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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Williamsbridge Oval

Williamsbridge Oval in The Bronx is a repurposed reservoir. Like a number of other New York City parks, among them Highland Park on the Brooklyn-Queens border, Silver Lake Park in Staten Island, and Bryant Park in Manhattan, it sits where the city once stored drinking water.

The 17th-century farmer John Williams was reputed to have built the first bridge across the Bronx River. The ancient span was named for him, and the surrounding community acquired the name "Williamsbridge."

The city opened the Williamsbridge Reservoir in 1889 and used it as such until the 1930s. At that point its floor was raised to just 12 feet below street level and it was repurposed as a park, opened with fanfare by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in 1937.

williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc
The Bainbridge Avenue entrance, near the Valentine-Varian House

Inside, parents and kids were lined up for something – face painting, possibly, we couldn't tell – outside the Recreation Center.

williamsbridge oval recreation center norwood bronx nyc

It was a warm, muggy day, but only one kid was playing in the sprinkler.

williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc

A lot more were on the field, including teams of big kids playing football in uniforms.

williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc

We walked around the oval's quieter, tree-lined, but slightly nerve-inducing edge.

williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc

An impressive pink fungus stared up at us from the base of a sturdy-looking tree.

williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc

Not all the facilities were in use, and some aspects of the park don't appear very well maintained. There's no Williamsbridge Oval Alliance to supplement the Parks Department's limited budget. This isn't a rich part of town.

williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc

At the northern end it's easy to perceive the difference in elevation between the park and the street, and imagine the space's past as a reservoir.

williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc
williamsbridge oval norwood bronx nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Valentine-Varian House

The historic Valentine-Varian House in The Bronx houses the Museum of Bronx History. The museum is small and humble, worth a visit as part of a bigger expedition. And the 1758 farmhouse sits on a green plot that counts as a park.

valentine varian house museum of bronx history nyc
valentine varian house museum of bronx history nyc

Revolutionary War history is everywhere around here. For just one small example, we crossed Rochambeau Ave. while walking here from Moshulu Parkway. But the Bronx River Soldier statue depicts a Union soldier from the Civil War, a conflict to which this place has no connection whatsoever.

valentine varian house museum of bronx history nyc

The sculpture by John Grignola was moved here in 1970 after being scooped out of the Bronx River, into which it had tumbled from the pier where it had been standing guard. There's an impressive monument to Grignola at his final resting place in Woodlawn Cemetery, the graveyard where the Soldier had originally been meant to stand.

Behind the house is a small garden.

valentine varian house museum of bronx history nyc

The house is adjacent to the Williamsbridge Oval, a large oddball of a park which we shall visit next.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mosholu Parkway

I grew up on Long Island, which is criss-crossed by narrow, sometimes winding highways called parkways. These roads are restricted to passenger cars. Not knowing any better, I assumed that was the way the whole world worked: parkways for cars, other highways (like the Long Island Expressway) for cars and trucks.

Only when I read about the lives of Robert Moses (mostly through Robert Caro's masterful book The Power Broker) and Frederick Law Olmsted did I learn why the roads I knew so well as a child passenger and teenage driver were called parkways. These roads were conceived in Olmsted's original vision as beautiful landscaped routes leading from park to park, and meant to have parklike qualities themselves: green, picturesque, secluded from the cities and towns and neighborhoods through which they passed.

Mosholu parkway bronx nyc
Cypresses (I think) along Mosholu Parkway in The Bronx

Olmsted's 19th-century vision fed Moses's 20th-century ambitions: Nowhere is Moses's automobile-centrism more pronounced than in the parkway system, with which the New York metro area remains stuck. The LIE gets choked with traffic because trucks can't drive on Long Island's other east-west highways. (The parkway lanes are too narrow, and trucks would crash into the picturesque stone overpasses anyway.) In the north-south dimension, there are no real highways for trucks at all, only parkways; commercial vehicles must make do with the occasional wide route with traffic lights.

Meanwhile the cars using the parkways have to negotiate their narrow, winding lanes at full speed – except when the parkways get just as jammed as the Expressway. Worst of both worlds.

Mosholu parkway bronx nycParkways course through the city and Westchester County as well as Long Island. Moses tried his darnedest to cut Manhattan residents off from most of their waterfront when he built the Henry Hudson Parkway, the Harlem River Drive, and the FDR Drive. He connected Brooklyn and Queens with the ridiculously narrow and winding Jackie Robinson Parkway (formerly called the Interboro). Most of the Grand Central Parkway, the main alternative to the LIE in Queens, is off-limits to commercial vehicles.

Parkways in The Bronx and Westchester include the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Bronx River Parkway (probably my least favorite highway in the whole region), the Sprain Brook Parkway, and the Taconic Parkway.

But The Bronx is also home to a parkway with a different character. Built in the 1930s, the three-mile Mosholu Parkway really does link parks: Van Cortlandt Park at its northwest end, the New York Botanical Garden (technically part of a huge park called Bronx Park) to the southeast.

