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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

New York Botanical Garden: Dale Chihuly Exhibit

Until October 29, 2017 you can see a whole world of Dale Chihuly's amazing artworks throughout the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx. It's a magnificent exhibit that I felt was worth a special notice here.

dale chihuly nybg new york botanical garden bronx nyc

During the day you can see the works for the price of regular NYBG admission. Some reach for the sky. Others reside in the water.

dale chihuly nybg new york botanical garden bronx nyc
dale chihuly nybg new york botanical garden bronx nyc
dale chihuly nybg new york botanical garden bronx nyc

Some you can approach very closely. We saw a little girl almost break this sculpture, installed right in front of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

dale chihuly nybg new york botanical garden bronx nyc

Some are installed more slyly, inside.

dale chihuly nybg new york botanical garden bronx nyc
dale chihuly nybg new york botanical garden bronx nyc

For a separate fee you can also visit at night when the glass sculptures are lit up. Advance purchase is recommended for Chihuly Nights.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Friday, July 21, 2017

Washington Commons

The design of Washington Commons – not the bar in Brooklyn, but the pretty little public space in Manhattan's West Village – makes it seem bigger on the inside, like some horticultural TARDIS. And in fact there is a bit of time travel you can do here.

washington commons west village manhattan nyc
washington commons west village manhattan nyc

Nice curves make a space welcoming, as Frederick Law Olmsted knew.

washington commons west village manhattan nyc

The little park's dominant architectural feature is its waterfall, bedecked with historical seals of the City of New York. The one with the beaver bears the slogan "SIGILLUM NOVI BELGII," "Seal of the New Belgium." Among the first settlers the Dutch West India Company plunked down in New Amsterdam were 30 French Walloon families, from a part of the then-Netherlands that became Belgium. There's a Walloon Settlers Memorial in Battery Park.

washington commons west village manhattan nyc
washington commons west village manhattan nyc
washington commons west village manhattan nyc

The designers didn't put in much in the way of seating – I suspect on purpose to discourage visits from nonresidents of the development this grudgingly public space abuts. In fact, according to The New York Times, the park "resulted from negotiations between community leaders and [the] Rockrose [Development Corporation], which needed a [zoning] variance to build a parking garage."

On a beautiful day in early summer, though, someone has realized that people do in fact enjoy a pleasant sit.

washington commons west village manhattan nyc

The trees make dappled shadows on the wavy-stoned ground.

washington commons west village manhattan nyc
washington commons west village manhattan nyc

As it happened, a work crew was replacing some of the nearby cobblestones on Jane Street. New York's original cobblestones, brought over from Europe as ballast, are more accurately called Belgian block. So everywhere you go in this neighborhood, you seem to run into Belgium – without the fat and calories of fries.

jane street cobblestones greenwich village manhattan nyc

Friday, June 16, 2017

Mount Loretto Unique Area

Along Staten Island's south shore lies Mount Loretto Unique Area, a former Archdiocese property now owned by the state and managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Even for New Yorkers, most of us anyway, this more than 200-acre expanse of grassland, woods, freshwater wetland, and coastal/marine habitat is truly the undiscovered country.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

There's no mountain here, not even a hill. Mount Loretto was the name of a large Catholic orphanage founded here in the 1800s on the former Bennett Farm and named for the Ladies of Loretto nuns' order. According to a remembrance by a onetime resident, from a 1992 article in the New York Times: "Robin's first memory of Mount Loretto is a stern nun in black habit, supervising a line of girls who had rags under each shoe and were rocking back and forth, buffing the floor. She slept in a room with 50 bunk beds."

mount loretto orphanage staten island nyc

Reported numbers vary, but one source says that at the orphanage's peak, 1,400 children lived there. According to Hatching Cat, "By 1947, Mount Loretto comprised over 700 acres and consisted of 42 buildings to accommodate 700 boys, 360 girls, 85 Franciscan nuns, and 5 priests. The property was farmed until 1967, when the last dairy cow was sold off." According to the Times article, in 1992 there remained "just 130 retarded teen-agers, supervised by lay professionals. The nuns are retired or dead, the buildings on the girls' side abandoned." The facility, which still exists, ceased foster-care services in 1995.

