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Monday, August 12, 2019

Shirley Chisholm State Park

One brief stretch of summer; two brand new New York City parks. I just covered the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Chelsea Green Park in Manhattan. Today Park Odyssey presents our first visit to Shirley Chisholm State Park on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Residents of Starrett City, the huge apartment complex now officially called Spring Creek Towers, have long lacked good access to their adjacent waterfront.

starrett city shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks
But now, creative re-use of landfill, much like what's been (and is still being) done across the water to create Staten Island's Freshkills Park, has transformed the 110-acre Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill into a beautiful, if not yet fully baked, tract of hilly grassland with miles of trails for walking and biking.

The park actually has two large sections, separated by Hendrix Creek which opens out into Jamaica Bay. We explored the western section; the entrance to the even bigger eastern part (on the former Fountain Avenue Landfill across the creek) wasn't open yet. The first phase opened last month, with an entrance just off the Belt Parkway's Pennsylvania Avenue exit. Curbed has a good article detailing the remediation steps planners have taken over the years to get to this point.

This isn't a very easy place to get to by public transportation. I'm guessing they're going to need to expand the parking facilities once the place gets popular.

Just off the parking strip, a couple of trails beckoned us into the grasslands.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

We saw many signs of nature reasserting its presence in and around the former dumps. Plants were flowering.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks
shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks
shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

Fish were swishing, hunted assiduously by birds (and anglers).

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks
shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

Even seasonal kayakers were already populating the creek.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

As at Freshkills, decades of toxic garbage have been covered by layers of plastic and soil, with venting to safely release the belowground methane. At the end of long Penn Pier, infrastructure remains to remind us of the garbage barges that would unload their "cargo" here.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

From the heights of the onetime piles of garbage, the Manhattan skyline is visible on the horizon, as it is from so many of New York City's outer-borough parks.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

Brooklyn's "Fighting" Shirley Chisholm was the nation's first black congresswoman, first elected in 1969 and serving until 1983. She was also the first black woman to run for President, in 1972. I remember seeing her on TV, with her odd-looking hair and her funny (so it sounded to me) accent, which was rooted in having spent part of her childhood in Barbados receiving a British education.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

It's well past time the city had a significant memorial to Chisholm. We're actually getting more than one. The She Built NYC initiative aims to redress the extreme imbalance between male and female honorees around the city. Its first commission is a Shirley Chisholm monument planned for Prospect Park, which, like Shirley Chisholm State Park, is in Chisholm's home borough of Brooklyn.

It's also a positive step to have a big new park named for a black leader. Chisholm joins Marcus Garvey, Jackie Robinson, and a very few others – Herbert Von King, for one local example – to be given such an honor.

By the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance of "Fighting" Shirley's park, it's hard to miss the new mural of Chisholm by Brooklyn artist Danielle Mastrion.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

More art was being created as we visited a few weeks ago.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

We even liked the color schemes of the banners and signage that deck the piers and waterlines.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks
shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

Much more can and will be done to develop this park. There's already a "bike library" – free bicycles to borrow so you can take a spin around the 10 miles of crushed stone paths. (Walking the whole thing could take all day and more.) But it's the views of the water that most refresh the spirit here.

shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks
shirley chisholm state park brooklyn new york city parks

Going on a sunny day? Take sunblock, a hat, and water. There's not much shade. But there's a good deal to see and think about. For one thing, how a city and state with so many problems, in a country with so many problems, can still not only create something large and new and good, but create it out of toxic dumps. For another, how right it is to use the occasion to pay tribute to an extraordinarily deserving person.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Monday, August 5, 2019

Chelsea Green

It's not often one gets to be present at the official opening of a new park. But on July 25, 2019, I attended the ribbon-cutting of Chelsea Green Park.

chelsea green park ribbon cutting manhattan new york city parks

Finally a reality after almost a decade of activism by Chelsea locals, this onetime Sanitation Department facility is now a quarter-acre playground and mini-park beneath a huge brick wall (and potential movie screen) on West 20th Street in Manhattan.

chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks

Dignitaries spoke as children and their minders checked out the new facilities.

chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks commissioner mitchell silver
NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver

chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks
chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks city council speaker cory johnson
NYC City Council Speaker Cory Johnson

chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks

State Senator Brad Hoylman got in a political dig, noting that Republican control of the Senate had prevented him from securing state funding for projects like Chelsea Green in the past, but now that the Democrats were in charge that would change.

