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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Columbus Park

I began this project four years ago with a post about Collect Pond Park in lower Manhattan, near the notorious old Five Points slum. I didn't know that part of the island too well (still don't, to be honest), and I didn't know there were a couple of other parks just a few blocks away. New York is always springing surprises on me.

I visited Columbus Park on a recent weekday afternoon. In spite of the hour, the park's three and a quarter acres were thronged with people, mostly residents of the surrounding Chinatown neighborhood.

Chinatown explains why the statue is not of Columbus, but of Sun Yat-sen, the Republic of China's first president.

Sun Yat-sen died in 1925. By that time, Mulberry Bend Park had already been open for 28 years, located, no surprise, on a site called Mulberry Bend (Mulberry Street bends there, wouldn't you know it).

Calvert Vaux himself designed the park. In 1911 the city renamed it Columbus Park, I suppose because of the Italian immigrant movement that had by that time created the adjacent Little Italy neighborhood.

No longer a neighborhood, Little Italy is a sort of Italian restaurant theme park along a couple of blocks of Mulberry Street. Neighborhoods come and go, of course. But Chinatown, by contrast, doesn't seem to be going anywhere; in fact there are now several Chinatowns in the five boroughs. The most famous one remains the Manhattan Chinatown. In Columbus Park, a bunch of men were clustered around a game table at which two men played what I think is Xiangqi (Chinese chess).

The limestone recreation center, built in 1934, is now, according to the Parks Department website, "a comfort station." The folks lounging on the upper level decks sure looked comfortable. It's a handsome building. I think Vaux would have been proud.

Unless, that is, the parks website is referring to the building pictured below, which is in fact a bathroom building near the playground:

I don't usually bother taking pictures of the playgrounds in the parks I visit. But it was interesting to see how many more adults there were in the "adult" section than there were kids in the playground on this afternoon. Of course, it was a school day, but still. There were so many people I had trouble remembering it was a weekday.

The playground covers what used to be a central grassy area, as related in this informative post on the Placematters website, a resource I only just discovered while researching this post. It quotes Jacob Riis, who had earlier devoted a chapter of his classic How the Other Half Lives to Mulberry Bend, recounting his first visit to the new park in 1900: "In my delight I walked upon the grass. It seemed as if I should never be satisfied till I had felt the sod under my feet, – sod in the Mulberry Bend!"

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Gateway National Recreation Area: Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay

Floyd Bennett Field, part of the Jamaica Bay section of Gateway National Recreation Area, was the New York's first municipal airport when it opened in 1931. Throughout the 1930s it served adventuresome aviators as well as commercial airlines. But it was inconveniently located, far from downtown Brooklyn, even farther from Manhattan, and not served by the subway.

After Newark Airport got the postal contract and LaGuardia Airport opened at a much better location in Queens, Floyd Bennett Field (named after pioneering aviator Floyd Bennett) became a Naval Air Station, where the military based air defenses during World War II and the Cold War.

In 1972, no longer needed by the Navy, the old airport became part of Gateway National Recreation Area, an urban national park that covers much of Jamaica Bay and extends to Staten Island and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Today, more than four decades after the last plane took off, you can drive on the old runways, camp out at the Amelia Earhart Campground, visit the restored Ryan Visitor Center, walk through natural areas, play golf, take a short hike down to Dead Horse Bay, ride live horses at the Jamaica Bay Riding Academy, and play air hockey (and real sports too) at the Aviator Sports & Recreation Complex.

The main reason for our trip to Floyd Bennett Field last weekend, though, was to see Hangar B.

Hangar B at Floyd Bennett Field

Several hangars from the area's airport history remain, and Hangar B is a busy place several days a week when HARP (Historic Aircraft Restoration Project) volunteers, some of them retired engineers, hustle in to restore historic aircraft. On certain other days, Park Rangers take visitors inside to see the results.

You can still see ghost lettering on the outside of Hangar B from its naval days.

But inside is where the action is. Restorers' work is never done.

