games and painting, and RPG games will run throughout the day in two large storefront rooms of tables plus the shop’s outdoor garden space (weather permitting). Many of the boardgames will be run by the designers themselves, and the miniatures gaming will range from sci-fi and fantasy to historical eras from ancients to World War II. Special discounts are also available for the day from the store’s big inventory of games, miniatures and supplies, and the usual selection of delicious snacks and drinks will be available at their in house cafe.

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The Geekery HQ

42-11 Broadway, Astoria, NY. 718-606-2853

This Queens gaming outpost will be open all day with a big slate of opportunities to take home gaming loot. Playing, hosting or winning games throughout the day earn participants points toward a ton of limited edition and promotional games. A raffle for the non-profit organization Kaboom! will also allow players to support children’s playgrounds while spending the day at the tabletop.

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The Uncommons

230 Thompson Street, New York, NY. 646-543-9215

Located in Greenwich Village just South of Washington Square Park, The Uncommons is the go-to board game cafe in Manhattan. Tabletop Day events will run from 2pm til 11:30pm, and it’s the perfect casual gaming spot with a collection of hundreds of board and card games for play and sale. There’s also a super solid selection of coffee, craft beers and snacks to keep your gaming fueled all day long.

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Twenty Sided Store

362 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY. 718-963-1578

Williamsburg’s premier gaming store will be running games from noon to 9pm with hourly raffles for give-aways. Every game will be game-mastered by experienced players, making the event perfect for new and veteran players. People should RSVP for the event to attend and get instantly signed up for the day’s drawings of exclusive stuff.

Rapping The Revolution At “Hamilton”

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There were some constants in my childhood — playing games, learning about American history and theater. My parents were active in local community theater building sets, gathering up props, costuming, running patron sponsorship and all the random tasks which come with a volunteer stage group. Life at home had a pattern for years with dramas or comedies over the winter and larger scale musicals over the summer. As I grew older, I also got involved with school musicals, and I’ve got a ton of great memories onstage and backstage from my teen years. All through my life, musicals have formed a soundtrack, from the piles of records by my parents’ stereo to the CDs I carted with me to college to the cast recordings I stream in my apartment today.

HamiltonSoldiers“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast

Living in Brooklyn for the past 20 years has granted me access to some of the best theater in the world, and this past week I had the opportunity to catch one of the most lauded American theater events of the century so far — Hamilton. Based on Ron Chernow’s bestselling 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, much has been written already about this remarkable work by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but for me, it just hits so many notes of my life past and present.

The musical jumps to a start with a quickly-sung early biography of Alexander Hamilton’s orphaned boyhood in the Caribbean and arrival in British-ruled New York City in 1773. The city itself is a main character in the story, staged as a place full of immigrants, wealthy families, big ideas, life-changing opportunities, celebrity scandals, an unforgiving press and power struggles intersecting in taverns, parlors and streets which very much resembles New York to this day. Hamilton sees only opportunity, the ensemble lyric repeating again and again –“In New York you can be a new man.”

The play goes a long way in showing how the American Revolution was fought over drinks, bedroom liaisons, spies and backroom deals as much as it was — or perhaps more so — on the battlefield. The “rooms where it happen” are where Hamilton, his rival Aaron Burr and his allies — the French upstart Marquis De Lafayette, tailor and spy Hercules Mulligan and early abolitionist John Laurens — meet, argue and scheme. These rooms are also where begins the arc of Hamilton’s relationship with the daughters of Philip SchuyluerElizabeth, Angelica and Peggy — who he charms and eventually betrays. Hamilton joins General George Washington as his aid with “Right Hand Man” and brings his friends in tow. The web of influences these characters have on one another in shaping the course of the war and the founding of the United States are delivered through alternately rousing and deeply emotional songs, rapped and soulfully sung.

