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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hell's Kitchen Park

I must have passed by Hell's Kitchen Park many times before I realized it was more, if only a little more, than just a playground.

Stepping in, I took this photo to emphasize the benches and landscaping.

A former parking lot on 10th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets, Hell's Kitchen Park opened in 1979. It has the benefit of being named for one of the most colorfully named neighborhoods in New York City. It's a name that has fallen somewhat out of fashion because it connotes crime. But real New Yorkers still know this West Side neighborhood as Hell's Kitchen, and if there's any justice they always will.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Worth Square

Squeezed into a small space between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, and just across Fifth from Madison Square Park, lies Worth Square. Its raison d'ĂȘtre: the final resting place of General William Jenkins Worth (1794-1849) and the 51-foot monument honoring him.

Worth's body was interred here in 1857 after a temporary stop at Green-Wood Cemetery. A hero of the War of 1812, Worth later fought in the Second Seminole War in the early 1840s, was promoted to General, then campaigned in the Mexican War.

He's largely forgotten today, and thousands of people walk by his mausoleum every day without looking up. But they should look up . Aside from Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park, it's the tallest obelisk in the city.

James Goodwin Batterson designed the obelisk. The founder of Travelers Insurance Company, Batterson also had a hand in designing the United States Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the New York State Capitol in Albany. It's New York City's second oldest monument, too, the oldest being the 1856 George Washington equestrian monument at Union Square just half a mile south.

And as I just learned from a Bowery Boys podcast, the Worth Monument is the central object in a straight line of three New York City obelisks, with Cleopatra's Needle to the north and the Thomas Addis Emmett Obelisk in St. Paul's Chapel's churchyard to the south, near City Hall and the World Trade Center.

So next time you're near Madison Square Park, or if you're thinking of going to the outdoor springtime culinary war zone known as Madison Square Park Eats, think on this: That food festival actually takes place at Worth Square, in the shadow of the Worth Monument honoring a man who fought in the wars we forget about.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Weeping Beech Park and Margaret I. Carman Green

The verdant green space called Weeping Beech Park and within it the Margaret I. Carman Green owe their names to a Belgian immigrant who lived for 151 years before giving up the bark in 1998, and to a Daughter of the American Revolution who devoted her retirement beginning in 1960 to commemorating and maintaining the history of the Queens neighborhood of Flushing.

Horticulturalist Samuel Bowne Parsons (1819-1907) kept a well-known nursery here, and acquired for it the seedling for the soon-to-be famed beech tree. Planted in 1847, it died of old age in 1998. Why it was called the Weeping Beech is not explained in the signage.

The old man's son, Samuel Parsons Jr., joined the family business and later became a partner in Calvert Vaux's firm, Vaux and Company. On hiring the firm, the New York City Department of Parks made Parsons Superintendent of Planting and then Landscape Architect for the City. Parsons Jr. also co-founded the American Society of Landscape Architects and served as its President at the start of the 20th century.

Retired teacher Margaret I. Carman (1890-1976), a descendant of Revolutionary War hero Captain Henry "Lighthouse Harry" Lee, was instrumental in the creation of the Flushing Freedom Trail, which begins (or began – I'm not sure the markers are still up) at the John Bowne House and includes Underground Railroad sites. Currently closed for renovation, the Bowne House dates back to 1661 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Bowne was an English settler with a Quaker wife. They used their house for Quaker services before the construction of the Friends Meetinghouse nearby. That got Bowne into trouble with the intolerant (and intolerable) Peter Stuyvesant, who sent him away to Holland, but he returned a few years later, just before the English sailed in and took over the Dutch colonies of New Netherland.

More recently the Parsons family inhabited the house, until the 1940s, when a group of local residents formed the Bowne House Historical Society to purchase and maintain it. Some season soon it will be reopened to the public.

