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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

St. Mary's Park

One of the original Bronx parks conceived by urban visionary John Mullaly, who called parks "lungs of the metropolis" and founded the New York Park Association in 1881, St. Mary's Park remains one of the borough's outdoor jewels to this day. Said Mullaly of the area that would become the South Bronx's largest park, "all the points that constitute the charm of a public pleasure ground are to be found in abundance: wood and water, trees and shrubs, hill and valley, barren rocks and emerald meadows; and all these so disposed that one form of beauty heightens the other by contrast."

st marys park south bronx nyc

Once part of Jonas Bronck's 17th-century estate, later owned by the family of Gouverneur Morris, the 35 acres of St. Mary's Park were a muddy wonderland during a recent, very welcome January thaw.

st marys park south bronx nyc

A string of cyclists biked through as I watched from atop one of the park's high ridges, while ballplayers gathered across the street from the landmark 1890s Public School 277.

st marys park south bronx nyc
st marys park south bronx nyc
st marys park south bronx nyc

The next photo sums up the state of St. Mary's in the winter:

st marys park south bronx nyc

A child gazes triumphantly from the top of one of the park's tremendous rock protrusions. Behind him, apartment buildings peer through the leafless trees. Below him, someone (presumably the Parks Dept.) has painted over some graffiti with decidedly non-matching green paint. To the left, someone (presumably not the Parks Dept.) has discarded some old clothes, probably just now reappeared as snow melted. To the far left, bundled-up visitors enjoy the sunny, relatively warm day.

In case you haven't guessed it by now, climbing on rocks makes me feel like a kid again myself.

st marys park south bronx nyc

For the less adventurous, St. Mary's Park offers more civilized ways to negotiate its hills.

st marys park south bronx nyc

For lovers oblivious to mud, the park can provide a relatively secluded spot even in January.

st marys park south bronx nyc

The mud didn't deter these parents either.

st marys park south bronx nyc

A few of the trees have distinct personalities.

st marys park south bronx nyc
st marys park south bronx nyc
st marys park south bronx nyc

Announcing an allocation of funds to refresh one of the park's playgrounds in 2015, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called St. Mary's Park "well-loved but under-resourced." Wrote Lisa W. Foderado in the New York Times, "Pity St. Mary’s Park. Too small and too poor to be supported by a park conservancy that might fix up its faded charms. Too big to make it onto the list of 35 parks in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Parks Initiative." In fact, though, St. Mary's Park has a recreation center, a dog park, a fitness loop, tennis courts, and a couple of playgrounds. (In fact, according to the Parks Department, it was the site of the Bronx's first playground, in 1914.)

But what I like best about St. Mary's Park is, in Foderado's words, its "hilly terrain flecked with glacial outcroppings and mature trees." Mott Haven is one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, but it has a real treasure here, along with three historic districts and – in case St. Mary's isn't enough park for you – a recently opened footbridge to Randall's Island.

st marys park south bronx nyc

To close, a footnote: There's another St. Mary's Park in New York City, sort of. Back in 2014, after exploring Carroll Park in Brooklyn (not much to explore, actually), I came upon what I described as "two abandoned, fenced off, gloomy recreation areas called St. Mary's Park and St. Mary's Playground. They look more like movie sets for a gang war film than anything that was ever fit for children." This year, funding was designated to develop these spaces, which are scheduled to open in April 2018. With, presumably, a new playground. But probably without glacial outcroppings.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Barretto Point Park and Tiffany Street Pier

tiffany street viele avenue barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc

Drawn to Hunts Point in the Bronx by the recently identified slave burial ground at Joseph Rodman Drake Park, we stayed in the neighborhood for a look at the waterfront oasis of Barretto Point Park at the northern end of the East River.

Before we even entered the park, the city's history peered out at us from a pair of plain street signs at the corner of Viele Avenue and Tiffany Street. The former is named for Egbert Ludovicus Viele of Viele Map fame, while the latter memorializes H.D. Tiffany of the Tiffany & Co. family. In the 18th century Tiffany inherited the land that became Hunts Point from his aunt and uncle, Charlotte Leggett and William H. Fox. (Leggetts are prominent in the landowners' cemetery in Drake Park.)

barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc

Built where once a sand and gravel operation and an asphalt plant stood, the park takes its name from Barretto Point just to the south, itself named for Francis J. Barretto, a 19th-century merchant and Westchester County Assemblyman who owned an estate in the area with his wife, Julia Coster Barretto (Coster Street, of course – named for her – is just two blocks away). Until 1895, Westchester County extended west to the Bronx River, just a mile or so to the east of Barretto Point Park.

barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc

As ForgottenNY noted back in 2009, the park occupies "5 acres of East River waterfront…its presence is heartening in that even in NYC's most out-of-the-way, visitor-unfriendly areas, a brand-new park with views of the towering Manhattan skyscrapers is available." Upon its opening in 2006 Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe truthfully called it "a new jewel in the crown of waterfront parks."