HamiltonandWashingtonLin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Christopher Jackson as George Washington

On top of the personal dramas, there’s a ton of real real history (and military history) that rips and raps by in Hamilton. The arrival of British forces en masse in New York Harbor and the New York and New Jersey campaign of 1776-1777 is covered quickly with shock to the overwhelmed colonials forced into retreat. Washington’s cautiousness during the Revolution is chalked up to quick references to his early experience as a British officer during which he experienced death first hand. The historically-savvy will note this as an allusion to the slaughter at Jumonville Glen, Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity and the death of his mentor British General Edward Braddock.

Washington’s challenges in managing a barely-equipped army while surrounded by strivers like Charles Lee (who had served with Washington under Braddock during the French and Indian War) are covered through the middle of the first act. Lee’s disastrous decisions at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and the rise of Lafayette’s military importance in partnership with Washington and Hamilton comes midway in the first act with “Stay Alive” and begins to point toward how the colonists may win the war through the intervention of the French with the song “Guns and Ships.”

Battles are covered by the ensemble cast quickly swapping blue and red coats, dancing with rifles and booming and flashing stage effects. The victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, sung by Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette and Mulligan in “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” presents the true shock felt by the British in the aftermath eventually leading to the end of the war in 1783.

HamDebateDaveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson, Jackson as Washington and Miranda as Hamilton in an Act II Cabinet debate

The second act moves from insurrection to nation-building with the arrival of Thomas Jefferson back from France in 1789, the creation of the first US Cabinet under Washington and the ongoing political battles through the administration of John Adams and the election of Jefferson in 1800. Four years later, lifelong rivals Burr and Hamilton meet in their fateful duel, and the legacy of both is written. The play closes with the company singing “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” with a gut-wrenching meditation on the nature of history itself.

IMG_7365The American Revolution stacks up in my apartment these days…

There is so much I love in Hamilton. The history is rich with complex events and relationships referenced in nearly every rhymed line. There are too many to recount, but everything from The Federalist Papers and the Compromise of 1790 to the Whiskey Rebellion and the dire illness of King George III late in his life are covered. If you’re up on the story of America in the last decades of the 18th-century, there is much to savor, and for the less knowledgeable, there is a lot of inspiration to dance out of the theater and learn more. The cast recording has played non-stop in my house since its release, and my wife, kids and I have talked more about the American Revolution than I think any of us have in our entire lives before.

But the discussion of history is only as good as it is relevant to the present, and again, Hamilton nails this. The use of pamphlets, papers and public oratory in the colonies was the social media of its day, used to build up one’s cause and take down rivals. The political infighting and quest for power of the period makes today’s national government look downright cooperative. Prominently, the rapping from a largely black and Hispanic cast in Hamilton alludes to the United States as a place only as strong as new arrivals and new ideas, no matter the race or country of origin. In all, the musical creates an overwhelming thrill and pride in being a citizen of a country like the United States which was founded and continues to be great, often despite itself.

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…as do games of the American Revolution on my shelf

And finally, as this is a gaming blog, Hamilton offers me yet another boost to get more time on the table with games of the period. In my post from last summer, Boardgames of the American Revolution, I talked about some of my faves and I am anxiously awaiting Liberty Or Death from GMT Games in the coming months. No doubt, there will be a fair amount gaming the American War of Independence for me this year, and Hamilton will be the soundtrack.

New Game Weekend: New York 1901

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I’ve been a fan of old buildings for pretty much my whole life, having grown up working for my family’s historic building renovation company. I took my childhood experience of working with 19th-and-early-20th-century buildings off to graduate school and got a master’s degree at the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation program in the early 1990s. While eventually landing working in digital media in NYC, I spent a ton of time along the way with various internships with venerable organizations like the National Trust For Historic Preservation and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

NYCSkylinePostcardMy panoramic NYC vintage postcard from a Brooklyn flea market

Even though my professional pursuits have moved away from old buildings, they remain a keen interest of mine. I’ve collected a fair number of books about the history of New York’s urban environment and some nice postcards of the old city, including a nifty folding panoramic vintage postcard of the old Gotham skyline view from my adopted borough of Brooklyn (above). My everyday life in New York City surrounds my in a wondrous timeline of architectural and engineering marvels. And so as a gamer, New York 1901 allows me to live through the early days of this history right from the comfort of my tabletop.