But the history of the place is so interesting I'm almost forgetting to write about the amazing park that everyone can enjoy, whatever your religion and whether or not you have parents. If you're lucky enough to get a spot in the tiny parking lot, that is. (Presumably you can get there by the Hylan Boulevard bus too. But the official website doesn't even suggest using public transportation. Remember, this is Staten Island.)

We spent a good three hours there on our recent visit and still covered only half the park. Granted, our mission also included birdwatching, for which Mount Loretto is well known, so there was a lot of stopping and starting and very little brisk walking.

We decided to start by following the wide, straight path that runs from the parking lot directly toward the shoreline. Shortly before the water's edge, we came upon a large stonework shrine at which people leave clamshell offerings, a custom I had never encountered before.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

Arriving at the rocky beach, we encroached on the territory of an annoyed killdeer plover guarding its eggs.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

Stepping back from the shore, we began walking east.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

Grasslands and wet patches stretch far and wide. Birds were all around.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc
mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

The spire of the abandoned church looks tiny in the far distance.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

With swallows, raptors, and other birds overhead, we spotted a pair of brown-headed cowbirds pecking in the grass.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

Wetlands? They're not kidding.

mount loretto unique area wetlands staten island nyc

Wildlife? That too, and not only the avian variety.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

We couldn't get a good look at the John Cardinal O'Connor Lighthouse (formerly Prince's Bay Lighthouse) because the area was fenced off such that the house obscured the not-very-tall lighthouse itself. Here's an old postcard image I found at Lighthousefriends.com.

mount loretto unique area princes bay lighthouse john cardinal o'connor lighthouse staten island nyc

Built in the 1820s, the lighthouse was deactivated in 1922. The resident forest ranger now inhabits the house. A local we ran into here told us an eagle had been frequenting a particular tree near the lighthouse, but wasn't there just then.

We followed the rough Wetland Trail, looping back to the entrance.

mount loretto unique area staten island nyc
mount loretto unique area staten island nyc

Just west of the parking lot, we watched an osprey hunt over Mount Loretto's freshwater pond. It circled so slowly and patiently that I could follow its perambulations with my binoculars. A few minutes after I took this photo, it dove and came up with a fish.

mount loretto unique area osprey staten island nyc

A bridge over the shallower end of the pond offers a different perspective.

mount loretto unique area freshwater pond staten island nyc

There are other parts of Mount Loretto Unique Area, including Butler Manor Woods, that I mean to explore soon.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Brooklyn Heights Promenade

brooklyn heights promenade nycIn all the years I lived in Brooklyn, I never took a walk on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. I can't explain why – maybe I'd seen it in enough movies and TV shows (Annie Hall, Moonstruck, Billions).

I also never realized it counted as a park. But the maple leaf logo on the sign at the northern entrance says it does. And you don't argue with the maple leaf.

This will be just a snippet of a post. I hadn't included the promenade in my planned Brooklyn Heights walk, so I'll have to revisit and walk the whole length. For now, here's a representative sample.

brooklyn heights promenade nyc

To the left in the photo above: a strip of horticulture (the park proper) and a bit of the classy architecture of the neighborhood.

In the center: people enjoying a warm spring day on the promenade itself, atop the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Opened in 1950, the esplanade was built above the highway to shield the neighborhood from the traffic noise. It does a pretty good job. Technically the walkway is owned by the Department of Transportation, but the Parks Department maintains it.

And to the right: the mouth of the East River.

More than anything else, it's the views that draw people here. The Parks Department website reproduces the text of a historic sign which begins, "'There may be finer views than this in the world, but I don't believe it,' said President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, when he exited his carriage on the crest that gives Brooklyn Heights its name."

brooklyn heights promenade nyc
brooklyn heights promenade nyc

The armillary sundial at the northern terminus was weirdly vandalized some years ago, its Pisces symbol pried off and stolen – and, as the close-up above shows, never replaced.

If it had happened more recently, I might suspect hungry goats. They like fish, right?

brooklyn heights promenade armillary sundial nyc

You get a good view of the ever-expanding Brooklyn Bridge Park, too. (That's the Statue of Liberty on the far right.)

brooklyn heights promenade brooklyn bridge park nyc

Some modest springtime blooms along the inner fringe caught my eye.

brooklyn heights promenade nyc

Also at the northern end is the Fruit Street Sitting Area, which looks like an extension of the promenade but has its own name with its own official Parks Department sign complete with maple leaf – the leaf with which (as established above) we don't argue.

brooklyn heights promenade nyc

I'll cover the full length of the promenade another day.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Sherman Creek Park and Swindler Cove

In Inwood, Manhattan's far north, you'll find one of the borough's newer green and natural jewels.