Many Manhattan residents have well-maintained parks near their homes. We've documented countless examples on this blog. But the densely packed island also has neighborhoods without parks. This part of Chelsea, with very little open space, is one. In fact, City Council Speaker Cory Johnson noted that Chelsea ranks next-to-last in public open space among all 59 New York City Community Board districts.

So back in 2010 local residents Matt Weiss and Sally Green formed a group to push for a park on this site, originally referred to as the 20th Street Park Project. After much tenacious effort, and slow buy-in from the community, city officials, and a private donor, the first new park in Chelsea in 40 years is now open. Weiss and Greenspan's joint statement said, as reported by Curbed (who, naturally, published their coverage the very next day): "This park is a testament to the power of grassroots activism and a can-do New York spirit."

chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks
Sally Greenspan (center) and Matt Weiss (right)

chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks
chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks

In addition to the play structures, Chelsea Green Park has shaded benches, plantings, trees, and space for performances and public art displays. There's also a "passive turf area," a circle of artificial turf that I thought might be a fountain or a wading pool when I peered through the fence the week before opening. But no, it's just a circle of green awaiting creative use. What did the designers picture happening in there? Sunbathing? Sumo wrestling? Witchy rituals? I suppose I could ask.

But it's nicer to just walk by now and then and see what's up. Today, for example: lunchtime, a pleasant weekday in early August. Activity: running and toddling. Good enough.

chelsea green park manhattan new york city parks

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Herbert Von King Park

Originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Herbert Von King Park was conceived as a central open space for the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Olmsted layout is long gone, but the park remains a neighborhood emerald.

herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks
herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks

Conceived in the 1850s and constructed at the beginning of the 1870s, the park's 7.8 acres initially bore the name Tompkins Park, after Daniel D. Tompkins, abolitionist, New York governor, and Vice President under James Monroe. You can visit Tompkins in person at St. Marks Church-In-The-Bowery in Manhattan. And he still has his name on Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan and Tompkinsville Park in Staten Island's Tompkinsville neighborhood.

Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy was renamed in 1985 for Herbert Von King, community activist and "Mayor of Bedford-Stuyvesant." Here's a brief video tribute to him, courtesy of the New York City Police Foundation.

[Caution before clicking on the above link: the Police Foundation website, ironically, is not a secure one.]

Bedford Stuyvesant: Herbert Von King Park from My NYC Story on Vimeo.

Among many other things, Von King served on the board of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. The Center is still there today, on Lafayette Avenue across from the park, right by the titular and ecologically anomalous magnolia tree – a city landmark – that inspired it.

The Center's website explains that its founder, Bed-Stuy resident Hattie Carthan, was "among the nation's first African-American community-based ecology activists." MTEC has become "an epicenter for learning, environmental stewardship and community development."

Carthan's name endures not only in memory but in the community garden named for her, also adjacent to the park.

hattie carthan community garden bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks

A two-part article in Brownstoner documents Tompkins Park's early years and modern development in admirable detail. William Merritt Chase painted the park's pleasures and denizens in the 1880s.

william merritt chase tompkins park 1887 herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks
Tompkins Park, Brooklyn (1887) by William Merritt Chase

The surroundings are much more built up today. But the park still draws people (and animals) from around the neighborhood.

herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks
herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks
herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks

This denizen, I think, captures the divided spirit of the age:

herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks

A library was built in the center of the park in 1915. After it burned down in 1969, a recreation and cultural center with an outdoor amphitheater took its place. But this 1970s facility has seen better days, and is closed for renovation. "[T]he cultural center has never lived up to that name designation," admits the Herbert Von King Park Conservancy website ruefully.

herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks
herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks
herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks
herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks

Our Time Press reported back in 2015 on then-current talk of creating a Herbert Von King Park Conservancy. And there is a Conservancy website. Its news page hasn't been updated since 2015, and information on joining is still "coming soon." But they do sponsor tree lightings each December. And you can get your name on a bench.

