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Monday, May 27, 2024

Marsha P. Johnson State Park

The site of an old marine and shortline rail terminal on the East River, at the edge of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, became a state park in 2007. Thirteen years later the state renamed East River State Park in honor of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

But there's been a lot of change here besides the name. An extremely outdated description at nyctourism.com says this: "East River State Park, otherwise known as the Williamsburg Waterfront, is not fancy: stage, concrete, water...Families can relax amongst historic rail yard remnants, and in the summer, take in family-friendly music and film series."

That doesn't remotely describe today's Marsha P. Johnson State Park, which abuts the unremarkable sports fields of Bushwick Inlet Park. It has some of the fancy trappings that go with our age of reckless real estate development and gentrification, but also exudes a neighborhood-y feel.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

The big benefit of a park in this location is, of course, the waterfront.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

In the upper left of the photo above there's a seaplane, on the way to Boston perhaps.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks
Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks
Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

Waterfront aside, there's space here for both family fun and sleepy romance.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks
Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

Remnants of the site's industrial past flowed together with spring flowers and chalked whimsy on a mid-May visit.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks
Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

A little wooden train perhaps is meant to suggest the short trains that ran here from the waterfront to the lot or street where cargo could be taken up by vehicles for delivery or processing.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

Jumbles of stones make good play spaces.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks
Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

There's fun – and relaxation opportunities – aplenty in this quiet park.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks
Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

The park's renaming occurred under the Andrew Cuomo administration in 2020. Signage here will tell you that Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) was a "Black gay and trans liberation activist, drag queen performer, actress, and sex worker [who]...struggled with mental illness" and lived with HIV/AIDS.

She "was known in the West Village for her charisma, joyfulness, and generosity, while living against great odds...Many called her a saint: Saint Marsha."

After the Stonewall uprising, where she was present, she "moved to the forefront of the Gay Liberation Movement." The "P" in her name, we are told, stood for a motto of hers, "Pay it no mind," which is written over her park's main entrance on Kent Ave.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

Her body was found in the Hudson River in July of 1992. Uncertainty lingers over whether her death was a suicide or murder.

In recent years New York City has acted to belatedly honor African Americans by naming parks for them. New York State has taken steps in that direction too, and in this case with an African American who was also part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Along the same lines, In March 2024 present governor Kathy Hochul issued a proclamation declaring a Transgender Day of Visibility.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

Netflix released a documentary about Johnson in 2017.

Marsha P. Johnson
Hank O'Neal, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Marsha P. Johnson State Park carries only remnants of the site's industrial/commercial past, but history lives on all around Brooklyn. Consider these old stable doors on a nearby street.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City parks

And history is made by all kinds of people. Case in point: Marsha P. Johnson State Park.

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All photos © Oren Hope except where noted

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Paseo Park: A Linear Park in the Making, and Travers Park

Jackson Heights is one of the city's most lively and interesting neighborhoods, reputed to be one of the most diverse places in the world. Some have counted over 160 languages spoken in this section of Queens.

What Jackson Heights doesn't have is a park, or not much of one anyway. Alliance for Paseo Park is trying to change that by transforming a 26-block, mile-plus stretch of 34th Avenue into a linear park. We paid a visit recently to see how it's coming along.

So, is Paseo Park closed to automobile traffic?

Paseo Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

Best answer I have right now: Yes and no. No and yes.

Paseo Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks
Paseo Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

The Greenmarket sets up shop here on Sundays, a nice consonance. (The tents in the following photo are the giveaway.)

Paseo Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

Are there festive, colorful blocks adorning these blocks? That's a yes.

Paseo Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

The project grew out of NYC's pandemic-spawned Open Streets program, which sets aside stretches of certain avenues around the city for pedestrians only on Saturdays in the summer and has become a permanent feature of city life.

Why "Paseo Park?" "Paseo" means "a leisurely stroll or promenade" in Spanish.

Paseo Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

While on your stroll or promenade, you'll come upon an existing park. Travers Park is primarily a playground and sports facility, but has enough spots for passive recreation that it merits a mention here. One unusual feature is a big grassy field that doesn't seem to be designated for anything but lolling about.

Travers Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks
Travers Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

Not unusual are these stone chess tables, a common sight in New York City's parks.

Travers Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

Trees were in bloom on the day of our visit.

Travers Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks

Travers Park also has its own "Friends of" organization.

Thomas J. Travers (1897–1958) was a community leader. Here's what I liked about the brief bio on the Parks Department website:

"After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he returned to New York to marry his childhood sweetheart, Ann Desmond."

A New York Times article headlined "Jackson Heights, Global Town Square" reported in 2020:

Even by New York standards, Jackson Heights is changing so fast and contains so many different communities that no single walk can begin to take in the whole neighborhood. There’s a booming Latin American cultural scene, a growing Nepali and Tibetan contingent, an urban activist movement, pioneering car bans on local streets. This is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's district, and it is represented by a longtime openly gay city councilman named Daniel Dromm.

Open streets? Openly gay? All you have to do is open your mind, and look: a new park.

Taking a walk in Jackson Heights? Park Odyssey recommends a dosa and a curry at vegetarian South Indian restaurant Samudra followed by ice cream at Jahn's.