5A "Catalina" Patrol Bomber

Along with the restored or being-restored aircraft are a few reproductions, including a recreation of the Wright Brothers' original plane. There are also a few aircraft you can go into. Honestly, it makes you feel like a little kid. If you are a little kid, all the better.

A short drive or a long walk across the huge and barren former airfield – a landscape like you won't find anywhere else in the city – lie the Ryan Visitor Center (interesting architecture, with a small exhibit inside about the airport's history), the athletic center, and the ranger station, where you can park and then walk across Flatbush Avenue. On the other side, you can pick up a trail – though there's no sign pointing you to it – that splits into a trio of short trails leading across dense beach growth to Dead Horse Bay.

This is where in the old days, when thousands of horses lived, worked and died on the streets of New York City, their carcasses were dumped.

As you walk south along the shore, the Marine Parkway Bridge comes into view. You might run into some fellow shore people too.

On a guided tour to Dead Horse Bay a few years ago we saw a lot of shore birds, including oystercatchers, but there were none on this day. We did spot some cormorants (we think) from a distance.

But aside from a rabbit, it wasn't a big day for wildlife sightings.

There's a lot more to Gateway National Recreation Area, including Jacob Riis Park and other areas I'll cover in future posts. There's also Marine Park, just up Gerritsen Creek from Floyd Bennett Field. And there's – well, I've visited over 150 parks for this blog, but if I listed here all the parks I haven't covered yet, this would be the longest post in memory.

So, until next time: may the dead horses be with you.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Alley Pond Park

For a long time I've been wanting to explore Alley Pond Park in eastern Queens, knowing that it's one of the wildest – that is, most wilderness-y – of all the city parks. It isn't easily accessible by public transportation, though, so I waited for a day when a mini-road trip was practical.

I didn't know it when I arrived, but Alley Pond Park actually has a big parking lot, unusual for New York City parks. But I had found my way to the edge of the park via the Grand Central Parkway service road, and that's where I parked, figuring I'd find a way into the park somewhere in the vicinity. Sure enough, I did.

Right away I came upon wetlands surrounding an actual pond, one of two in the park. I was glad I'd brought bug spray.

Around the other side of the pond, a short walk through the woods led to the park's human-activity section, which I buzzed through quickly.

More on that later. I'd come for wilderness, so I crossed to the other side of the big grassy field and launched myself back into the woods for a mini-hike through a network of color-coded trails winding through woods and wetlands.

I ran into only a handful of people on the trails. Even on a beautiful summer weekend, Alley Pond Park isn't heavily populated.

I did see a nervous rabbit dart across the trail in front of me. Aside from that, birds were the only wildlife I encountered. Lots of birds.

Back in the deforested section devoted to gatherings of humans, I bought a welcome cup of lemonade from a group of enthusiastic young capitalists...

…and watched a spot of cricket.

Linking Alley Pond Park to Cunningham Park to the west is the Motor Parkway Trail, a remnant of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.'s 100-year-old Long Island Motor Parkway initiated in 1908 (and also known as the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway). This part survives as a bike path. Here's a bit of it at the edge of Alley Pond Park. Next time I'll walk the length of it and visit Cunningham Park.

Alley Pond Park, Cunningham Park, and Forest Park lie along the same terminal moraine – a ridge marking the furthest advance of a glacier – with "knob and kettle" topography that supports the various forest types you can see in some of the pictures above. See my entry on Forest Park for a nice look at a kettle pond.

And then spend a couple of hours in 635-acre Alley Pond Park. If you're a city dweller, you'll appreciate the oxygen.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lighthouse Park, Roosevelt Island (and Tramway Plaza)

The quest to visit every park in New York City implies a mission to explore just about every neighborhood in New York City, too.

In a burg of eight million people, that's a titanic amount of ground to cover. Especially when you have to do it all in your spare time.

I first visited Roosevelt Island back in the '70s on an excursion with my grandfather. Back then there was no subway station; you had to go by tram.

Today, there's a pleasant little green space at the Manhattan terminus called Tramway Plaza.

Back then, what we found on the island was an old folks' home (to use the jargon of the time) and pretty much nothing else.