Through this month (July 2019), you can see an evocative sculpture by Roberto Visani called "(x) of many children." I really like it.

herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks roberto visani x of many children sculpture

Not enough culture for you? Check out Rima Yamazaki's artsy video taken in and around Herbert Von King Park. (I especially like the little kid with the stick, five minutes in.)

Nature and Geometry in the Park - Herbert Von King Park from Rima Yamazaki on Vimeo.

Herbert Von King Park is one of Brooklyn's oldest parks. It isn't among the borough's most beautiful or remarkable. But visiting and reading up on it opens a window into a vibrant and historic neighborhood. Bedford-Stuyvesant wouldn't be the same without it.

herbert von king park bedford-stuyvesant brooklyn nyc new york city parks

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Central Park Conservatory Garden

Central Park's only formal garden feels like a park within a park. The Central Park Conservatory Garden occupies a secluded spot near the huge park's northeastern corner, between 104th and 106th Streets. The 20th-century layout of its three gardens and six acres deviates acutely from Frederick Law Olmsted's faux-naturalistic design for Central Park as a whole.

Though perhaps most celebrated for its tulip bloom in April and early May, the Garden is an appealing oasis at other times of the year. Later in May, the green of springtime is on full display in the central Italian-style garden, where an enthusiastic fountain makes a big field of plain grass and green shrubs seem quite special.

central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city
central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city

There's no conservatory here today. Early on, according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, plants for Central Park were grown at a nursery on the site. Then, between 1898 and 1934, there was a large glass greenhouse with tropical plants – hence "conservatory garden." Today, all is open to the air.

Transformed into European-style gardens by landscape architect Gilmore D. Clarke, the Conservatory Garden opened to the public in 1939.

From Fifth Avenue you enter through an iron gate salvaged from the old Vanderbilt Mansion at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Walk around the grassy field and you can find shade, and maybe a bit of culture too, on a raised arcade that curves around the lawn.

central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city

Underfoot you'll spot medallions engraved with the names of the original 13 states.

central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city

Olmsted didn't favor straight paths. But the ones here don't offend. They lead through dense green and flowery plantings in the English-style South Garden, and into some curves as well. Tulips or no tulips, the Conservatory Garden is a true balm for the soul in springtime.

central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city
central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city
central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city

Trees with lots of character line the avenues, where you can find shaded seclusion on the brightest of sunny days.

central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city
central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city
central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city

The French-style North Garden centers on the Untermyer Fountain, apparently a cast of the original Three Dancing Maidens sculpture by German sculptor Walter Schott.

untermyer fountain three dancing maidens central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city
untermyer fountain three dancing maidens central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city

It came to Central Park in 1947 from the Yonkers estate of Samuel Untermyer, prominent lawyer, anti-Nazi, and expert amateur horticulturalist. His estate is now Untermyer Gardens, itself well worth a visit. In fact, let's digress with a side trip to Yonkers, just north of the city.

untermyer gardens yonkers new york
Untermyer Gardens, Yonkers NY
untermyer gardens yonkers new york
Untermyer Gardens, Yonkers NY
untermyer gardens yonkers new york
Untermyer Gardens, Yonkers NY

I suspect many frequenters of the more heavily trafficked southern regions of Central Park have never seen the Conservatory Garden. All New Yorkers should know about it and pay a visit. Its formal layout is unique within the park. It's lovingly maintained. It's not crowded (usually). And it's just plain beautiful.

central park conservatory garden manhattan nyc new york city

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media