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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.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crotona Park

On the evidence of my recent visit, 127-acre Crotona Park is spookily empty during the off-season. I had the southern segment almost completely to myself as I paused for a water and snack break. This area of the former Bathgate Woods is mostly feature-free, save a large playground and a couple of ballfields. When leaf-free as well, it just feels barren.

Long humps of rock echo the rock ridges of Echo Park.

Indian Lake, closer to the center of the park, is Crotona Park's main natural attraction. Unlike some of the more well-known bodies of water in New York City parks, this one isn't man-made.

Planted around it are almost 30 different species of tree, says the Parks Department website.

By the lake is a modest amphitheater, topped by a boulder with graffiti that, well, could be worse. Is this boulder the "Indian Rock" described by Daniel Wolfe in this Bronx Board memoir? I can't tell for sure. (Wolfe also says the lake was drained in 1938 in a search for a Peter Levine, a New Rochelle boy who'd been kidnapped, to much press coverage. The boy's mutilated body was instead found in Long Island Sound.)

From the other side, in front of the boathouse, the lake's semi-iced-over condition was manifest. Equally obvious: the blasé attitude of the geese towards the cold water. They don't call them Canada geese for nothing.

Crotona Park has more tennis courts than I would ever have imagined - 20 of them. A few were even being used in spite of the high winds. (There's also a swimming pool. No pictures of that in March.)

At the north end of the park, a lone pair of lovers sat on a whale of a rock (far right), a rock that reminded me, once again, as firmly as did the apartment buildings rising behind it: Don't forget, this is New York City.

Yes, this is New York City, today said to be the safest big city in America. Crotona Park, though, is reputed to be its most dangerous park. In 2012, 28 felony crimes occurred here. The ancient Greek colony of Croton in southern Italy, for which the park is named, was famed for its physicians, according to Herodotus. But that would be no comfort if you were an assault victim here in the Bronx – even if you were familiar with the misty history of ancient Greece.

The huge rock masses of NYC's terrain – Manhattan Schist, Fordham Gneiss, Indian Rock, whatever we name them – are far more ancient, of course. They'll continue to bear witness to whatever humans build and tear down, and do with (and to) each other, for as long as these lands are peopled. And it's probably a safe bet that couples like the ones in the photo above will continue to find moments of solace and peace in spots like this.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Claremont Park (and a Note on Birds)

Continuing my Bronx adventure, I left Richman (Echo) Park, walked south on Webster Avenue, crossed under the Cross Bronx Expressway, and entered a much larger green called Claremont Park, one of the oldest parks in the Bronx.

But let's stop right here and make a note on the changed terrain of a great city.

Webster Avenue, according to the Parks Department website, used to go by another name: Mill Brook.

Today it's a wide thoroughfare lined with auto repair shops and fast food joints. And that's New York City in a nutshell for you. There is a housing development in the borough called the Mill Brook Houses. But to all appearances, there is no longer a brook.

Claremont Park's history is much more interesting than its landscape. Where once rose the Zborowski Mansion now sits a plain-jane gazebo. Where the apple orchards of the Zborowski estate once grew, now grows grass. Where once lay the "infamous Black Swamp" with its livestock-swallowing maw, now earthworms happily churn black dirt.

The area was once part of the Morris estate. Then in the mid-19th century Elliott and Anna Zborowski de Montsaulain bought this parcel, wisely naming it "Claremont" instead of giving it their own name. Some 40 years later the city purchased an enormous acreage of Bronx tracts, including Claremont, for parks and parkways. The mansion became a parks department headquarters for a while, but was torn down in 1938. Here's an old photo:

Alas, today there's no sign of Claremont's aristocratic past, unless you count this admittedly handsome stairway entrance

But where the mansion once stood, there's just that gazebo.

Otherwise, what you've got is pretty much your basic city park, though it's a fairly big one.

Here's one unusual feature: Fenced off for the season behind these yellow buildings is an outdoor swimming pool.

Naturally, the park is lovelier in the spring and summer. I was there on a sunny, windy Saturday in March. The temperature was in the 50s but the populace seemed not to have caught up to the weather. Few people were using any of the four parks I visited on this Bronx outing. The Six to Celebrate website has a nice photo of Claremont Park in greener times here.

Claremont turned out to be a good location for wildlife sightings, though. A gnarly tree sprouted a squirrel tail:

And my wildlife sighting of the day (nay, of the season) came just as I was leaving Claremont Park thinking, Well, that was pretty boring. Like the squirrel, this woodpecker was too shy to show its face to the camera, but it was a woodpecker, all right – I heard that unmistakeable rat-a-tat-a-tat before I saw it.

While I wasn't expecting to spy a woodpecker, I was even more shocked that I was able to identify it with near certainty. This, my friends, is a female downy woodpecker.

