Stalwart Champions of Willowtown

The following remarks about Caroline Palestino, 1919-2011, and Mary Merz, 1926-2011, were given by William "Bill" Newbury, secretary/treasurer of the Willowtown Association, at its 2012 Spring Fair on Saturday, May 19, on Willow Place as part of a ceremony dedicating trees on Columbia Place and State Street to the two women. We have gathered here to celebrate the lives of two stalwart champions of Willowtown, women who represented the best of this neighborhood. Caroline Palestino lived here for all 92 years of her life. A native of Ohio, Mary Merz moved to Willow Place in 1965, more than 50 years ago. Not only were they each wonderful mothers of four kids, but they also took Willowtown under their motherly wings. Caroline and Mary nurtured and protected the neighborhood in ways that kept Willowtown intact and prepared for its life today.

Listen to this history:

+ Caroline was born at 10 Columbia Place, where her family had a dry goods store. Just this month Rachel Graville of Iris Café on Columbia Place opened a "take away" store also on Columbia Place, probably the first new such store in the neighborhood for some 50 years.

+ Caroline attended kindergarten in the building at 26 Willow Place dating from 1876 and used as a public school during 1928-42. Since 1962 it has been the Alfred T. White Community Center that has always housed a thriving preschool. For the past 30 years the preschool has been under the auspices of Saint Ann’s School on Pierrepont Street.

+ In the 1920s the Palestino family moved to 355 Furman Street, where they opened a restaurant. In 1928 Caroline watched workmen pour the concrete for the construction of the massive warehouse at 360 Furman Street, now reborn as the luxury condominium known as One Brooklyn Bridge Park.

+ Caroline delivered lunches from the family restaurant to local businesses including Fein’s tin can factory on Furman Street below Remsen. There she met her husband Raymond. The site is where a field house/velodrome is expected to be built in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

+ In the late 1940s construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway led to the demolition of 355 Furman Street. The family then moved to an abandoned brownstone at 37 Willow Place, where Caroline lived for the rest of her life. She forever disliked the words that brought about this change, "eminent domain."

+ Mary and her husband Joe, both architects, started their own firm in 1960. Shortly they became the owners of four newly cleared lots on Willow Place and the site of three new houses designed and built by them. No. 48 became their own home and office. Theirs were the first new houses built in the neighborhood in some 60 years.

+ Mary had poured her energy into the successful battle to stop urban planner Robert Moses from realizing his "slum clearance" plan for Willowtown. He wanted to build apartment towers here. All of the beautiful and historic homes in our vibrant neighborhood today would have been lost.

+ With four kids, Mary was also an active parent and volunteer in the Brooklyn Heights Community Nursery School then at the A.T. White Center.

To their final days, these two women continued to share their love of Willowtown. Caroline into her 90s sat proudly, with her front door wide open, at the top of her stoop greeting neighbors as they walked by. And similarly Mary was always out walking, greeting everyone with her indomitable smile, or checking the condition of the neighborhood on her bicycle.

The Willowtown Association is proud to honor these two longtime residents with memorial trees. They taught us to love and cherish our neighborhood and all that is special about it.




Caroline Palestino




Mary and Joe Merz

Living Witnesses

The tree dedication ceremony held as part of the Willowtown Association’s 2012 Spring Fair on Saturday, May 19, on Willow Place included the reading by Rector Steve Muncie of Grace Church Brooklyn Heights–or, as he said at the ceremony, Grace Church Willowtown--of the poem, "When I Am Among the Trees" by Mary Oliver, and his giving a dedicatory prayer. The poem and prayer follow:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness, I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow of ten.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.” The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say, “and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Now Bless These Trees

Gracious God, most loving, most merciful source of all that is true and lovely and beautiful. You created us in your image to live in peace and harmony with one another. And you have called us to tend and keep the garden of your creation. In this world of conflict and destruction, in this world of wounds and sorrows, watch over Willowtown and all the world. Grant us hope in the future, hope in your creative power, hope in what may yet be. Grant us strength and courage to rebuild what has been destroyed. Help us to bring peace and healing where lives are broken. Give us courageous vision to plant a new future for all people. Now bless these trees planted in loving memory of our dear neighbors Caroline and Mary. May they spring forth and grow as living witnesses to your sheltering care for all people, now and forever. Amen