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Friday, August 31, 2018

Ewen Park

Bridging the Bronx neighborhoods of Kingsbridge and Riverdale slopes Ewen Park, eight-ish hillside acres that used to be the estate of Brigadier General John Ewen.

A New York State Militia commander during the Civil War and a successful businessman, Ewen later became Comptroller of the City of New York. This property in what was then rural Westchester County was his country abode.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

Entering from Riverdale Ave., you immediately see you're in for quite a climb to the top. It's no surprise the New York Times wrote that Ewen Park is "considered one of the city's best for sledding."

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

You can't see the whole way up, but a plaque in the ground tells you how many steps lie ahead: CLX (160 in Roman numerals).

ewen park clx steps kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

Actually there are 158; two steps were removed during a stairway reconstruction. But the name "CLX Steps" stuck.

ewen park clx steps kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

A mower was hard at work – well, at work – on the large green sward south of the entrance.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc
ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

Meanwhile near the top, a lone basketballer practiced basketing.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

As it was a hot weekday afternoon, few people were using the park. I saw only that guy on the court, a few people on benches just inside the park (including a young beggar who asked me for money – not the same person in the photo in this article about Ewen Park becoming a homeless encampment) – and a couple of people walking dogs.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

The backstory – why John Ewen's spinster daughter Eliza donated the land to the city – is more interesting than the park itself, whose layout dates from 1935 when Eliza died. The blog History Underfoot, inspired by visible remnants of the estate's driveway, spins a detailed narrative of spinster daughters, gold-digging fraudsters, even a Broadway starlet. It just goes to show what I find again and again: Do a little digging (figuratively or literally) and even the most ordinary-looking park reveals a colorful history.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Monday, August 20, 2018

Fort Totten Park

Every one of New York City's hundreds of parks has something interesting about it – features, history, sometimes both. Fort Totten Park in northeast Queens is a multifaceted curiosity – a weird combination of park, fortress, and mostly-abandoned village.

fort totten park queens nyc

Fort Totten itself was never deployed defensively in wartime. The original 1857 design, ironically by none other than Robert E. Lee, was outdated almost before it was built, and while construction began during the Civil War, the fort was never needed as such, as the South never attacked New York City. Right now, though, in the park that surrounds the old fort, there's a bit of a war going on as the long, humid summer of 2018 wears on (more on that later).

You wouldn't know it from a walk around the quiet grounds. These 60 acres lounge peacefully at the tip of the Willets Point peninsula, where the East River ends drooping into Little Neck Bay off the Long Island Sound. The U.S. Army Reserve and the NYC Fire Department still use some of the facilities here, but many of the buildings in this former army installation sit abandoned and slowly decaying.

fort totten park queens nyc

By the parking lot there's a long pier and a good view of the Throgs Neck Bridge.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

A nice big flowerbed greets you a short way inside, along with some picturesque trees.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

But much of the park looks like an abandoned neighborhood – because it is. As with Governors Island, a whole military community used to live here. Unlike Governors Island, all, or at least most, of the old buildings here still stand – though some look like they could topple any minute. (AbandonedNYC has some great interior shots.)

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Some architecturally worthy buildings have been maintained and look good. The Castle, now home to the Bayside Historical Society, is a New York City landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It used to be the Army Corps of Engineers' Mess Hall and Club.

fort totten park queens nyc

The visitors' center, in the former ordnance building, houses some interesting 19th-century infrastructure, and a small museum with informational displays and an eclectic collection of historical ephemera.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Behind it a row of batteries held supplies. The sign on the right reads "Torpedo Battery." ("Torpedo" in the 19th century meant a mine – undersea warfare hadn't been invented.)

fort totten park queens nyc

Some of these spaces are open to explore.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Around the side of the building, a long tunnel leads to the Water Battery, the large fortified structure on the water that we think of as the fort itself. Graffiti in the tunnel dates from the Spanish-American War period.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Higher levels were envisioned, but new ballistics made the walls obsolete, and the fort was never completed as planned. A century and a half later, the environs are overgrown. There's even a stairway that now leads nowhere. But the structure itself was renovated in 2005 and made safe – so safe that in this litigious age, its heights are remarkably open to exploration.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Come back out through the tunnel and make your way to the water's edge and you're rewarded with a view across Little Neck Bay of some of Long Island's North Shore mansions. This is the new-money "West Egg" peninsula of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

fort totten park queens nyc

There was no West Egg action on view. But we did get a ringside seat to a violent bird-fight for dibs on a rock just offshore.

fort totten park queens nyc

And as I mentioned at the top, a human conflict is brewing too. A stranger to the Bayside neighborhood has founded a Fort Totten Park Conservancy without consulting local politicians or existing community groups like The Friends of Fort Totten Parks and the Bayside Historical Society, but with, it seems, tacit approval from the Parks Department.

