There is a constant tug of war among New Yorkers between what places are officially called and what they choose to call them. That big thoroughfare between Broadway and Fifth may have signs along it that claim its called Avenue of the Americas, but locals still call it Sixth Avenue. The building that cuts Park Avenue in half may be owned by MetLife, but that doesn't stop long-memoried folks from referring to it as the Pan Am Building. The walkway along the water in Brooklyn Heights bears the name The Esplanade, but everyone calls it the Promenade.
I recently came to the conclusion that I and my wife are the only people who call Van Vorhees Park by that name. This strip of green and playground equipment is bordered by Columbia Street on the west, Congress Street on the south, the BQE on the east and north. It's well-used by parents and kids in Cobble Hill and along Columbia Street. It's been in its present location since 1956, and has borne its name—after local attorney and LICH president Tracy S. Voorhees—since 1941. But no one calls it that.
I was planning my son's birthday party, and when I told them it would be in Van Voorhees Park, almost every parent looked at me with confusion and said "Where?" I would explain where the park was. And they'd say, "Oh, Congress Park."
Makes sense. Congress Park. It's on Congress Street. But how do you use a park for years and completely miss the big sign that tells you its name? Maybe its the long, hard-to-pronounce handle. Van Vorhees isn't the easiest thing to say. That's probably why I like saying it. That, and the name reminds me of New York's Dutch past. Tracy S. Voorhees was part of a family that traces its lineage to Steven Coerten Van Voorhees, who settled in Brooklyn in the mid-17th century.
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He established himself in the neighborhood of Flatlands, became a magistrate, an elder in the Dutch Reformed Church, and the head of a formidable clan. His ten children bore 20 grandchildren. The grandchildren amassed 85 children themselves, among them Tracy Voorhees, to carry on the family name. The “Van” was eventually dropped from the name.
Born and raised in New York City, Tracy Voorhees received his degree from Columbia University Law School in 1915, after which he began practicing law. From 1936 to 1944 he served as President of Long Island College Hospital. Voorhees joined the Army in 1942, one year later becoming the director of the legal and control divisions of the Army’s Surgeon General’s Office. As Director, Voorhees was responsible for the administration of the medical department’s affairs, including the care of the sick and wounded, and later, the demobilization of Army medical personnel.
When World War II (1939-1945) ended, Voorhees was assigned to oversee food relief in occupied Europe. A year later, he became a food administrator for all occupied areas. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) appointed Voorhees Assistant Secretary of the Army and President of Army Emergency Relief, a semi-autonomous agency that provided financial assistance to soldiers and their dependents and supplemented the efforts of the American Red Cross. In 1953, Voorhees retired from the Army, and returned to private practice. During his long military and government career, Voorhees received the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Army’s third highest award for devotion to duty, the Department of Defense Award for Distinguished Public Service, and the Army Distinguished Civilian Service Award.
In 1956 and 1957, at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), Voorhees served as the President’s personal representative for Hungarian Refugee Affairs and as Chairman of the President’s Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief. Under his direction, 32,000 Hungarian refugees were resettled in the United States. Between 1960 and 1961, he continued to serve the Executive Branch, aiding numerous Cuban refugees much as he had Hungarian refugees.
Van Voorhees Park was originally known as Jeannie Scott Dike Playground and was located one block north, between Pacific, Congress, Columbia, and Hicks Streets. According to property records, the City acquired the land for this park in four parcels in the following years: 1864, 1941, 1942, and 1947. The land received in 1941 came as a gift from Long Island College Hospital during Mr. Voorhees’s term as President and the park received its present name. By 1956, the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway expanded Van Voorhees Park to a total of 5.25 acres.