The Weeping Beech, though, is gone forever. It stood, presumably, somewhere in this rather pretty lot:

The yellow house in the rear is the Kingsland Homestead, which now houses the Queens Historical Society. It's also worth a visit. And not too far is a much newer historic house, the Voelker-Orth House, most definitely open to the public and with gorgeous gardens that make it worthy of its own Park Odyssey post, coming up next.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Queensbridge Park

The largish rectangle of Queensbridge Park lies along the East River under the Queens side of the 59th Street Bridge, alias the Queensboro Bridge, alias (though this is an alias no one will ever use) the Ed Koch Bridge. I headed for it following my northward trek from Dutch Kills Green to Sixteen Oaks Grove (aren't those evocative names?). Walking down 21st Street, Long Island City's main drag, I passed this wall of glorious graffiti.

The masked green faces are obviously meant as glam-rock spirits of the New York City parks. Don't you think? I knew you'd agree.

I discovered you can't make your way west to the southern edge of Queensbridge Park along Queens Plaza exactly. You have to cut across a wooded grassland alongside the Queensbridge South housing project, a strange walk through grounds that aren't exactly parkland but aren't developed either.

It's a long, strange trip, a little bit spooky even.

On the left you pass the cutely named but disappointing Queensbridge Baby Park, which alas is just a grungy handball court but for some reason gets its own Parks Department name. In fact, according to the Parks Department website, this facility and thus I assume the whole strange grassland is technically part of Queensbridge Park.

But most of the area along the grassy corridor's left-hand perimeter is closed off, and there must be something really valuable – or really evil – there. I was struck by the incongruity of the friendly Parks Department maple leaf together with the threatening KEEP OUT indicators.

And I hadn't even gotten to the park proper yet. But as I walked, a vista opened up indicating that Queensbridge Park was finally near.

The interior was a hive of activity on this sunny spring weekend, with the smell of cookouts and the sounds of semi-live music.

To go with the many interesting human personalities populating the park, there are bird patterns worked into the backstop fences. I always like these when I come across them in the parks.

And there are some trees with personality, like this one.

But observe the fence in the photo above. It runs alongside the whole riverside edge of the park, keeping visitors from what is to me Queensbridge Park's most significant feature – its waterfront. From a distance, through the fence, you can see how nice it'll be when access is restored.

For now, it's just a dream, as seawall construction continues. The work began in May 2013 and was expected to take a year.

Last year, too, the local City Council member announced funding to renovate the Park House, which, from the outside, is one of the odder-looking buildings you'll see in New York City parks.

You can't get to the water right now, but you can sure see the span that crosses it. Not to mention the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

So give a thought to Queensbridge Park next time you cross the 59th Street Bridge, or just hear the song.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sixteen Oaks Grove

This curious little park in Long Island City, Queens is called Sixteen Oaks Grove for a literal reason: namely, the 16 oaks trees that line it. Its location in a very unpicturesque part of town is precisely what made it an intriguing find for me. And "grove" is exactly the right word for it.

The oaks themselves seem to be in good condition. The paving stones, well – not so much.

A previous day's rain has nowhere to go on this stretch of adjacent street.

Nonetheless, several locals were taking advantage of the clear springtime weather on this particular Sunday to soak in some relatively fresh air on the benches.

I've noted before on this blog how many New York City parks memorialize World War One doughboys in one way or another. Sixteen Oaks Park is a strange case of a memorial that is no more. The Parks Department website tells us that the city obtained the land in two parcels, one in 1913 and the other in 1932, and that when it was put under the authority of the Parks Department in 1939 it was named after Leo Placella, a Long Island City native and soldier in Company F of the 4th Infantry, who died overseas of broncho-pneumonia shortly before the 1918 armistice.

Why, I wonder, was Placella's name later wiped off the map in favor of the mighty oaks?

Might as well ask Hercules, whose club, the Parks Department website also informs us, was according to legend "fashioned from oak."

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dutch Kills Green

Frequently when I seek out a new park it turns out to be dull. A path (well-maintained or otherwise), a few trees, a playground – maybe, if I'm lucky, a boulder or a historic marker. But often, too, the opposite happens: a park in an unpromising location turns out to be something very surprising, a strange treasure.