IMG_6843New York 1901 game in progress

A big hit at GenCon 2015, New York 1901 by Blue Orange Games places up to four players in the roles of early real estate developers at the southern tip of Manhattan at the dawn of the 20th-century. New York 1901 is the first foray into Euro-style strategy games from Blue Orange which is best known for family, educational and party games. The game hits the right notes of strategy, ease of play and short game time creating a great balance for players of all ages who may already be steeped in modern classics like Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride.

IMG_6844A player’s set-up in New York 1901

In the game, each player takes turns as burgeoning real estate developer (including a couple female roles) acquiring building lots, placing workers and erecting buildings. The lots occupy the lower Manhattan grid laced with famed streets bordering colored lots. At the beginning of the game, a ‘marketplace’ of four lot cards is set next to the board. In turn, players have two options. First, they may select a new lot and place worker to claim the lot on the board. Alternatively, a player may remove a worker or workers on contiguous lots to build a new building or demolish an existing building and construct a new one. Buildings come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including straight, square, rectangular, ell-shaped or other more complex shapes. The structures also represent three separate progressions of age — bronze, silver and gold. The combination of color and building shape gives each building a point value which is scored on the track at the edge of the board. Only once certain levels of points are achieved may a player begin to play the next color category of buildings.

IMG_6845New York 1901 Legendary Skyscraper tiles

Like real estate development in actual New York, constructing a new building may involve demolishing earlier buildings to replace them with new, larger and higher-valued structures. Multiple buildings on adjacent lots may also be torn down to allow for even larger buildings to be built. Once the gold level of buildings is reached, players may also select from four unique high-scoring ‘legendary skyscraper’ tiles, including the Metropolitan Life, Park Row, Singer and Woolworth buildings, and then mark the building with their own trophy piece marking the achievement as a master builder. Special action cards allow players to perform one-off acts like acquiring two lots at once or constructing two buildings in the same turn. The game ends when a player first depletes their building tile stock, and final bonus scoring is made according to random cards defining building dominance along prominent streets or other combinations of construction feats.

IMG_6846Workers and building tiles rise on lots in New York 1901

Fitting the buildings onto lots gives New York 1901 a spatial puzzle-like quality many have compared to Tetris. To me, the action of occupying lots and erecting buildings to block other players from doing the same gives the game a feel more akin to Cathedral. The combination of worker placement, area control and card play combine to touch on multiple major game mechanics, again making this a great intro game for newcomers and a quick, satisfying play for more experienced players.

IMG_6847A player builds the Metropolitan Life building and scores 12 points

While the game rests many popular mechanics, New York 1901 departs from many games in the Euro genre with a dazzling design of building tiles depicting graphics looking very much like the vintage postcards I collect. Steeped in history and the grid of New York’s Financial District, the game also serves as a creative potential jumping off point for families and school groups to learn more about the city’s history or tour some of the sites away from the game board of New York 1901.

New Game Weekend: King of New York

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As the blog states, I’m a New Yorker (a Brooklynite to be exact), so playing a game based in my city of residence is always a plus. Prancing around a game board depicting the five boroughs as a towering, cartoonish monster with a nasty temper is even better. And so, King of New York hits the sweet spot for me as a gamer and occasionally cranky denizen of the city that never sleeps.

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Sample monsters from King of New York

Released late in 2014 by IELLO Games, KONY is a follow-up standalone game to the popular King of Tokyo from 2011. KONY expands on KOT but it is not an expansion but a largely different game based on a similar premise and set of dice and card mechanics. Each of the 2-6 players chooses to be a gargantuan monster represented by a cardboard stand up figure and a scoring card. The monsters begin the game in one of the four outer boroughs with no more than two monsters allowed per borough. Within each borough are placed three stacks of three cardboard tiles each depicting buildings on one side and military units (jeeps, tanks and jet planes) on the reverse.

