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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Willowbrook Park

The Staten Island Greenbelt is an irregularly shaped band of parkland around the center of the island. I played hooky on an October Wednesday and took a walk in Willowbrook Park, one of the Greenbelt's northern reaches, with a group organized by the Parks Department and the Greenbelt Conservancy. We met at the Carousel for All Children, so named because it's accessible to kids with disabilities. Carousel season was over, but goose season was in full swing at Willowbrook Lake.

willowbrook park carousel staten island greenbelt nyc

There were Canada geese aplenty. Nothing unusual about that.

willowbrook park geese staten island greenbelt nyc

Those in the next photo, though – I think they are snow geese. As of this writing, the city is ogling a mandarin duck in Central Park. But if all those bird enthusiasts were to venture to the outer boroughs, they could feast their eyes on all kinds of birds you don't see every day.

willowbrook park geese staten island greenbelt nyc

The lake is manmade, but the ducks don't care. Nor do the fish – or the people who come to catch them.

willowbrook park willowbrook lake staten island greenbelt nyc
willowbrook park willowbrook lake staten island greenbelt nyc

Fall colors were just beginning to appear over the lake.

willowbrook park willowbrook lake staten island greenbelt nyc

I'm told that the park headquarters building is the only such log structure remaining in the parks system. Apparently when others were replaced with more modern, safer buildings, this one was sort of accidentally omitted. I certainly haven't seen anything else like it in the city parks.

willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc

There's also a nice compass rose at the base of the flagpole in front of the carousel.

willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc

Behind it there's a grassy picnic area.

willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc

Lots of parks have bodies of water, picnic tables, carousels. How many have archery fields?

willowbrook park archery staten island greenbelt nyc
willowbrook park archery staten island greenbelt nyc

Our group of a dozen or so park enthusiasts set off on our mini-hike through the woods.

willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc
willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc

Willowbrook Park has a few tremendously tall old-growth tulip trees, among New York City's most treasured living things.

willowbrook park tulip tree staten island greenbelt nyc
willowbrook park tulip tree staten island greenbelt nyc

Another distinctive tree is the shagbark hickory. I took home some hickory nuts that had fallen to the ground, which are theoretically edible, but the insides turned out to be too hard and dry.

willowbrook park shagbark hickory staten island greenbelt nyc

And then there are the trees that have lain down to return to the earth whence they came.

willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc

Our guide pointed out the poison ivy vines growing up certain trees. No sir, poison ivy ain't just "leaves of three" underfoot.

willowbrook park poison ivy staten island greenbelt nyc

We followed the trail, marked with painted blazes. Recent rain had left muddy patches traversable by wooden boardwalks.

willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc
willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc

We hiked in for half an hour or so, as far as this picturesque remnant of the home of the Corson family. Nothing remains but their great, tall chimney.

willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc
willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc
willowbrook park staten island greenbelt nyc

Does the name "Willowbrook" sound familiar? The neighborhood that gave its name to this 164-acre park also gave its name to the infamous Willowbrook State School, and it became a household name when that institution's deplorable conditions were exposed by Geraldo Rivera and others. This "snake pit" (in Robert F. Kennedy's words), "built [per an article in SILive] for developmentally disabled children and adults in the 1930s...became an institution where the borough's most vulnerable residents were abused, starved and neglected – the opposite of its intent."

Reformed to a degree in the '70s, the institution closed in 1987, its land and its "gutted and renovated neo-Georgian-style buildings" [per the New York Times] becoming part of the College of Staten Island. And visitors to peaceful Willowbrook Park needn't give it a thought. See the Greenbelt website for information about upcoming hikes and other events. Just look out for the poison ivy.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Freshkills Park Discovery Day

The city is slowly building a huge park atop towering mounds of garbage that from 1948 to 2001 constituted Fresh Kills Landfill. Over those years, Staten Islanders watched five malodorous hills rising along the Fresh Kills Estuary in the western part of the island, the trash arriving truckload by truckload from around the city. Now, perhaps in partial recompense, they will have Freshkills Park, a hilly 2,200-acre grassland on which to pasture their sheep.

As of this writing, only a few hints around the edges are open to the public. But the visible trash and the stink have disappeared, along with the space between the words and the capital K. A Freshkills Alliance is active. And when the Parks Department announced a Discovery Day in September for visitors to get an advance look at some of the interior, a Park Odyssey trip to the island was clearly in order.

The weather was in good order too. In fact, we couldn't have ordered a nicer day.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

Gravel roads traverse the mounds. A many-layered barrier consisting of everything from soil to plastic sheeting separates your feet from the 150 million tons of trash beneath. Still, monitoring pipes and gas wellheads protrude from the depths, reminding you of what you're standing on.

The wooden sticks bound to the pipes are to give birds safe perches, as, always wanting a good view, they had taken to alighting atop the hot pipes and burning their feathers.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

Every so often you'll come upon a burn-off station. The methane generated by the underground waste is piped to processing plants for distribution to home gas lines. But in the event a processing plant goes offline, the gas is burned off at these stations to prevent buildup. I'd kind of like to see such a burn-off.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

The name "Fresh Kills" has nothing to do with anything being freshly killed, pace the turkey vultures that swoop patiently overhead. Many of the waters in Dutch-settled New York and environs are called "kill" after an Dutch word for stream or channel. The freshwater estuary here has carried the name "Fresh Kills" since at least 1750. And, thankfully, the channels themselves have not been destroyed; the trash mounds were raised between them. Kayakers rejoice!

