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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mullaly Park

“mullalyNobody deserves to have a park named after him more than the park visionary John Mullaly, who became known as the "Father of the Bronx park system" in the late 19th century, before the Great Consolidation of 1898 in which the five boroughs – Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island – became one New York City.

Mullaly, Secretary of the New-York Park Association formed in 1891, aimed "to secure increased park area for the City of New-York" and called for "at least…two great breathing places beyond the Harlem River." By "beyond the Harlem River" he meant the three towns New York City had annexed in 1874: Morrisania, West Farms, and Kingsbridge, which became part of the new borough of The Bronx.

The results of Mullaly's commission: nearly 5,000 acres of parkland, comprising Van Cortlandt, Claremont, Crotona, St. Mary's, Pelham Bay, and Bronx Parks. (That last one encompasses the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo.)

Mullaly died in 1911, or 1914, or 1915. (Internet sources disagree.) In the 1920s the City of New York acquired the land that would become Mullaly Park in the High Bridge section of The Bronx. The city has developed it over time beginning in the 1930s "as a multi-use recreational facility that complements Macombs Dam Park to the south," to quote the Parks Department website. It includes playgrounds, a pool, a skate park, basketball courts, and more.

mullaly park bronx nyc

But passive recreation is very possible here too. I entered at E. 165 St. and River Ave. and immediately encountered two totally passive people.

mullaly park bronx nyc

A second later, and a good deal less passively, I was nearly bonked on the head by a stripped ear of corn dropped out of a tree by a squirrel.“mullaly

I didn't see the squirrel. But the people on the bench explained that my attacker was indeed one of those ratlike creatures whose furry tails and liking for trees rather than trash make them cute. And it did seem the only rational explanation.

Up ahead was a large, densely planted garden area "with an irrigation system, blooming trees, and landscaping." (The pretty tower in the distance isn't a church, it's PS 114, the Luis Lorens Torres School.)

mullaly park bronx nyc
mullaly park bronx nyc
mullaly park bronx nyc

Actually there are two of these garden areas, both threaded with narrow winding paths. I had the southern one all to myself. An organized group of teenagers from The Bronx is Blooming was tending the northern one.

mullaly park bronx nyc
mullaly park bronx nyc

A splashing sound drew my attention, and I was just quick enough to catch this robin after his water-fountain bath.

mullaly park bronx nyc

I like these playground dolphins too.

mullaly park bronx nyc

Back in the southern section, besides the skate park there's the big Mullaly Recreation Center (the brick building), more athletic facilities, chess tables, another playground, and a view of Yankee Stadium.

mullaly park bronx nyc
mullaly park bronx nyc

John Mullaly published a book in 1887 vividly describing his vision for the Bronx parks. Google has digitized the book and below is a screen shot of the fancy cover page. He was a fascinating character whose exploits went well beyond park planning: born in Belfast; Civil War draft resistance; a stint as New York Commissioner of Health; and finally dying "almost penniless…in a Second Avenue hall bedroom on a bitter day in 1914," according the October 20, 1929 edition of the New York Herald Tribune, a paper he had written for at yet another stage of his peripatetic career.

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"Nearly 4000 acres of free playgrounds for the people." Now that's my kind of visionary. If no one has written a biography of John Mullaly – and it doesn't seem that anyone has – someone ought to.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Joyce Kilmer Park

“joyceBeing an "English major for life," I suppose I should have known who Joyce Kilmer was, but I admit I didn't. I'd heard the name, but that's it.

Better late than never: now I know Joyce Kilmer was a he, and he was the poet who wrote "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree." A famous Catholic writer and lecturer in his time, he was killed in World War I on the Western front in 1918 at the age of 31. And just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, Joyce Kilmer Park in the Melrose/Morrisania section of The Bronx honors his memory – though he doesn't seem to have had any particular connection to the borough.

The former Concourse Plaza is a tall rectangle like a miniature Central Park, its southern and most dramatic entrance at 161st Street. Most of the park lies on flat terrain, but some picturesque rockage greets the visitor approaching from the south.

joyce kilmer park bronx nyc

Because of the circumstances of Kilmer's death, the park named for him fits right in with all the doughboy monuments found in other parks throughout New York City, though there's no graven doughboy image in Joyce Kilmer Park. Nor is there an image of Kilmer, though "Trees" is inscribed into the pavement (see photo, above right).