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Sample cards from King of New York

A new set of six special dice are rolled by each player on their turn with faces for healing, attacks on other monsters, attacks on buildings, military attacks on monsters, energy cubes and victory point stars. Players roll the dice up to three times, keeping those dice they wish on each roll and re-rolling the rest. With the resulting dice, monsters resolve a number of actions. Buildings may be wrecked to earn healing points, victory points or energy cubes to purchase cards. Destroyed buildings flip over to reveal jeeps, tanks or jets which may attack other monsters in the same borough or across the board. Accumulated cubes are used to buy cards to provide permanent or one-time effects on monsters. Regular attacks take swipes at the other monsters on the board or the current “King of New York” romping northward through Manhattan. Monsters occupying Manhattan can remain on the island and earn victory points and energy cubes each turn or jump out to be replaced by an attacking monster. The first monster to earn 20 victory points wins the game to be crowned King of New York.

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A recent game of King of New York

There’s a lot more going on in KONY than its predecessor. New dice and the building and military unit chips add options and flavor to play. Two new special cards — Super Star and Statue of Liberty — add extra mechanics to the game as cards earned through dice rolls and then swiped by other players who also roll specific results on subsequent turns. The rest of the cards can be a bit overly wordy at times yet they pump up the interest by utilizing a lot of familiar New York landmarks like Columbia University, the Unisphere in Queens, Carnegie Hall, the Holland Tunnel, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Coney Island in Brooklyn and the infamous New York City Subway. Even with the new additions, KONY plays fast and fun with all ages.

If you’re a fan of King of Tokyo, giant monster films like the Godzilla series and board games set in New York City, King of New York is a towering success.

A Gamer’s Guide to Manhattan’s Hobby Shops

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I’ve mentioned here more than once that my childhood was full of hobbies including model rocketry, model railroading, plastic kit building, Dungeons & Dragons, comic books and miniatures wargaming. Like generations before me, hobby stores and the now-vanished hobby areas of large department stores and five-and-dimes were where I felt at home from an early age.

I moved to New York City in the mid-1990s when much of Old New York started breathing its last gasps. Along with the closings of many storied NYC bars, restaurants, clubs, book stores, comic shops and movie theaters, hobby shops of all types are becoming more and more a thing of the past here in the Five Boroughs. The causes of the decline of hobby shops in the city are many, including rising rents, loss of customer interest, the growth of online hobby retail and many owners simply retiring or passing away.

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The New York Times recently did a great little story on Rudy’s Hobby and Art in Astoria, Queens, and I’ve also become a semi-frequent visitor to Trainworld just a few subway stops away from my apartment in Brooklyn. These outposts in the outer boroughs hold on, but many of the classic shops in Manhattan have not. At the top of many city hobbyist memories is Polk’s Hobby Department Store which once occupied five floors at 314 5th Avenue. Like many businesses, Polk’s was a family-run affair headed up by two brothers beginning in the 1930s. The iconic store carried radio controlled boats and planes, slot cars, plastic model kits, trains and all matter hobby supplies which fueled the imaginations for generations of kids and adults. For the observant nostalgic, a quick glimpse of Polk’s survives in a scene from 1972’s The Godfather (photo at top).

Like Polk’s, most of Manhattan’s other hobby stores, like Carmen Webster’s on 45th Street and America’s Hobby Center on West 22nd Street, have likewise vanished from the city’s streets in recent years. At the same time, Brooklyn has seen a surge in gaming-specific stores and play spaces such as Kings Games, Brooklyn Game Lab, Twenty-Sided Store, The Brooklyn Strategist and Nu Brand Gaming. In Greenwich Village, The Uncommons now sits along the old “Chess Row” south of Washington Square, and a Games Workshop can be found a few blocks away well stocked with Warhammer and 40K players on any given weekend.

For the dedicated scale model hobbyist and gaming enthusiast, a few remnants of the traditional densely stocked hobby store of the past still live on in Manhattan. In almost all cases, online suppliers are a more economical option than purchasing from a local hobby or gaming brick-and-mortar store. However, it’s still hard to beat the experience of browsing a shop in person and having conversations with fellow customers and proprietors who share a passion for a hobby. I recently spent a sunny late summer day poking around in a few of my favorite NYC hobby shops that tap into that unique experience that still lives on.


