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Monday, September 22, 2014

Devoe Park

Five-acre Devoe Park in the University Heights section of The Bronx dates to 1913-1915, when land acquired by the city beginning in 1885 was laid out with trees, curving paths, lawns, bushes, an iron pipe fence – you know, the usual stuff you have in parks – along with, according to the Parks Department website, thousands of tulip bulbs.

Tulips make perfect sense here since the original First Dutch Reformed Church used to stand on the site. Built in 1705, and "said to be the oldest Bronx church with a regular ministry," its building has been replaced twice. Among many prominent names, Alice (Mrs. Edgar Allan) Poe was a member. To be truthful, on my visit I didn't notice any Dutch Reformed Church. What I noticed (and visited, but that's another story) was Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Catholic Church, nicknamed the "cathedral of The Bronx" because of its size. Here it is through the trees of the park:

devoe park saint nicholas of tolentine church

The tall trees in the next photo are pin oaks planted in 1995 during a reconstruction of the park. They make a nice change from the London plane trees Robert Moses planted all over the city. The short bushy tree on the right is, I believe, a scholar tree, also dating from 1995.

devoe park bronx pin oaks and scholar trees

There was definitely some lying around going on in the park on the warm weekend of our visit…

devoe park bronx

…and plenty of sitting, lounging, eating – all those "passive enjoyment" activities parks are meant for…

devoe park bronx

But there was action as well.

devoe park bronx

The playground itself, though, was quiet, allowing me to enjoy the sight of its vaguely walrus-shaped boulder to my heart's content.

devoe park bronx

Devoe Park is named for one of the area's prominent 17th century Dutch families (there's a Devoe Avenue as well), but the ghostly Devoes don't have a museum or a preserved manor house. Just a humble but very nice neighborhood park.

Could do worse.

Sadly and not surprisingly, this being New York City, a Google search starting with "Devoe Park" suggests "Devoe Park shooting" which turns up this news about the recent conviction in a nearby 2011 triple shooting (and double murder). Let's hope any more shooting around this pretty park is done with cameras only.

devoe park bronx

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Poe Park

poe park poe cottageEdgar Allan Poe lived the last few years of his life in a small house in the then-rural Bronx. He'd moved there with his ailing wife in the vain hope that the country air would give her TB-wracked lungs some more breathing room. After her death in 1847 the famous but still poor writer and his mother-in-law stayed in the house until his own demise in 1849.

Decades passed, The Bronx urbanized, and apartment buildings crowded around the old house until its own destruction seemed inevitable. Fortunately for posterity, funds were raised to move the house, now called Poe Cottage, a few blocks away into a small park beside the Grand Concourse now known as Poe Park.

Newly restored, the house still stands there today, not just the preserved home of a famous American but a reminder of what The Bronx was like not so long ago.

A couple of the furnishings inside actually belonged to the Poes. One is the mirror (above right). Visit, then walk the neighborhood and picture the writer heading west and over the High Bridge on the lonely walks he used to take.

poe park poe cottage

Poe Cottage is open for tours. And while you're in Poe Park, don't miss the Visitor Center, designed by Toshiko Mori. An art exhibit that happened to be in residence during our visit offered not only art but free drinks and potstickers.

As I always say – or think, anyway – you never know what you'll find when you visit New York City's far-flung parks. Sometimes even free food!

poe park poe cottage

The rest of the park is unspectacular – some grass and trees, a playground, rest rooms, and a gazebo you can't get into.

poe park poe cottage
poe park poe cottage

But Poe Cottage is must-visit for lovers of historic houses, literary history, or both.

poe park poe cottage

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Aqueduct Walk

Aqueduct Walk in The Bronx is part of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. The trail marks the path of the Croton Aqueduct, New York City's main source of drinking water for many years, completed in 1842 and used until the 1950s.

Considered as a park, the Walk resembles, conceptually, the High Line, the painfully popular converted elevated train track on the west side of Manhattan – old infrastructure adapted and repurposed.

The Old Croton Aqueduct starts north of the city in Croton, Westchester County. A gravity-fed tube built on ancient Roman principles and dropping 13 inches per mile, it runs for 41 miles, terminating in Manhattan where it deposited water in two reservoirs, one where Central Park's Great Lawn is today, the other where the main branch of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park are today.

The aqueduct's existence isn't evident along its whole path in today's New York. But up in the Bronx, you can walk right along a pretty sizable length of the historic water tunnel. The brick structure to the right in the first photo below is, I think, the aqueduct itself. In the second photo, I believe we are walking on top of it. If I'm wrong, I trust some kind reader will alert me.

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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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