Did you know you can see Coney Island from Prospect Park? You can, and much more besides, from a spot hidden in plain site 177 feet above sea level called Lookout Hill. Located between the lower lake and the Nethermead on the park’s southeastern end, Lookout Hill first entered the history books as the site of a noble last stand by the Maryland 400, a company of Patriots who protected the American retreat during the the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 (a monument to the heroes lies at the hill’s lake-side base, designed by the famous architect Stanford White). Later it became the civilized centerpiece of Olmsted and Vaux’s 1870 design for their park. Curving carriageways would bring the good burghers of Brooklyn up the elevation, where they would decamp on a landscaped plateau. Distant traces of bandstand music from the meadow below mingled with hushed conversation concerning the City’s glorious future, as citizens eyed the undeveloped tracts of meadow and forest stretching five miles distant towards Bay Ridge and Coney Island.
Today the carriageways are overcome with untended foliage, and tree branches obscure the sky and space beyond. Indeed, you can barely see the viewing plateau from ground-level, so overgrown are the surroundings (Central Park would never be allowed to fall into such disrepair). The only way of getting up is from a few inconspicuous pathways hugging the side of the hill. Nonetheless, the effort is more than worth it.
You climb up the steps, the sounds of the city slowly fading until only bird calls and groaning trees can be heard. Nearing the top you see the original carriage-roads winding their way around an overgrown garden (now a prime bird-watching spot), but you continue on the path until you reach the viewing plateau – the “lookout”. Around you unfolds an amazing panorama. Unlike the skyscraper view of Manhattan, with individual structures standing out and apart from each other like glass exclamation points, the vista of Lookout Hill offers the vast roofscape of Mid-Brooklyn: brownstones, rowhouses, and apartment blocks spreading towards the horizon, with the occasional church steeple and schools rising above the ocean.
Peering west, vacant department stores crowd around subway stops in Lefferts Gardens and East Flatbush. Somewhere beyond is the end of Brooklyn and the beginning of Long Island. Looking southward, the green strip of Ocean Parkway South cuts its way through the art-deco apartments of Midwood and Gravesend, ending with a view of Coney Island’s parachute jump. To the east is Sunset Park, the hills of Staten Island, and the great hulking arch of the Verrazano Bridge which connects them. It is a completely unique view you can’t find anywhere else, and when the sun is setting and its fading light is illuminating the roofscape and the glistening Atlantic beyond, it is one of the most powerful.
The best time to visit Lookout Hill is in the winter and early spring before leaves obscure the views. Nonetheless, it is worth going up there for the pure atmostphere as well – for its atmosphere of peace and isolation, not to mention its delicious aura of “faded glory” in an somewhat over-botoxed borough. It’s perfect for a picnic, a post-frisbee rest, a third date, or an existential epiphany (not mutually exclusive options). Just don’t tell too many people about it!