Instead of a doughboy statue, Joyce Kilmer Park has the Lorelei Fountain, also known as the Heinrich Heine Memorial, and a statue of Louis J. Heintz, the first commissioner of Bronx street improvements and progenitor of the Grand Concourse – a sort of Baron Haussmann of The Bronx.

What a lot of Germanic names in one little paragraph about one humble park! The fountain has an interesting history. Intended for Dusseldorf, the poet Heinrich Heine's hometown, Ernest Herter's sculpture was instead brought here from Germany after objections by, according to the Parks Department, "political groups opposed to Heine's Jewish origins and political views," and erected in 1899 through the largesse of German-Americans – much like the German Fountain in Santiago, Chile. I gather German emigrés of a century ago had a thing about fountains.

joyce kilmer park bronx nyc

The Lorelei Fountain was the only place I saw tourists on my Bronx parks excursion last week. In the photo above, the two women on the left were looking at the monument while consulting a guidebook. I didn't listen in to see if they were speaking German.

The fountain also attracts a lot of birds, as fountains are wont to do.

joyce kilmer park bronx nyc
joyce kilmer park bronx nyc

The monument to Louis J. Heintz commemorates "the founding of the progress and prosperity of The Bronx." The sculpture by Pierre Fietu dates from 1909.

joyce kilmer park bronx nyc
joyce kilmer park bronx nyc

But most of the park is plain old grass and trees, with a playground at the north end.

joyce kilmer park bronx nyc
joyce kilmer park bronx nyc

Four urns once surrounded this little plaza by the playground. And then there were three…

joyce kilmer park bronx nyc

Poets and other writers used to mean a lot more to park visionaries than they do now. There's the Poet's Walk or Literary Walk in Central Park, of course, with its statues of Robert Burns, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and the now otherwise forgotten Fitz-Greene Halleck. There's Dante Park. Clement C. Moore Park. And of course there's Underwood Park, named for the typewriter magnate without whose products no one could have typed their poems in the first place.

Fitting words for a city of immigrants:

I had a lovely homeland long ago.
The oak trees
Grew so high there, the violets nodded softly.
It was a dream.

- Heinrich Heine, "Ich hatte einst"

Trite, but true:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

- Joyce Kilmer, "Trees"

joyce kilmer park bronx nyc

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Macombs Dam Park

I've been a Mets fan all my life, always carrying some of the Yankee Resentment that goes with that. Having never been to a Yankee game, I've never gotten to know the Yankee Stadium area of the Bronx.

It was time to change that, so this past weekend I explored five parks in walking distance of the stadium. The first is an extravagant exception to my blog rule disqualifying parks that exist only for athletics. Macombs Dam Park, on the site of the old Yankee Stadium, merits coverage twice over: for its history and for its aesthetics.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

Just across 161st Street from the new Yankee Stadium, Macombs Dam Park is named after an actual dam built across the Harlem River in 1814. I'd always wondered why the nearby Macombs Dam Bridge was named thus. Dams are not the first thing one thinks of in reference to New York City's waterways. But gristmill operator Robert Macomb managed to get the city's approval to build one two centuries ago.

Years later concerned citizens protested the blockage of the river by attacking the dam both rhetorically and physically. It was gone by 1858. In 1890 the accompanying bridge was replaced with the current Macombs Dam Bridge, described in this Forgotten New York post dating from before the creation of the park.

The bridge was already 13 years old when the New York Highlanders (later renamed the Yankees) came into being in 1903. Ten years later the team moved across the river from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan to the newly built Yankee Stadium in The Bronx. One of the baseball fields in Macombs Dam Park is situated exactly over the diamond of that original Yankee Stadium, so you can stand (and even play ball) where Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Mickey Rivers, and Derek Jeter once batted.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

Grassy landscaping and markers of the history of the Yankees and the stadium ring the baseball fields.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc
macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

No doubt the fields are bustling with baseball on weekends. But on this weekday afternoon, as beautiful a day as it was, only a few people had come out.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

One forlorn-looking young man sat alone in a dugout. Was he dreaming of the big leagues? Or just early for a practice or a friendly game?