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc
freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

A modest hike up one of the mounds took us to a summit where Parks Department folks were ready with hay bales to sit on and activities for the hyperactive (drawing, kite flying). They were also anxious to talk up the looming future of this soon-to-be great park.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

Deer have been spotted in the park. And the raptors above told us small game hid in the grass and trees. But all the wildlife we saw was the winged kind.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

None of the park's cottonwoods and locust trees were planted by humans. Birds dropped seeds and nature took its course.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

After exploring on our own, we joined an Audubon walk to seek out some of those birds.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

We saw quite a few species - raptors, songbirds, waterfowl – but all too fast or far away to photograph. (Take my word for it, the white splotches in the photo below are egrets.) The joy was in the very act of traipsing along the transformed trash dump, amid low trees and wetlands, experiencing nature and the open air.

freshkills park fresh kills staten island nyc

So when will Freshkills Park open to the public for real? The Alliance expects it to happen in stages from 2020 to 2036. Subscribe to the Alliance newsletter for alerts. I expect there will be more Discovery Days to come.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Corlears Hook Park

I first glimpsed Corlears Hook Park from the water. Specifically, from the NYC Ferry, whose new Lower East Side route stops at a new dock at Corlears Hook, just up the East River from the busy Wall Street terminal. What's that green space? I wondered.

Once again, I'd been mistaken about having visited every park in Manhattan.

Corlears Hook Park gets its name from the old Dutch van Corlear family (alternately spelled Corlaer or Curler). Prominent among them was New Amsterdam schoolmaster Jacob Van Corlaer, but his is an interesting family altogether.

Jacob's relative Anthony Van Corlaer was mythologized by Washington Irving as Anthony the Trumpeter. This bulbous-nosed musician is said to have ridden up Manhattan in 1642, Paul Revere-like, warning the Dutch settlements of a seemingly imminent English attack. The legend of his death by shark (or giant fish, or more likely drowning) is reputed to be the origin of the name Spuyten Duyvil.

Arent van Curler, the founder of Schenectady, was another relation.

corlears hook park manhattan nycThe "Hook" in "Corlears Hook" refers to a sharp bend in the shoreline you can see clearly in this image of the coast before landfill bloated it into its current more rounded shape.

When George Washington led the Continental Army from Brooklyn to Manhattan under cover of night in 1776, their boats put in where Corlears Hook Park is today. Presumably it was a known handy spot for that; the Parks Department website describes it as "[o]riginally marshland that was used by the Lenape tribe to land their canoes."

Today it's the NYC Ferry that pulls in, to a spanking new dock.

corlears hook park nyc ferry manhattan nyc

Meanwhile tugboats motor by, with or without barges, and jet-skiers zip past. (If Anthony the Trumpeter had had one of those, he might not have needed his trumpet; the noise alone would have alerted the colonists.)

corlears hook park tugboat barge manhattan nyc
corlears hook park tugboat barge manhattan nyc
corlears hook park jet ski manhattan nyc

If you're not traveling by water, though, and you don't live in the neighborhood, getting to Corlears Hook Park takes some effort, as it's a bit of a walk from the East Broadway stop on the F. And when you do arrive, you may be disappointed at first. The old part of the park, west of the FDR Drive, is a bit bedraggled.

corlears hook park manhattan nyc
corlears hook park manhattan nyc

There's evidence of care, though, in the cut grass and pretty plantings.

corlears hook park manhattan nyc
corlears hook park manhattan nyc

This part of the park dates to the turn of the 20th century. The city had acquired the land in 1893 to create open space to serve the neighborhood's ever-increasing immigrant population. When finished, it was purportedly quite a handsome park. When the FDR drive was built and the shoreline further developed through the WPA in the 1930s, the park lost some of its acreage, but Robert Moses added park space on the landfill across the highway, resulting in the two-part Corlears Hook Park you'll find today.

Cross a footbridge into the newer part of the park, give a nod to the stone eagles, and observe the bandshell before you.

corlears hook park manhattan nyc
corlears hook park bandshell manhattan nyc

The day we visited, a small dance party was underway, an NYC Ferry zipped towards the dock, and of course, a quartet of Millennials was doing a video shoot.

corlears hook park bandshell manhattan nyc
corlears hook park nyc ferry manhattan nyc
corlears hook park manhattan nyc

But this great "hidden" stretch of waterfront is a beautiful place to just relax too.

corlears hook park manhattan nyc

Corlears Hook Park is part of a string of parkland that runs along the riverfront. I spotted a skater rolling up out of Corlears straight into East River Park. (Maybe there's a time warp thing going on here, too; you don't see in-line skates much anymore.)

corlears hook park manhattan nyc

Somewhere around the transition point between the parks is the East River Park Fire Boat House, a picturesque landmark that now, courtesy of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which works out of the building, has a "green roof," a bed of plant life atop the structure. (I take this on faith. You can't see the roof from the ground. It's a roof.)

corlears hook park east river park fire boat house manhattan nyc

To cap off a visit to Corlears Hook, take in the view of the Williamsburg Bridge, unspoiled by intrusive glass towers like the horrible one that has wrecked the view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn Bridge Park.

williamsburg bridge nyc

And for an actual fireboat, cross to the other side of the island, roll uptown, and visit the John J. Harvey at Hudson River Park.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media