Travers Park, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City parks
park odyssey 300

All photos © Oren Hope

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Maritcha R. Lyons Park

Exiting Susan Smith McKinney Steward Park (see the previous post) you can walk under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) and find another little park, this one older. Formerly generically called Bridge Park I, this little triangle was renamed in 2020 Maritcha R. Lyons Park in an ongoing effort to honor prominent African American women from New York City.

Had you heard of Susan Smith McKinney Steward before reading this blog? I'll wager not. And the same probably goes for Lyons.

But first, the BQE underpass. It's a gritty contrast to most of newly gentrified Dumbo. You can't deny its positivity, though.

Maritcha R. Lyons Park Brooklyn New York City Parks BQE
Maritcha R. Lyons Park Brooklyn New York City Parks BQE

Inside the park, the expressway looms along the side.

Maritcha R. Lyons Park Brooklyn New York City Parks BQE
Maritcha R. Lyons Park Brooklyn New York City Parks BQE

The colors are eye-catching. But cute hipster Dumbo is nowhere to be found here.

Maritcha R. Lyons Park Brooklyn New York City Parks BQE

As for Lyons (1848-1929), she was, per the Parks Dept. website, "an educator, civic leader, suffragist, and public speaker. She taught in Brooklyn public schools for 48 years and was the second Black woman to serve the Brooklyn school system as an assistant principal.

Maritcha R. Lyons Park Brooklyn New York City Parks BQE

"Throughout her life, Lyons fought for women’s right to vote and was a member of the Colored Women’s Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn. She died in 1929 in Brooklyn, leaving a legacy of advancing women’s rights and racial justice."

The site further explains that after her home was attacked during the 1863 Draft Riots, her family fled to New England. Her family sued to gain her admission to Providence High School. She became its first African American graduate.

That's courtesy of the Parks Department's Historical Signs Project, which does not seem to cover an older plaque also found here. It contains what was once a lesson in infrastructure history, specifically about the BQE. But time has flattened the raised lettering, rendering it hopelessly illegible.

Maritcha R. Lyons Park Brooklyn New York City Parks BQE

Of course, if you're interested in the BQE, there's plenty of information on that great crumbling thread of noise and particulates online.

All photos except book cover image © Oren Hope

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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Susan Smith McKinney Steward Park

Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward (1847–1918) was the first licensed African-American female physician in New York State, specializing in prenatal care and childhood diseases. An obscure tract near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), formerly called Bridge Park II, has been redesigned and renamed Susan Smith McKinney Steward Park.

susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks

The park lies just behind the entrance to the F train. Yet this space is what you could call a relic of the construction of the BQE, which you can see arcing by in the background.

susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks
susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks bqe
Bits of rounded brick wall remain where wooden fencing later went up, giving a weird patchwork-ruin effect.
susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks bqe
And a look skyward confirms that yes, you're still in good old NYC.
susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks bqe

(For what it's worth, Amsterdam News and other sources noted that the $7.5 million reconstruction of the park was privately funded by Watchtower, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization that has a prominent presence nearby.)

McKinney Steward was a Weeksville (Crown Heights) native who grew up on her father's Brooklyn pig farm. (There are no more pig farms in Brooklyn, although I wouldn't be surprised if some hipster enterprise in Red Hook was keeping a live pig somewhere out back.)

susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks bqe

The pioneering physician owned a practice from 1870 to 1895, with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. According to the Brooklyn Public Library, practicing medicine for her wasn't just about physical heath, "It was a means by which she could further elevate and impact the community she loved and fight for racial inclusion and women’s rights. During her life she founded clinics, clubs and suffragette groups."

McKinney Steward spent her later years as a faculty member and resident physician at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. But upon her death at age 71 she was buried back in Brooklyn, in Green-Wood Cemetery. W.E.B. Dubois delivered the eulogy.

She is an obvious choice for honoring and remembering with a park. To be honest, though, there's not really a whole lot in this one. I'm all for more safe places for kids to play outside...

susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks

...but what the neighborhood – which includes much public housing – needs more than a field of artificial turf is tree coverage. Here you find trees mostly on the fringes.

susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks

It wasn't clear from my reading how much of the planned reconstruction has already taken place. But the place is well manicured and looks finished. In two visits, one on a warm late-summer morning, the other on a pleasant weekend in April, only a few locals were taking advantage.

susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks bqe
Sidle around a bend, though, and here's a surprise – a playground with giant whimsical overhanging leaf-things in the foreground.
susan smith mckinney steward park brooklyn new york city parks

Incidentally, Kaitlyn Greenidge's 2021 novel Libertie – designated variously a "notable" book, a "must read" and "best historical fiction" by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time – was inspired in part by the life of McKinney Steward.

The Times called the book "a feat of monumental thematic imagination."

I can't say the same for Susan Smith McKinney Steward Park. But there you have it. And in the next post, we venture under the BQE to find another little park named after another notable female African American New Yorker.

park odyssey 300

All photos except McKinney Steward portrait © Oren Hope