Mosholu parkway bronx nyc

The Mosholu itself is also a strange sort of road. Wikipedia has to twist terms awkwardly to describe it as a "hybrid freeway-standard parkway and grade-level roadway."

Mosholu parkway bronx nyc
Along East Mosholu Parkway North, with a glimpse of the parkway's main travel lanes on the far right

"Mosholu," explains the Parks Department website, "is an Algonquin name meaning 'smooth stones' or 'small stones,'" which was the name of a "nearby creek now known as Tibbett's Brook." We walked along Tibbetts Brook in Van Cortlandt Park, through which an extension of the Mosholu Parkway also runs.

When it was laid out in 1888, Moshulu Parkway actually ran alongside a waterway, "known to the Dutch as Schuil (anglicized as School) Brook" according to Forgotten NY, meaning "hidden creek." That name is appropriate, as this stretch of the brook was buried before the parkway was built. The visible part survives as Tibbetts Brook, just to the north in Van Cortlandt Park and beyond, in Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers.

Mosholu parkway bronx nyc
The natural terrain asserts itself in places.

There's more "park" to Mosholu Parkway than just greenery, including sports and play areas and a doughboy sculpture by Jerome Conner (or Connor). Mosholu Parkway really is a hybrid: a roadway that's also a park.

Mosholu parkway bronx nyc
More natural terrain by the Mosholu Park subway station at Jerome Ave.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media, except doughboy sculpture image courtesy of NYC Parks

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rockaway Beach

When I think about city parks, I don't usually think of the beaches. Maybe it's because I grew up on Long Island, where the obligatory summer rite of going to the beach was its own species of activity, distinct from "parks." Parks meant grass, playgrounds, jogging trails, fireworks on the Fourth of July.

But New York City's beaches are some of its most important parks. I've been to a few of them for this blog: Jacob Riis Park; the iconic New York City beach and boardwalk of Coney Island; Pelham Bay Park in The Bronx which includes Orchard Beach. Today: a quick post on Rockaway Beach, which, thanks partly to The Ramones, is NYC's second-most-famous strand.

rockaway beach queens nyc

Despite its location on a strip of land that looks map-wise as if it ought to be part of Brooklyn, Rockaway Beach is in Queens. You can take the A train there, so you don't need a car. The part of the beach by the Beach 105th St. stop – the second-to-last stop on the line – is, theoretically, less busy than other spots, so that's where we headed on a bright day in early August.

rockaway beach queens nyc
rockaway beach queens nyc
Kites fly at Rockaway Beach

Compared to Coney Island – and compared to my expectations – the water was very clean, and incredibly refreshing.

rockaway beach queens nyc

Other stretches of Rockaway Beach are closer to the good, fun food vendors. But there's food at the concession stand near Beach 105th St., if you can handle long lines on busy days.

The other great thing about Rockaway Beach is that it's tremendously long. Sure, it gets crowded, but not Coney-Island claustrophobic.

rockaway beach queens nyc
rockaway beach queens nyc

So grab a blanket, sunblock, and your MetroCard, pack a sandwich and some fruit and something to drink, and head for the Rockaway Peninsula. You won't find a finer beach than Rockaway for many a mile.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media, except where noted

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Morris-Jumel Mansion

I had been to the Morris-Jumel Mansion to see concerts, and to visit the museum in the historic house itself, but had never paid attention to the grounds. And they can fairly be said to constitute a park.

morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights nyc

So here they are.

morris-jumel mansion manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc
morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights nyc

Roger Morris built the mansion in 1765, which makes the building today known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion Manhattan's oldest surviving house. It was Morris's summer villa; this milestone once marked "11 MILES FROM N. YORK ON THE KINGSBRIDGE RD."

morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights nyc

His onetime estate, Mount Morris, gave its name to Mount Morris Park, now Marcus Garvey Park, two miles to the south. But, being Tories, Morris and his family fled at the outbreak of war. George Washington took advantage of the house's high elevation to make it his headquarters for five weeks in September and October of 1776, as the museum exhibits inside are happy to explain.

morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights nyc

In 1810, French merchant Stephen Jumel bought the house and married Eliza Bowen. After his death Eliza married Aaron Burr here in the house. Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the Aaron Burr role in Hamilton, made an appearance at the museum's Culture and Arts Festival in 2015.

morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights nyc leslie odom jr hamilton
Leslie Odom Jr. at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in 2015. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Maintained by volunteers, the garden is a lovely place to spend some time, and hosts lots of organized activities as well. The garden blog notes that local naturalist Gabriel Willow, who leads the NYC Audubon EcoCruises like the one I described here, even led a nature walk through the grounds this summer.

morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights nyc
morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights nyc

So when you pay a visit to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, don't be so distracted by the house's heady history that you neglect to take a walk around the grounds.

morris-jumel mansion manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

Finally, while you're there, take a stroll down adjacent Sylvan Terrace, originally the Morris estate's carriage drive, and part of the historic district that also includes the mansion. The wooden houses from the 1880s are unlike anything else you'll find in Manhattan.

morris-jumel mansion manhattan washington heights sylvan terrace nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media, except where noted

Monday, August 15, 2016

Convent Garden, Donnellan Square, and the Mystery of the Bushman Steps

In the Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill section of Harlem is a wee public park that feels like a community garden and a park at the same time. Convent Garden (Google always thinks you want to look up London's Covent Garden) is a block-long triangle with its base at 151st St., its apex poking at 152nd St., and its sides along St. Nicholas Ave. and Convent Ave. after which it's named.

convent garden manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

The nearby Convent of the Sacred Heart burned down on August 13, 1888. The institution has since evolved into Manhattanville College, whose origin remains memorialized in the name of the street and park.