Sherman Creek Park and Swindler Cove are, more or less, gifts to the city by Bette Midler (starring in Hello Dolly on Broadway as I write this). Since 1995 her New York Restoration Project has brought (says its website) "private resources to spaces that lack municipal support, fortifying the City's aging infrastructure and creating a healthier environment for those who live in the most densely populated and least green neighborhoods."

The singer-actor has been a fixture in Gotham parkland and beautification for a long time. The highway-cleaning gag from the fourth season of The Simpsons was inspired by a real sign I used to see on the West Side Highway.

There's not much to the Sherman Creek part of the park. The eye candy is all in Swindler Cove (photos below). Following the Sherman Creek sign takes you down a pleasant wood-chip path with a view of the water, and that's pretty much it.

sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

There's actually no sign of a creek. But if you look at the legendary Viele Map from 1865, you can see a number of creeks emptying into the Harlem River from upper Manhattan. (In the image below, north is to the right.)

viele map inwood manhattan nyc

Glimpsed through the trees, the water looks peaceful, if not pristine.

sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc
sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

Forgotten NY in a post from 2013 tells us that the "creek" is actually just the inlet here, originally called Half Kill, and that a few years ago it appeared as "a yacht graveyard full of discarded ketches and pleasure boats."

This may be the place in question today:

sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

It seems some design or restoration work is still going on.

sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

There's a bit of beach hidden away here too. Curbed has a photo in a post from 2012.

Sherman Creek and nearby Sherman Avenue are named for a family of relatively obscure local settlers. Even a website devoted to the street names of Inwood says only that they "lived on the south side of the small bay also named for them" – in other words, on the inlet that we call a creek. (If there was never a real creek here, maybe the Sherman family wished they had one; maybe their motto was "It's all creek to me.")

Swindler Cove, or Swindler Cove Park, is marked as "a cooperative effort of the State of New York Department of Transportation, the City of New York Parks and Recreation, and the New York Restoration Project." A plaque reads, "These trees were planted by the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit founded by Bette Midler and dedicated to revitalizing underserved parks and open space in New York City."

swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

The Riley-Levin Children's Garden was in its springtime splendor on our recent visit – and free of children. (Unless "children's garden" really means a place where children are grown, in which case maybe the shoots just haven't emerged yet.)

riley-levin children's garden swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

The park itself in May is green as green can be.

swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

Coming upon the bucolic pond with its rushes and turtles can be a shock. There are beautiful places like this in more famous city spots, like Central Park. But they're always crowded with people. Here we encountered almost nobody – just a caretaker and one or two other wanderers.

swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc
turtles swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

Catching sight of an American Goldfinch on a water fountain was a treat.

american goldfinch swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

A path winds down to the waterfront past a small artificial waterfall.

swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc
swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

And there, floating in the river, is Swindler Cove's final surprise: The Peter Jay Sharp boathouse, another New York Restoration Project effort and home of Row New York, one of whose enthusiastic instructors intercepted us as we wandered ignorantly towards the building and took us on a tour.

peter jay sharp boathouse swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

Sharp was a hotelier, real estate developer, and one-time chairman of the New York City Opera who died in 1992. Countless New York theatergoers know his name from the performance spaces named for him, but how many know about the boathouse? We sure didn't, though it's been in operation since 2004. There's even a regatta named after Sharp.

Forgotten NY tells us the boathouse was constructed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects and "designed to resemble the Central Park Dairy with board and batten styling."

peter jay sharp boathouse swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc
peter jay sharp boathouse swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

This isn't "gently down the stream" rowing. This is crew. Children and college students alike learn here.

peter jay sharp boathouse swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

The environs aren't as picturesque as the Charles River, but Ivy Leaguers practice the distinguished old sport here too. A few of the kids we saw might end up rowing for Columbia in a few years.

peter jay sharp boathouse swindler cove sherman creek park inwood manhattan nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media