The fact is, I'm almost never able to find, either in my old Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds or in my new Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region, a picture of a bird I've spotted in the wild. I can only conclude that I've discovered a whole raft of new species over the years, many of them right here in New York City.

Most recently it was a swimming and diving creature, black, smaller than a mallard and with a thin beak but otherwise duck-shaped, in the water off Hudson River park. I have named it the North River Diving Duck until otherwise enlightened. Thank you. (No, it wasn't a cormorant; it swam and was shaped like a duck.)

Anyway, I was insanely delighted to find pictures and descriptions of this Bronx bird in not one but both books. Although you can't see its head in the photo, I saw the whole bird. And I hereby assert that it was a female downy woodpecker. I assert it. I do.

Rejuvenated, I continued to the next and largest park on my day's itinerary: Crotona Park.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Richman (Echo) Park

Heading for the Bronx to visit two sizable parks I'd never been to – Claremont and Crotona – I stopped first at a much smaller park I assumed would be a footnote to my Bronx expedition. But Richman (Echo) Park turned out to be the most dramatic stop of the day.

There's plenty of ice age rock to go around in this city – the famous Manhattan schist, of course, as well as the Fordham gneiss. But Richman (Echo) Park has two of the most majestic spines of boulder anywhere in the city. Is this part of the Fordham gneiss? I'm going to have to ask a Bronx-savvy geologist. Meanwhile, take a look. Here, the rock rises behind a small, typical play area, while a polar bear prances at geologic speed off to the side:

From high atop one of the rock ridges, you get a good sense of the scope of the formations, and as a bonus, a nice view of Tremont Baptist Church.

Do you see a face snarling at you, like an open-mouthed tiger's, in the central protrusion of this rock formation? I do:

The beast seems to be disdaining the apartment buildings behind him, as if the ancient rock considers mankind's temporary structures beneath its contempt.

Meanwhile, trees grow where they can – here at the juncture of primordial rock and manmade walls and stairs, and below where there's a bit of space between the huge ridge and a smaller boulder.

Note the hooded human on the bench, basking in the majesty of it all.

It's said that if you shout between the two rock masses you get the echo that gives the park its traditional name. The newer name honors a 20th century city official named Julius J. Richman, a local leader who was, among other things, chairman of the Twin Parks Association.

"Twin Parks"? Now, which parks were those? Something I missed?

Alas, no parks, apparently; Twin Parks was an early-1970s urban renewal housing project.

An informative post on Forgotten NY recounts a walk from the Grand Concourse to Parkchester, giving historical and topographical context to this topographically impressive park. I've always wondered why the Bronx has numbered streets just like Manhattan and yet they curve and curl around each other like blind spaghetti. It's the topography, I learned, that prevents the Bronx from sustaining an flat, regular grid of streets.

Richman (Echo) Park is a prime example. Walking around it is like riding a heavy roller coaster, slow as the ice age but infinitely sturdier than any cyclone.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park

One more jewel in the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy's necklace of green (we've already visited others) is this riverside stretch along the Hudson River just north of Battery Park itself, named for Robert F. Wagner Jr., Mayor of New York from 1954 to 1965. Wagner is known for finally breaking away the city's Democratic Party from control by Tammany Hall. He presided over the genesis of the New York Mets, Lincoln Center, and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. On the negative side, his frosty attitude toward the gay community – attempting to rid the city of gay bars to "improve" its image prior to the 1964 World's Fair – makes it seem quite all right to feature his Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park in the dead of a snowy winter.

This sculpture is half of Tony Cragg's "Resonating Bodies" – this piece resembles a tuba.

The other piece (not shown) looks like a lute, and that's the one I should have photographed because I was on my way to an early music concert at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, conveniently located in Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park. Plenty of lutes – theorbos, to be exact – but no tubas.

But honestly, I didn't recognize this as tubaform. Probably because it was so cold I was walking as fast as possible. If anything, what I got from it was human genitalia and an elephant's trunk. YMMV, as they say.

Sculpture aside, the park was more or less deserted. The entrance to the museum is on the street side, not in the interesting hexagonal part of the building, so the pedestrian traffic was anywhere but back in the icy wind off the river.

Here's the Museum of Jewish Heritage (subtitled "A Living Memorial to the Holocaust," lest we forget). Two sides of its distinctive hexagonal architecture, anyway.

Finally, it would be wrong to leave Wagner Park without a gaze at the Hudson River, rough and grey on this January day, and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Carroll Park

During my many years in Brooklyn I found myself in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood many times, but never visited Carroll Park. When I headed out there on the F train the other day to correct that lapse, I was expecting more greenery. I think that's because when I think of Carroll Gardens I think of its residential blocks lined with very deep front gardens. The park, though, turns out to be mostly for active recreation.

However, between a big playground area and the ball courts is a section where you can amble around one of NYC's many World War One memorials, this one a Soldier and Sailor monument sculpted by Brooklyn-born Eugene H. Morahan and dedicated in 1921. The sad image on the side you see in the photo to the right represents a soldier grieving for his slain comrades.