Such is the case with Dutch Kills Green, a sculptured patch in the midst of Queens Plaza, that wide expanse of traffic lanes and elevated tracks I'd known only as the entry or exit from the 59th Street Bridge. Also called the Queensboro Bridge and now the Ed Koch Bridge, the 59th Street Bridge owes its fame to the classic Simon and Garfunkel song, but is otherwise one of the less celebrated bridges in a burg famous for the Brooklyn, the George Washington and the Verrazano. Yet compared to Queens Plaza, the bridge was a cornucopia of personality and thrills.

A few years ago, though, Queens Plaza underwent a renovation, which gave it a bike path and a 1.5-acre park on the site of a former parking lot. (The NYC Economic Development Corporation website has a photo showing the before-and-after.)

The most remarkable thing about Dutch Kills Green is not its location, though, but its wetland. Yes, right here in Queens you can feel for a moment that you're in the Everglades.

The park also features benches created by artists, a small stone plaza described as an amphitheater (though I didn't identify it as such when I walked through it), lush greenery and flower plantings, and two centuries-old Dutch millstones, formerly buried in a traffic island nearby.

The millstones are not marked, so, not knowing they were anything interesting, I didn't take a photo, but there's one at this Curbed post.

Dutch Kills Green may itself be the ultimate in traffic island transformation.

But inside, though it's small it feels like a true oasis, if a humble one.

For a finishing touch, standing guard over the park is the magnificent old Bank of Manhattan building with its wonderful clock tower. Apparently it is becoming, or has become, a residential rental building, though as a Manhattanite I'm shocked when I hear about any developer being willing to create rental apartments, given how unaffordable this condo-choked city has become even for middle-income people.

For historic photos and clippings about the building, this Flickr page probably can't be beat. But don't just look at pictures – pay a visit to Dutch Kills Green, walk over a real wetland, and witness a small but magical transformation of what had been nothing but pavement. "Once there were parking lots," as Talking Heads (and then Caetano Veloso) sang; "Now it's a peaceful oasis."

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tremont Park

My four-park excursion to The Bronx concluded with a traipse through Tremont Park, for whose separate existence we have Robert Moses to thank. His Cross-Bronx Expressway amputated this erstwhile section of Crotona Park in 1945. It received a name of its own, Highland Park, in 1987, and 12 years later was renamed for the Tremont neighborhood in which it resides.

According to Wikipedia, "Tremont has been one of the poorest communities in America" for decades. It's not poor in spirit. The parts of New York City I generally frequent are not "Say hi to strangers" neighborhoods. Strangers don't greet each other as they pass. By contrast, here in this part of the Bronx, two different people said friendly hellos to me as I walked by. I felt like I was someplace slower and more genteel, someplace down South maybe. (And with my white skin and peculiar interest in photographing everyday city parks, I was about as obvious a stranger as could be.)

Both names, Highland and Tremont, suggest elevation. (Tremont is said to have been named name after the "three hills" nearby, Fairmount, Mount Eden, and Mount Hope. Boston's Tremont Street got its name similarly.) And Tremont Park does have heights, although upon entry at the southern end it looks flat and unremarkable.

Angle up toward the north and west and some of that sublime New York City backbone rears up.

Then you come upon walls suggesting a medieval castle.

Another former name for this tract is Old Borough Hall Park. It's the location of the original Bronx Borough Hall, pictured in the inset photo to the right, an image that does make one wish this building was still here, doesn't it? Sadly it was torn down in 1969.

I don't know if those "castle" walls pictured above are related to the old Borough Hall, or intended to suggest that a government palace used to be here. But the grand staircase survives. You can see it in the inset photo (which I found at this online postcard collection), and here it is today:

Atop the stairs, a wide flat sculpted area bears witness to the former presence of the big hall.

A view from a distance:

And one down to the street, showing the elevation.

I'll leave you, and leave the Bronx for now, with a late-winter tree-scape atop a hill at the western edge of Tremont Park.