Much closer than those Manhattan skyscrapers is North Brother Island, most famous as the location of the long-abandoned sanitarium to which Mary ("Typhoid Mary") Mallon was exiled for much of her life.

north brother island barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc

You can also get a pretty good look at Riker's Island, New York City's infamous prison colony.

barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc

Much more than a vantage point, the park has fishing piers, canoeing and kayaking, basketball and volleyball courts, and in the summer an floating swimming pool offshore on an old barge (Curbed has photos.) There's also a small amphitheater and a really nice promenade.

barretto point park amphitheater hunts point bronx nyc

None of it was in use on a December weekend. No one was in the park besides us.

barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc
barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc

The grounds have been nicely laid out and cared for. The beach, not so much. Maybe it just has the wintertime blues, or maybe it suffered from Hurricane Sandy.

barretto point park hunts point bronx nyc

Abutting the park is the 450-foot Tiffany Street Pier, a neighborhood fishing favorite long before the park existed. As of this writing it's closed for repairs from damage from Sandy (projected completion: April 2018). Untapped Cities visited the pier and published photos just one year before the storm.

It's yet another reminder that while we enjoy our waterfront we should keep climate change in mind. Nothing lasts forever, but there is much that may be more speedily gone than we ever could have imagined.

All photos © Critical Lens Media

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Joseph Rodman Drake Park

Alerted by a recent New York Times article titled "Honoring a Hidden Slave Burial Ground," we headed up to Hunts Point in the Bronx to pay a visit to Joseph Rodman Drake Park, a two-and-a-half-acre rectangle with a fenced-off cemetery at its center – and, underfoot, a recently identified and as-yet-unmarked slave burial ground.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

Though long-neglected, tombstones still stand in the white people's cemetery.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

Hunts Point, best known for its produce and fish markets, is a desolate neighborhood on weekends, and besides us there wasn't a soul – well, not a corporeal soul, anyway – in or around the park on a recent windswept December Saturday. Buried here are members of the old landowning families, notably the Hunts ("Hunts Point"), Leggetts, and Willets.

Also here is Joseph Rodman Drake, who gave his name to the park. Trained as a doctor, he is remembered as a noted poet of the early 19th century whose "verse made reference to the natural beauty of the Bronx," as the historic sign says.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc
The nearly obliterated lettering on this stone in the cemetery memorializes Thomas Hunt, Cornelius Willet, and John Leggett.

Forty-four enslaved Africans lived on the Hunts Point peninsula in 1800. Somewhere in this park, outside the cemetery, beneath the trees that include a handsome willow and several sweetgums, lie the remains of up to 11 of them, rediscovered just a few years ago by local students from P.S. 48, also known as the Joseph Rodman Drake School.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc
joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

An earlier generation of kids from the same school planted a mighty oak in the corner of the white people's cemetery. It's nice to see a different and once-forgotten aspect of this area's history being recognized today.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

After writing poems such as "The Culprit Fay," "The American Flag," and "Bronx" ("Yet I will look upon thy face again / My own romantic Bronx, and it will be / A face more pleasant than the face of men"), Drake died of tuberculosis in 1820 at just 25 years old. Edgar Allen Poe, himself a longtime resident of the Bronx, had been a big fan.

"The Culprit Fay," a narrative poem of over 600 lines, predates Christina Rossetti's far better-known "Goblin Market," on a similar theme, by decades. Here's one passage:

The stars are on the moving stream,
And fling, as its ripples gently flow,
A burnished length of wavy beam
In an eel-like, spiral line below;
The winds are whist, and the owl is still;
The bat in the shelvy rock is hid;
And naught is heard on the lonely hill
But the cricket's chirp, and the answer shrill
Of the gauze-winged katydid;
And the plaint of the wailing whippoorwill,
Who moans unseen, and ceaseless sings
Ever a note of wail and woe,
Till morning spreads her rosy wings,
And earth and sky in her glances glow.

After a lot of faery drama, the poem ends with the magical sprites having left the scene:

The hill-tops gleam in morning's spring,
The skylark shakes his dappled wing,
The day-glimpse glimmers on the lawn,
The cock has crowed, and the fays are gone.

Doesn't sound much like the Bronx today. But a fence around a nearby vacant lot – or is it? – bears signs that the fays of old may still hover in the neighborhood.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

Faeries or no, poetry lives on in the poet Drake's park. The New York Shakespeare Exchange's Sonnet Project paid a recent visit.

After tramping around for a while, wondering if and when funding will be made available to create the proposed memorial at the site of the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground, we, like the fays, left the scene. I'll leave you with a video from the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground Project.