Jan’s Hobby Shop

1435 Lexington Avenue

(212) 987-4765

IMG_4284Way up on Lexington Avenue in the East 90s,  Jan’s Hobby Shop is just the kind of store that fired my youthful imagination. Plastic soldiers, model kits, model rockets, paints, brushes, videos, books and hobby magazines are stacked floor to ceiling in the tight space of this classic hobbyist’s paradise. Kits from hundreds of manufacturers from around the world, from the common to the obscure, cover all eras, skill levels, scales and price ranges. Ships from the Age of Sail sit across from Star Wars X-Wings, ancient siege weapons are just down the aisle from Cold War artillery and all manner of cars, tanks, ships and planes fill every bit of space between. For the more advanced scale modeller, a handy selection of balsa, plastic styrene, brass tubing and specialized glues and construction materials sit at the ready.

IMG_4286Plastic soldiers from a variety of manufacturers, eras and scales at Jan’s

IMG_4287Paints and plastic model kits line the walls at Jan’s

IMG_4285Fred Hutchins’s WWII era experimental aircraft models

At the heart of the store on any given morning, store manager Fred Hutchins sits behind his workbench working away on his latest project. In my short visit with Fred, I learned of his lifelong love and work in aeronautical engineering. His ongoing project, at the rate of 30-50 models per year, is to build to scale every experimental aircraft built during World War II. In the cases nearby, much of Fred’s exquisite work is on display, and if you are a polite and patient visitor, he is more than happy to engage in a brief history lesson. Conversation with Fred, modeller-to-modeller, is just the kind of experience only found in a hobby shop and makes a visit to Jan’s worth the trip.


The Red Caboose

23 West 45th Street

(212) 575-0155

www.theredcaboose.com

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For a hobbyist like me, basements are portals to secret worlds of play hidden away from the normal world above. That’s where you’ll find The Red Caboose, tucked at the end of an easy-to-miss entry hall and then down some narrow stairs to a subterranean hobby wonderland. Focused largely on N and HO scale model railroading, The Red Caboose is lined with glass cases of rolling stock and engines from the steam era to today. Tourists may also find their way here to buy up some authentic scale New York MTA subway cars which may be special ordered to reflect specific routes past or present.

IMG_4283Cases of trains and row upon row of model kits at The Red Caboose

The Red Caboose is a place beyond trains, too.  Rows of shelves are devoted to kits for all sorts of buildings, bridges, industrial complexes and natural scenery, some of which have made their way to my wargaming tables over the years. Rotating racks of scale scratch building plastic, metal and wood parts, along with paints, brushes and other supplies provide a solid inventory for miniature modellers. A decent selection of military and civilian plastic kits and pre-built die-cast scale models can likewise by found, making a stop at The Red Caboose about much more than just trains.


The Compleat Strategist

11 East 33rd Street

(212) 685-3880

www.thecompleatstrategist.com

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As a budding role playing gamer in the 70s and 80s, I was fortunate to live near a college town where the local bookstore and five-and-dime each stocked a handy selection of Dungeons & Dragons books, miniatures and magazines. Tucked in the pages of later issues of those magazines, I occasionally saw ads for The Compleat Strategist with an inventory which sounded like a dream for my hungry gaming appetite. As a resident New Yorker today, a quick visit to “The Strat” over a lunch hour or on a weekend is an amazing escape for a quick purchase or just time spent browsing the latest in gaming.

IMG_4281The Compleat Strategist is NYC’s destination for serious gamers

The store is long, narrow and deep, with shelves of games, books, miniatures and accessories piled to the ceiling. Boardgames, chess sets and puzzles occupy the rear half of the store. A massive selection of boxed historical strategy games stretch down one wall toward an inventory of paints and miniatures ranging from Games Workshop and other fantasy lines to collectible games like Heroclix. RPG books and reference materials fill out the front of the shop along with buckets of dice, stacks of collectible cards like Magic: The Gathering and two large racks of gaming periodicals. Downstairs, the Compleat Strategist also hosts mini gaming tournaments most weekends, rounding out the total experience for the city gamer looking to stay connected to a vital hobby community.