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

From the baseball fields you can ascend via stairs or a ramp to the Joseph Yancey track and field area, which was much busier.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc
macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc
macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

Driving? Park in the Ruppert Plaza Garage, named for Colonel Jacob Ruppert, onetime Yankees co-owner, and builder of the original Yankee Stadium. Ruppert has a park named for him too, in upper Manhattan.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

Eye-pleasing design makes this big athletic facility parklike and just plain nice to walk around in. I'll close with some aesthetics. Here's a view showing some of the landscaping. The curved shape on the far right is the Yankees - East 153 St. Metro-North train station, which opened in 2009. I'm sure Yankee fans from the northern suburbs appreciate its utility. This Mets fan appreciates its architecture.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

Good job on this one, MTA.

macombs dam park yankee stadium bronx nyc

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Joan of Arc Park

Big parks can hide many surprises, and sometimes those surprises are other parks. Riverside Park stretches for miles along the Hudson River, and while I've visited it for this project more than once (here and here), somehow I was sure it had secrets I hadn't discovered. Sure enough, a look at Google Maps turned up Joan of Arc Park, a tree-cloaked Riverside Drive median between 91st and 95th Streets.

Beginning near the northern tip is a dirt path. Finding a dirt path in the city is always a cause for celebration.

joan of arc park riverside park manhattan nyc
joan of arc park riverside park manhattan nyc

A kind of annex to Riverside Park, Joan of Arc Park is named for its equestrian statue of the martyred saint.

joan of arc park riverside park manhattan nyc

You need binoculars or a zoom lens to get a good look at Joan's face, which is beautiful and reflects her extreme youth as well as her idealism.

joan of arc park riverside park manhattan nyc

Sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington (1876–1973) put a lot of thought and work into the sculpture. She had her niece pose on a barrel for the figure, researched the armor at the Metropolitan Museum, modeled the horse after a real one, and so forth. The base, designed by John van Pelt, includes "a few limestone blocks from the tower in Rouen where Joan of Arc had been imprisoned," according to the Parks Department web page about the monument, which has much more information about the artist and the work.

joan of arc park riverside park manhattan nyc

South of the statue, the park's widening space offers still more relief for pavement-sore feet.

joan of arc park riverside park manhattan nyc

This sliver of green may have been "secret" from me, but of course it isn't from the locals. A number of people were sitting around the statue on the weekday afternoon when I walked through. Others came in as I neared the southern exit. This man and his dog seemed very happy to be here, and why not?

joan of arc park riverside park manhattan nyc

Friday, May 15, 2015

Straus Park and the Broadway Malls

On the tony Upper West side, where Broadway makes a little westward swoop before running into West End Avenue and continuing in a dead straight line to the far northern reaches of Manhattan, lies a lush little triangle called Straus Park.

The onetime Schuyler Square was renamed in 1912 in honor of Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who died together on the Titanic. There's more on the Strauses' story here. Isidor Straus was a department store magnate, an owner of Macy's and a founder of Abraham & Straus. It was to a Long Island branch of the now-discontinued A&S that my mother dragged my brother and me every year for new clothes.

straus park manhattan nyc

The centerpiece of Straus Park is the Straus Memorial fountain with its figure of Mercury reclining in contemplation. The fountain was dedicated April 15, 1915, and the Friends of Straus Park are celebrating the centennial later this year.

straus park manhattan nyc

Mercury does look pretty sad to me.

straus park manhattan nyc

But springtime flowers and greenery make the park itself pretty cheery. And cheerily pretty.

straus park manhattan nyc

The park runs from 106th Street (otherwise known as Duke Ellington Boulevard) to 107th Street. The Strauses lived at 2747 Broadway, near 105th Street, according to the Parks Department.

straus park manhattan nyc

Creating all the iron fencing must have kept quite a few blacksmiths busy.

straus park manhattan nyc

A visit to Straus Park is a good opportunity to give a blogger's nod to the Broadway Malls, carefully tended medians between the northbound and southbound lanes of the former Bloomingdale Road. The Malls extend for miles, from 60th to 122nd Streets and 135th to 168th Streets. They're not parks, and generally you can't walk into them, but people do love sitting on the benches at the intersections, right in the middle of Broadway.

broadway malls manhattan nyc

Here's one with a sculpture rusted to the exact same hue as the signpost. Nature is often a good art director.

broadway malls manhattan nyc

Finally, a look at the same spot seen from the east side of Broadway shows how the Malls erupt in explosions of green from the bare pavement.

broadway malls manhattan nyc

There's much more about the Broadway Malls at the Broadway Mall Association website, including how you can "adopt a bench" – that is, hand over some cash and get your name on one. There are an awful lot of medians to maintain. The Association raised and spent over half a million dollars in 2013.