A few years later, apartment buildings were constructed, and I visited with my family a couple of times when our cousins lived there.

Today most of the island is built up, inhabited and accessible. I explored the two parks on the southern tip during a late-winter snowfall last year. Because of the weather that day, there was, as decades before, very little going on there in terms of human activity.

But for my visit to Lighthouse Park at the north end I picked a warm summer day, and finally observed an actual society of people on the island.

Roosevelt Island is one of New York's quieter and in some ways stranger parts. For one thing, it's so long and thin that you can't really call it a neighborhood, as the north and south ends are two miles apart. For another, there's very little car traffic. Most people access the island most of the time by the famous Roosevelt Island Tram or the F train (subway access arrived in 1989). You can also bike or walk there from the Queens side.

So in a way, the whole island feels a little like a big, stretched-out park.

Near the midpoint, close to where the tram and subway drop you off, there's a restaurant, a Starbucks (of course), a tiny tourist office, a fruit stand, and a couple of other enterprises. A little farther north, along the western shore, I found a more easygoing summertime scene: Eleanor's Pier, a waterside plaza where several food vendors served a small clientele.

Continuing north, you can enjoy vistas of Manhattan and the East River from riverside benches which add to the parklike feel of this part of the island.

Although there were people about, there wasn't much noise to be heard, aside from the wind. One exception came when I passed a soccer game.

Popping up out of the water is a three-part sculpture by Tom Otterness called "The Marriage of Money and Real Estate." (Pictured: one of the three parts)

Roosevelt Island has a very interesting history which I won't detail here but which you can read about in an article by Judith Berdy reproduced at the Roosevelt Island Historical Society website. Penitentiary, workhouse, lunatic asylum, Metropolitan Hospital, City Hospital, almshouses and, as I recall myself, a nursing home have all been part of it.

Judith Berdy's article points out that "If the island had been developed 10 or 20 years later, the builders probably would have saved more of the structures. But in the 1960s and 1970s, many beautiful buildings were just bulldozed."

Parts of the island remain undeveloped to this day.

Dayspring Church is picturesque, not to mention "full-gospel, multiracial, non-denominational, [and] Holy Spirit filled and led."

I pushed still further north and found more human noise emanating from a cookout.

At last I reached Lighthouse Park, the actual goal of this excursion.

Some of the trees in the grassy hang-out area have some personality (and readers of this blog know I'm always looking for trees with personality). The second picture shows something I've never seen before in all my explorations of this city of gazillion London plane trees: a London plane tree with four trunks.

The Gothic-style lighthouse itself was designed by James Renwick, Jr., who also created the smallpox hospital at the island's opposite end (probably the most famous of Roosevelt Island's six surviving historic buildings) not to mention St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. The Lighthouse Friends website, which has some interesting history on the lighthouse, suggests that as it was probably constructed by insane asylum inmates, "adherence to Renwick's blueprint is questionable."

A glance at the rough waters of the East River around the island explains the need for a lighthouse.

The nearby tidal strait Hell Gate seems appropriately named, though the word "Hell" here comes from a Dutch word and has nothing to do with Hades.

The lighthouse is only 53 feet tall but when it was constructed, of gray gneiss, in the 1870s, that was probably considered more than sufficient to "effectually light" the nearby New York City Insane Asylum. The island itself, then known as Blackwell Island, is quite flat.

Some nice trees light up the eastern edge of the little park.

On the way back to the tram I stopped at a viewing platform designed like the prow of a ship.

I paused to observe the Manhattan skyline from this unusual perspective.

Some amphitheater-style seating, as if set up for watching a show performed on the surface of the river, had been completely unoccupied on my northward walk. But as I headed back south, the sun had come out, and a few people had taken up residence on the wooden boards.

No one was popping their faces into the faded "strong man" and "bathing beauty" cutouts, though. Seems the hipsters haven't quite invaded Roosevelt Island yet. But when you see the term "Smorgasburg-Style" being used, they can't be far behind, can they?

Tune in tomorrow?

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