How might this incipient tussle fit in with the Parks Department's "master plan?" According to a sign in the visitors' center, Parks is "in the midst of embarking on" (a carefully worded phrase if I ever read one) a plan involving a re-landscaping of the northern part of the park, tearing down 18 1950s "Capeheart" townhouses, preserving three, and building a new playground. Possible future projects include "an outdoor performance area, a Veterans' Garden, and a comfort station." (The current bathrooms are in a temporary trailer-like structure.)

For now, the Water Battery remains the crown on the raggedly regal body we call Fort Totten Park. On the hot summer weekend of our visit, we encountered only a few handfuls of people, though there appeared to be a nice little crowd at the pool. Since the subway doesn't come up here, many Manhattanites, Brooklynites, and other New Yorkers don't even know this place exists. They should.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Governors Island: The Hills

Readers of this blog know there are hundreds of outdoor activities and places to explore throughout the five boroughs of New York City. One thing hard to come by, though, is a place to climb.

One poor woman was so desperate she resorted to scaling the base of the Statue of Liberty. (I know, it was a political protest. But look at the form her activism took, and don't tell me she wasn't a climber at heart.)

Aside from Lookout Hill in Prospect Park, and a few stretches of path in Inwood Hill Park and Wave Hill, the best most NYC kids can do is clamber up Central Park's schist outcroppings.

That is, until the masterminds of Governors Island opened the Governors Island Hills in July 2016.

Back in August 2015 when we last visited, the project was still under construction, the hills inaccessible mounds of dirt crowned by backhoes.

governors island hills nyc

Today visitors to this still-evolving former military base in New York Harbor can climb to their heart's content.

The easy, long route up the highest hill, called Outlook, follows a gently sloping, switchbacked, ADA-compliant paved path.

governors island hills nyc
governors island hills nyc

Naturally, I prefer the rock scramble, built from the remains of an old sea wall.

governors island hills nyc
governors island hills nyc

I spotted some kids loping up one of the other hills. I'm not sure whether this is the one called Discovery or the one called Grassy. Whichever, that's the kind of fun I always want to have.

governors island hills nyc

There are actually four hills: Grassy, Discovery, Outlook, and Slide. Slide provides the most organized fun, with slides of various heights and widths. The age limit is supposed to be 14, but we saw plenty of young adults partaking of the joys of gravity. Fourteen seems a pretty silly cutoff, anyway. Many kids that age have reached adult size. So what's the point of allowing a 14-year-old but not a 15-year-old?

governors island hills slides nyc
governors island hills slides nyc

In addition to the satisfaction of simply getting oneself up to 70 feet above sea level – something you otherwise can't do in the vicinity of Lower Manhattan without being inside a building – you're rewarded with a great view of the harbor and skyline from the peak of Outlook.

governors island hills statue of liberty nyc
governors island hills nyc
 

When you go, though, don't just take in the vista. Also give a thought to the brains that went into the construction.

The plan was to build Outlook out of rubble from the buildings that used to be here, notably Building 877, supplemented by dirt and gravel barged in from upstate quarries.

 

But the result would have been too heavy for the 100 or so feet of "loose, crappy soil" beneath to support, as the project's geotechnical engineer, David Winter, told Curbed in a fascinating article on The Hills and Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze's whole Olmsted-inspired design of the Governors Island project. (The title of the article: "On Governors Island, the World's Smartest Hill.")

To solve the weight problem, they considered using foam. But that just seemed, well, too unnatural, and would have been hard to work with given the setting.

Instead, Outlook is bolstered by Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE) – fill layered in plastic fabric (see this Informed Infrastructure article for photos and more technical information) – and lightweight volcanic pumice. Buried electronics keep an eye out for unhealthy settling, and irrigation and drainage are built in.

But to look at – and to climb – you wouldn't know any of it.

governors island hills nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Lincoln Terrace / Arthur S. Somers Park

Located in the eastern corner of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Lincoln Terrace Park is 17 acres of grass and trees, paths to wander, ballfields and tennis courts. A park since the 1890s, it was expanded in the first half of the 20th century, and in 1932 the city renamed the western portion Arthur S. Somers Park after the local philanthropist and education advocate (1866-1932) known, according to his family website, for driving the streets at Christmastime handing out silver dollars to children.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

The neighborhood could use some of those silver dollars now. The western half of Crown Heights has been gentrifying, but things are still pretty working-class around here. Or, at least in this spot, derelict.

crown heights brooklyn nyc

But the park – at least the passive-recreation part – seems in pretty decent shape, and a nice place to walk through, though I visited on an early-July day so hot I felt I was melting even in the shade. It was a weekday, and there was no one else in the park but a couple of guys walking their dogs.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

Points of interest are few. I did take note of a sideways tree.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

Why should a tree grow like that in Brooklyn? Maybe it was leery of the anti-aircraft gun bases that were positioned here in "serviceable but inconspicuous locations" during World War I. (Except that this doesn't look like a 100-year-old tree.)