Flower density gives Convent Garden a community-garden feel. That and the presence of a local gardener. But there were kids at play too on the warm afternoon when I paid a visit.

convent garden manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc
convent garden manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

Harlem One Stop notes that the Board of Estimate (the city's ruling cabal of earlier times) designated the property a public park back in 1909, but the city neglected to officially transfer it to the Parks Department until 1985, at which time Parks developed Convent Garden into a landscaped sitting area. And a darn nice one at that.

convent garden manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

Just one block south is a more humdrum Parks Department property called Donnellan Square. Naturally, being in New York City, this square is a triangle. And it's one of the city's many places that honor New York soldiers who died in World War I.

donnellan square manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

Private First Class Timothy Donnellan emigrated from Ireland in 1916 and enlisted in the 69th New York Regiment, the "Fighting 69th." He was killed in action two years later. His chaplain, notes the Parks Department website, was Father Duffy of Duffy Square fame, "the most highly decorated cleric in the history of the United States Army" according to Wikipedia.

donnellan square manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

The little park was enlarged and reconstructed at the beginning of the 21st century. A fair number of locals were hanging out when I stopped by. Some of the younger ones looked at me suspiciously when they saw me taking pictures.

donnellan square manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

The blooming planting bed at the north end paid me no mind.

donnellan square manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

A few blocks north and just off Edgecombe Ave. are the Bushman Steps, a small Parks property that used to serve as an entry point to the Polo Grounds, home of the old New York baseball Giants. In a European or South American city, they'd probably just be called 157th St., for which they substitute for a short stretch. Now they take you up to the 157th St. subway station on the No. 1 line. Neighbors tend to the plants.

bushman steps manhattan harlem sugar hill hamilton heights nyc

It seems neither the Parks Department nor anyone else knows why they're called the Bushman Steps.

 

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Saturday, August 13, 2016

NYC Audubon Birdwatching Cruise to North and South Brother Islands

new york water taxi nycA New York City Audubon Sunset EcoCruise was a great opportunity to get a closer-than-usual look at North and South Brother Islands in the upper reaches of the East River. Located between The Bronx, Rikers Island, and Queens, both are now bird and wildlife sanctuaries under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department.

Setting out from South Street Seaport in a New York Water Taxi boat, we motored north, under the Brooklyn Bridge (pictured below), the Manhattan Bridge, and the Williamsburg Bridge.

brooklyn bridge nyc

We got a good look at the new high-rises in Long Island City, Queens. The Pepsi-Cola sign on the far left was just landmarked by the city after years of whining. It's right by Gantry Plaza State Park.

long island city queens nyc

The first island we passed was tiny U Thant Island (officially Belmont Island), named after the former United Nations Secretary General. This artificial island made of landfill from an early subway tunnel is home this summer to gaggles of birds, mostly cormorants but also some great black-backed gulls.

u thant island nyc
u thant island nyc
u thant island nyc

The real excitement was in the air. According to our guide, New York City has 16 pairs of peregrine falcons, more than any other place in the world. When diving for prey, they're the fastest animal in the world. I think this is a family of them:

peregrine falcons nyc

Also in the sky: the Roosevelt Island tram.

roosevelt island tram nyc

Mill Rock was a perch for lots more cormorants. We also saw two kinds of egrets: great egrets and snowy egrets. This, I think, is a great egret.

egret nyc

I lost track of all the species we saw – at least a dozen. They included fish crows, grackles, and ospreys.

I don't recall what our guide identified these as:

bird nyc
bird nyc

The sun was truly setting as we approached North and South Brother Islands.

east river sunset nyc
brother islands nyc

North Brother Island is best known as the location of the old Riverside Hospital. Smallpox victims and others, most famously Typhoid Mary (who wasn't sick, just a carrier, but refused to believe it and behave appropriately), were quarantined on the island for many years. The buildings are now in ruins, the island off-limits to human visitors.

On one of the ruins, our guide was very excited to spot a previously unknown osprey nest.

osprey nest north brother island nyc

The osprey family, two adults and a juvenile, were flying about very fast. This was the only shot I was able to get of one of them. A peregrine falcon was buzzing about, too, harassing the larger ospreys. Apparently birds of prey of different species don't really get along.

osprey north brother island nyc

You can also find listings for the Audubon EcoCruises at the New York Water Taxi website. But since New York Water Taxi failed in its bid to run the new ferry service Mayor DiBlasio recently announced, the service's future in the city seems uncertain. Here's hoping it stays in business here and keeps making its boats available to Audubon – or failing that, that someone else steps in.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media