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Portions of this article have been updated.
Understanding war, and getting through it, take conversations, courage, and a close look at local culture—which, for civilians in the know, includes Fort Hamilton. The city’s only active-duty military base bumps less than when it began in the 1830s, but it’s still brimming with beautiful grounds and smiling soldiers—according to public affairs officer Ray Aalbue, “They don’t go to war. They’re here for protection purposes, mainly.” Military personnel with valid IDs can readily pass through security gates, while civilians need special permission. “We’ve been under force-protection conditions since September 11, 2001,” says Aalbue. “Anybody who wants to come has to have a reason, and everybody’s subject to search, but you can apply to come for the day. It’s not like we don’t want people to visit Fort Hamilton—this is federal land—but the bottom line is commonsense safety.”
Boundaries: 92nd Street to the north, the harbor to the south, Seventh Avenue to the east, and Fort Hamilton Parkway to the west
Transportation: If you’re driving, take the 92nd Street exit off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge or Exit 2 off the Belt Parkway from Staten Island. Or, if your MetroCard’s just burning a hole in your pocket, hop the R train to 95th Street or the B8 bus to Fort Hamilton Parkway.
Main Drags: Walking along the fort’s cannon-lined coast offers a delicious view of Staten Island. Residents and reservists also pack into the centrally located MiniMall for bagels, dry cleaning, and those fabled $8 military haircuts, as well as the local commissary for tax-free groceries (Raisin Bran: $1.99!).
Average Price to Rent/Buy: Just outside the fort, studios rent for $800 to $900 ($700 and up) and sell for $110,000 to $185,000 ($60,000 and up); one-bedrooms rent for $900 to $1000 ($900 and up) and sell for $240,000 to $350,000 ($90,000 and up); and two-bedrooms rent for $1450 and up ($1,400 and up) and sell for $250,000 and up ($200,000 and up). On-site red-brick houses are available, but mad hard to hook up.
Cultural Institutions: The fort’s Harbor Defense Museum (harbordefensemuseum.com) is the city’s only U.S. Army museum, and houses 175-year-old fortress doors as well as some of the sweetest military insignia this side of the Verrazano. “We’ve turned it around quite a bit,” says Aalbue. “And we have new exhibits, and we’re always looking for new volunteers.”
Community Events: “We’re at war, so there aren’t many public community activities,” says Aalbue, “but there is the Community Club, where people can hold events. It’s in what used to be the old fort, so it’s a walk back in time.” Otherwise, the swimming pool and youth center permit chumming and chatting, while the military cinema kindly requests quiet. Friends of the fort get festive, of course, during the Kings County Memorial Day parade.
Famous Residents: Captains Abner Doubleday and Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Stonewall Jackson gained prestige here and brought some to the base themselves, word has it. The fort’s Doubleday baseball field refers to Abner himself, who sports fans still miscredit with having invented the game in 1839—wanna debate?
Landmarks: The fort was built in 1825 and received national landmark status in 1974 and city landmark status three years later. The castle-like building houses antique artillery, handsome ballrooms, and plenty of stories.
Best Restaurants: Options range from the fort’s chow hall to a single on-site Burger King, so some residents and visitors venture to the nearby Il Mediterraneo (8221 Fifth Avenue). The Italian bistro serves a veal romano with mushrooms and artichokes in a white wine sauce to die for. Karam (8519 Fourth Avenue), one of the area’s late-night Lebanese hangouts, offers $4 shish kebabs until 1 a.m. Go there for the hummus and tabbouleh, too—and gyros, if you’ve got the guts.
Best Bars: Alcohol’s available in bulk at the commissary, but to sip suds at your own pace, try the hip Muses (8320 Third Avenue) or the chatty Bean Post Pub (7525 Fifth Avenue).
Politicians: Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, councilmembers Vincent Gentile, Sara Gonzalez, and Bill de Blasio, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, and State Senator Diane Savion, all Democrats, and Congressman Vito Fossella, Republican.
Crime Stats: “We have a wonderful partnership with the fire department and all the city agencies, but this is a private fort with private security,” explains Aalbue. That said, here are the statistics of the surrounding 68th Precinct, covering Bay Ridge, As of September 25, 2005 it reported 1 murder, 4 rapes, 99 felonious assaults, and 277 burglaries. (as of March 9: zero murders, the same as last year; zero rapes, down three; 27 robberies, up three; 87 burglaries, up six; and 20 felonious assaults, down seven).