As the April 8, 1918 issue of Aerial Age Weekly reported, "Action has been taken by the War Department toward protecting New York and vicinity from possible air raids." The White Fireproof Construction Company was hired to build concrete anti-aircraft gun emplacements in sites around the city including Lincoln Terrace Park, Green-wood Cemetery, and Tompkins Square Park. The article doesn't say whether guns were ever in fact placed in the emplacements here.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

A more peaceful association arises from the nickname the park acquired from the area's Yiddish-speaking residents in the old days. "Kitzel Park" ("Tickle Park") was a favorite spot for "hanging out and flirting." Former resident Jack Wilson recalled in 1999, "Sometimes we would stop by Lincoln Terrace Park otherwise known as 'Kitzel' park. Unfortunately we moved[,] so being so young at the time, I don't have memories of kitzels at the park." Others were luckier. Ron Ross specified in his book Bummy Davis Vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter that Kitzel Park was "the area of Lincoln Terrace Park noted for its nighttime necking and related activities."

I imagine these benches have seen their share of kitzeling and kanoodling over the years.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

At least one living person presumably retains such memories. A racehorse born in 2014 is named Kitzel Park.

In recent years Lincoln Square Park's reputation hasn't been so nice. A DNAinfo article from 2013 called it "bustling" and quoted a precinct commander who described is as "beautiful" and "lively" but also termed it "the Bermuda Triangle of crime" because of its location at the intersection of four police precincts. The site makes it easy for criminals – smartphone thieves, for example – to swipe something and duck into another radio division, making it harder for police to track them down.

I don't know why this weathered steel plate is here.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

It looks old, but the "NuTemper" trademark dates only from 2008. So what this sheet of metal marks, or commemorates, if anything, I have no idea.

Renovations are taking place at some of the athletic facilities. A couple had foregone the park's greenery to take some shade on the steps. I wondered why. Something made me take their photo. We all have our reasons, sometimes mysterious ones, for going to a park. Or its fringes. What was theirs?

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

A kitzel, maybe?

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Trail

One of NYC's most magical natural areas is all but unknown to most residents of the city's cosmopolitan core. The nature trail through the Marine Park Salt Marsh in southern Brooklyn takes you through an environment as different from Manhattan's urban hubbub as you can imagine.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Restored salt marshes can be found elsewhere in the city, for example on Randall's Island/Ward's Island and in Inwood Hill Park. The city even has a Salt Marsh Alliance, headquartered at the on-site Nature Center here. But nowhere else in the five boroughs, that I know of, can you take a lengthy walk through a large salt marsh environment.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

There are watery vistas to be seen from the Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Trail. After all, this is New York City, with its purported 578 miles of coastline. (I don't disbelieve that figure, but I've never pinned down who came up with it or how it was derived.)

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Mostly, though, you're ensconced in flora as you trek along the sandy trail.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Exertion-wise, it's an easy hike.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

But bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. You'll be exposed to the elements without a break. The sunshine can be roasting-hot even in the fall, as on this October day.

Birdwatchers can rejoice at the edges of the water.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

And if you look hard enough you can find some color amid the grasslands.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

The southern spur of the salt marsh grounds can get very muddy. We didn't explore too far down that way.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

This dog and owner were more adventurous.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Perhaps there's an opportunity here for a venturesome seaweed-farming entrepreneur.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

The Salt Marsh Alliance website tells us that over the decades, more than three quarters of Jamaica Bay's original salt marsh has been filled – that is, destroyed – to make way for homes and industry. The Marine Park Salt Marsh, once "a wasteland filled with trash and abandoned cars," is now "restored to its natural condition – proof that a rare and fragile ecosystem can safely exist" even adjacent to an urban one.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Located in the middle of the inlet is Mau Mau Island, which you can see from the Nature Trail. It has an interesting history. Untapped Cities explains that this man-made isle was a trash dump. When Robert Moses covered it with sand, then asphalt, he unintentionally initiated the gradual natural restoration of a piece of the Jamaica Bay coast's grassland habitat.

Maybe more people from outside the neighborhood would visit if the subway came down this far. But Marine Park's relative isolation is probably a blessing for the salt marsh environment, and for the pristine atmosphere you feel on its lonesome walkways.

(However, you can get to Mau Mau Island via the A Train and a boat if you get a gang together, dress in costumes, and join up with the Battle for Mau Mau Island flotilla. But that's a story from an alternate universe.)

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media