Carroll Park is old – Brooklyn's third-oldest park, once a private community garden, acquired by the City of Brooklyn for the public in 1853. Who's Carroll? I never knew until now. The neighborhood, the street, and the park are named for Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), the only Roman Catholic to have signed the Declaration of Independence and the last living signatory, dying in 1832 at age 95.

Why, I wondered, is a Brooklyn neighborhood named for a Maryland dignitary? Immediately I thought of the Maryland troops who enabled the safe escape of Washington's army in the Battle of Brooklyn, but it took a printed book (The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn) and not internet research to learn that I was right, more or less: Charles Carroll had sent that regiment.

I had speculated that the area's early-19th-century Irish settlers, feeling proud of the only Declaration signer who shared their Popery, had come up with the name, but in fact the neighborhood didn't get its name until the 1960s. Before that it was just part of "South Brooklyn," a designation that's dropped out of common use. So what was the park called before the 1960s? Readers? Anyone?

Another far-fetched association Charles Carroll had with the Borough of Brooklyn, which is also known as Kings County, is the coincidence that in the 17th century his Carroll ancestor (once "Ó Cearbhaill") emigrated to Maryland from King's County in Ireland (now County Offaly). Something else for the meaningless curious fact file.

I've drifted far from the topic of Carroll Park, but the fact is Carroll Park isn't very interesting. The coolest thing about it is the decorative cast iron gates and fencing, which date from a big 1994 restoration.

It also boasts one of the most beat-up chess tables I've seen in any park:

Oh, and a big rock someone drew a goofy face on:

Is the rock grinning triumphantly at having killed the tree? Or was the tree a victim of Sandy? What's that big hole up the middle of the trunk? Or is there some other explanation for the rock being more emotionally accessible than the tree – which is, in its defense, dead? In any case, I had to look pretty hard for a real dose of chlorophyll and oxygen. I discovered a modest one in the little fenced-off garden area pictured to the left.

I found some more serious vegetation when I ventured out of the park and a couple of blocks down Smith St. to the Transit Garden, so named because it's on MTA property. (Its website headline: Our new shed!)

Transit Garden or no, I wasn't ready to get back on public transit right away, I needed more of a leg stretch, so I headed for another "park." Further south along Smith Street, under where the F train rises into the sky, are two abandoned, fenced off, gloomy recreation areas called St. Mary's Park and St. Mary's Playground. They look like more like movie sets for a gang war film than anything that was ever fit for children.

Across the street I spotted a sign with a truly wacky science-fiction message:

Building for the future is surely a good idea. But transforming the past? That's going to take some serious wormhole action. And obviously, they're working on just that behind the tall fence, a short block from the Gowanus Canal.

Having ventured this far, I concluded by hoofing it a few more blocks to an open but deserted playground called Admiral Triangle, which I checked out only because of its curious name. A quick internet search has not revealed an explanation for "Admiral," but this geocaching website is helpful for the other half of the name: "It is interestingly named because the park is a triangle, surrounded by trees spaced around it in a triangle, that is within a street that is also a triangle." Now you know.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Central Park History

History pokes up through the soil of Central Park in so many places. There's geologic history, of course, in the backs and shoulders of schist around which Frederick Law Olmstead crafted the landscape we know today. But equally interesting are the relics of human history. Recently we scouted out three such spots.

A historical sign marks the location of Seneca Village, an uptown settlement where several hundred free blacks and immigrants lived from the 1820s until it was demolished in 1857 to make way for the park. A few remains are visible in the area of the West 80s, including this foundation of a house.

Next up, chronologically, is a survey bolt believed to be one of the original bolts hammered into the ground to mark the sites of future street intersections per the 1811 grid. The streets were never laid out in the area that became Central Park, of course, but the surveyors had no way of knowing there'd be a huge park here. The bolt is in an "undisclosed" location (urban explorers don't want it disturbed) but it's not hard to find if you do a little internet digging. It's near the lower left corner of this photo:

Finally, in the Ramble you'll find the Ramble Cave, also known as Indian Cave because the chamber appears to have been leveled by human hands in ages past and used for some purpose by Native Americans. Rediscovered during the building of the park, it was developed for rowers in the nearby Lake to explore, but not surprisingly, being a creepy hole in the ground it attracted disturbing doings. In 1929 The New York Times told us that the cave was a primary location for arrests of men for "annoying women" in the park. Accordingly the Parks Department sealed it up in the 1930s.

Today you can see the location and the staircase leading down to the cave from above, but you can't get in. I wonder: Is it really fully "sealed"? Who or what is living down there, in there, now?

I can't resist ending with these shots of The Lake in winter. Honestly, my best Central Park experiences have almost all been in winter. The beauty of this grandly sculptured land becomes starker and more striking when the water is frozen and the trees bare.