Gotham Model Trains

224 West 35th Street, 13th Floor

(212) 643-4400

www.gothammodeltrains.com

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Down a generic block just north of Penn Station, the tiny and well kept Gotham Model Trains occupies a thirteenth floor space in a building housing a jumble of small businesses and professional offices. The shop is mostly about trains, and the tight inventory offers a well-edited counterpoint to the sprawling warren of shelves at The Red Caboose. I like the nice selection of Woodland Scenics ground cover, shrubbery, trees, gravel and other scratch-building materials in plastic, metal and wood on the walls and racks.

IMG_4279The well-curated inventory of Gotham Model Trains

But trains are the thing at Gotham Model Trains, and over the years this has been my local go-to for a few pieces of track needed in getting a little circular railroad running under my Christmas tree. Multiple scales, controllers, buildings, scale figures and a small selection of railfan books round out the inventory surrounding the sweet little N scale layout greeting you at the shop’s entrance. Stopping in at Gotham Model Trains, like a visit to any of Manhattan’s surviving hobby shops, you can’t help but have the irreplaceable experience of a living breathing hobby.

Battle of Brooklyn Commemoration at Green-Wood Cemetery

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Buried and hidden amid the 21st-century streets and neighborhoods of New York City is an enormous trove of history of the nation’s formative years and the battles waged here during the American War of Independence.

I live on a former battleground where British and American troops fought the first and largest battle of the Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn. Here in late August of 1776, just weeks after the Declaration of Independence was signed, some 35,000 British troops landed to face 10,000 Americans seeking to defend their new country. The series of engagements became a running retreat for General George Washington to the edge of Long island, over the East River, north through Manhattan and then on to safety in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

At historic Green-Wood Cemetery near my home, the Battle of Brooklyn’s 238th anniversary was commemorated this past weekend with reenactors, period weapons demonstrations, military music, a parade featuring more than eighty regimental flags and speeches by various local dignitaries. Also on display was the “Percy Map,” a contemporary map of the American positions during the battle made by British General Hugh Earl Percy. The map was recently acquired through a joint partnership between Green-Wood and the Brooklyn Historic Society and will be on display again beginning this week at the society’s exhibit “Unlocking Two Revolutionary War Era Maps.”

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Various local dignitaries such as Borough President Eric Adams and historian Barnet Schecter spoke during the official ceremonies held near the monument to the Battle of Brooklyn at Battle Hill in the cemetery this weekend. Schecter’s seminal 2002 book, The Battle For New York: The City At The Heart Of The American Revolution, places New York at the center of the War of Independence and grandly documents the events leading up to the Battle of Long Island and its aftermath. Using extensive primary written sources from the period, Schecter shows how the British obsession with maintaining control of New York drained precious resources from other fronts in the war and strengthened the newly-born nation’s resistance to their former English rulers. Schecter’s book documents that British General William Howe’s failure to follow-up his victories  during the August and September 1776 campaign allowed Washington’s army to retrench and prolong the war another seven years until eventual American victory.

Schecter’s book is a must-read for those of us interested in the story which unfolded here in the early days of the new American republic’s fight against overwhelming odds with the world’s most dominant military power at the time. Like the hundreds of other people in attendance at Green-Wood Cemetery, experiencing the place where the United States fought its first formative battle brought this history alive again on a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn, New York.

IMG_4128A Revolutionary War era encampment stood near the entrance to Green-Wood Cemetary

IMG_4126A variety of reenactors spoke to attendees about the soldier’s experience during the American War of Independence

IMG_4127Firing demonstrations of artillery pieces and mounted British officer reenactors helped bring the Revolutionary War period to life

IMG_4130Reenactors portraying General George Washington and his staff were present

IMG_4129The United States Marine Academy Regimental Band provided musical accompaniment for the ceremonies

IMG_4131Reenactors were recognized for their depiction of African-American contributions to the War of Independence

New York Harbor Defense History and Civil War Weekend at Governors Island

CastlewilliamsgiShuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan every day on the New York City subway system, it’s sometimes easy to forget I live and work in area surrounded by coasts. This past weekend I hopped a free mid-morning ferry from Brooklyn to Governors Island National Monument for some immersion in NYC’s coastal defense history and annual Civil War Weekend sponsored by the National Park Service.