All photos © Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Parks in the Age of Terror

In the wake of the bicycle path terror attack, the city has added concrete barriers to the path's entrances, even far uptown from the location of the attack. Many of these places also serve as entrances to Hudson River Park, where I go running.
hudson river park manhattan nyc
But that's not the only park where these ugly white bollards have appeared. Want to get into the holiday market at Union Square Park? You'll need to walk around a barrier.
union square park holiday market manhattan nyc
Walking through Washington Square Park the other night, I was surprised to see incredibly bright generator-powered lights supplementing the normal, fairly subdued lighting in the park's central plaza around the fountain. At least I assume they're for extra security.
washington square park manhattan nyc
And there you have it: New York City parks in the age of terrorism. The good news: terror attacks haven't had the intended effect of putting a permanent damper on people's overall enjoyment of life. By my third run past those barriers by the river, they'd stopped registering with me emotionally. Just another feature of life in the big city.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Thursday, September 28, 2017

WNYC Transmitter Park

When I investigated WNYC Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn back in 2010 it was nothing but a construction site.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

Two years later it opened to the public, transformed into a green waterfront space with excellent views.

Only five years late to the party, I arrived to check it out.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

I always like to see landscaping that evokes a woodland or grassland trail.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

Dominating the park from what would otherwise be a bleak brick wall is a huge mural of a girl with flowers by the artist Faile, part of a "street-art project." (Does "street-art" mean it's temporary? Online sources don't say.) Faile told Patch, "The idea was the timeless theme of 'love me, love me not'—aiming to depict a moment that asks the question of what kind of relationship we have with nature. Are we here to love it and take care of it or not?"

wnyc transmitter park mural greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The sheer size of the mural is astounding.

wnyc transmitter park mural greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The frog in the painting isn't the only animal in the park. Here's a real one.

wnyc transmitter park butterfly greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The park is the former home of public radio station WNYC and a ferry terminal. An entry on the website of the New York City Economic Development Corporation's website at the time of the 2012 opening states: "The former WNYC radio broadcasting building was converted into a café." But if that was meant to happen, it hasn't. Dwarfed by a spectacular willow tree, the building is closed up and appears to be just a historical relic.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

In fact, the Friends of WNYC Transmitter Park (every park needs an advocacy organization these days) has a petition to stop the opening of a bar/café here. The Friends want instead to convert the building into a "botanical learning center surrounded by gardens featuring native species," DNAInfo reported in April.

There are two more reasons to oppose a bar/café within the park. First, there's a small playground.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

And second, there's already a party boat, the Brooklyn Barge, next door.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The sign etched into the side of the old transmitter building (with contrast increased for readability) says:

CITY OF NEW YORK
DEPARTMENT OF PLANT AND STRUCTURES
TRANSMITTER HOUSE
RADIO STATION
WNYC
1936

with the names of Mayor F.H. LaGuardia and Commissioner F.J.H. Kracke. LaGuardia's connection to WNYC was a deep one. The station's Wikipedia page shows a photo of him in the studio broadcasting his "Talk to the People" program in 1940. WNYC-AM broadcast from here from 1937 to 1990.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

As for Mr. Kracke, the portfolio of his Department of Plant and Structures included bus and trolley transportation along with, evidently, either communications or buildings (or both). Though long defunct, the department lives on in the wall here in Transmitter Park – and in the suspicious smirks of its 1922 women's basketball team.

The park was well used on this warm September weekend…

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc
wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc
wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

…though only a few were taking the long walk out over the water for a better view of the Manhattan skyline – from the Empire State Building to the UN and the slant-roofed Citicorp Tower.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc
wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc manhattan skyline

What will we find in Transmitter Park in another five years? Who can say? Does anything ever stay the same in New York City? Or anywhere?

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Gardens at St. Luke's

The Gardens at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields were resplendent in green when we stopped by in mid-August. Open to the public most days, the private gardens of the 1821 West Village church date from the 1950s.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

A brochure available in the Gardens describes "more than two-thirds of an acre of walks, lawns, and a fine collection of garden standards, rare hybrids and native American flora," and "a small but important way-station for migrating birds and butterflies during the spring and fall seasons," with "heat-retaining brick walls" that "create a warm microclimate."

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc
gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

It's a peaceful retreat for a quiet read.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

The planting is so dense it can almost feel tropical.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

Well into the summer, there remained plenty of color to please the eye.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

No one talks about pavement. But I'm partial to bluestone paving. (Speaking of color.)

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

This is one of those places you can lose yourself, forget you're in the city. As Atlas Obscura observes, "Although the garden is scattered with benches, few are regularly occupied. The occasional West Village resident ducks in to read or snack or sit, but no one within the garden's confines generally speaks louder than a whisper."

It's perfectly appropriate that this place should be a peaceful refuge. Nearly 200 years ago, the founders of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields named their new congregation after the physician evangelist "in recognition," the church's website explains, "of the village's role as a refuge from the yellow fever epidemics that plagued New York City during the summers" – a reminder, among other things, of a time when Greenwich Village was an actual village. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation describes people beset by yellow fever and cholera in the late 18th and early 19th centuries fleeing "north to the wholesome backwaters of the West Village," where the population quadrupled from 1825 to 1840.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

There's no population explosion here, though. Just an explosion of flora.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media