New York Harbor Defense History

From the beginning of European settlement of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan by the Dutch in the early 1600s, the importance of New York Harbor as a gateway to a system of  trade and military defense was clear. The Dutch colony’s main defense at Fort Amsterdam eventually ceded to the British who maintained fortifications on the spot until after the American Revolution. In the post-Revolution centuries, the defense of New York Harbor remained a focus of the US military against foreign and domestic would-be aggressors.

Governorsislandplan1908 US Army Corps of Engineers map of Governors Island with Fort Jay (center) and Castle Williams (left)

Governors Island offers a good historic overview of the development of New York’s coastal defense works from the 18th through 19th centuries. Fort Jay dates from the late 18th-century when American colonists and British troops exchanged control of the island with various earlier wood and earth forts. The existing facility is a classic European-style star fort with masonry and earthen walls is typical of the design built all over the world from the 15th through 19th centuries. Entering through elaborate gates, a visitor walks into a peacefully idyllic central courtyard surrounded by Greek Revival colonnaded buildings with welcoming porches. Several cast iron Civil War era 10 and 15 inch Rodman cannons survive on the fort’s walls, pointing toward the harbor.

IMG_4073Guns overlook New York Harbor from Fort Jay

The later Castle Williams was built between 1807 and 1811 as a fortification just ahead of the War of 1812. The state-of-the art, circular casemate sandstone pile was designed by Col. Jonathan Williams, at the time the chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The first fort designed by an American engineer, Castle Williams presents three tiers of gun ports from which a nearly 360-degree field of defensive fire across the harbor.

IMG_4074The imposing walls of Castle Williams

Together with Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, Fort Wood (today the base of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island), Castle Clinton at the southern tip of Manhattan and Fort Gibson at today’s Ellis Island, Fort Jay and Castle Williams served as part of the interlacing network of forts protecting New York Harbor through the 19th-century. Both Fort Jay and Castle Williams would go on to other roles as the site of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, a US Army prison in the middle of the 20th-century and the site of a large US Coast Guard base until closing in 1996. Gone is the military use of Governors Island today, but the spaces still serve the public as place to walk amid important and usually unseen history of New York.

Civil War Weekend

Each August the National Park Service presents the only Civil War encampment of reenactors in New York City. With about a dozen tents in a small camp and more than twenty staff and volunteer reenanctors, the weekend’s events gives New Yorkers an up-close glimpse of a solder’s life during the Civil War.

IMG_4068Reenactors encamped at Governors Island

IMG_4076A Civil War era soldier’s equipment sits at the ready in camp

IMG_4072A reenactor discusses a Civil War soldier’s life with visitors to Governors Island

IMG_4075An officer reenactor speaks with with visitors to Governors Island

Aside from an opportunity to speak with reenactors and view some typical soldier’s equipment and life in camp, demonstrations of canon firing, drilling and infantry weapons are presented. For the less militarily-minded, period music was also offered in the comfort of shaded grass and rocking chairs inside the walls of Fort Jay.

IMG_4069Officer inspection of the troops at Governors Island

IMG_4070Canon firing demonstration during Civil war Weekend at Governors Island

IMG_4071Civil War era cannon shot, canister and ordinance loads

Although the use of Governors Island has primarily been military for several centuries, visiting the island today serves up multiple experiences. While the historic forts and sites under the governance of the National Park Service occupy approximately 22 acres to the north, the remaining 150 acres is now overseen by the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust has worked to create an oasis of recreational areas for picnicking, play, bike riding, strolling and relaxing among historic buildings, allays of trees, wide grassy lawns, outdoor sculpture and newly designed landscapes. Whether you are a visitor looking for a step back into American history or just unwind from the city’s usual hustle, Governors Island can give a whole new perspective on New York at the center of the harbor and world.