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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Cunningham Park and the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway

Exploring Alley Pond Park last summer, I came upon the historic old Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, also known as the Long Island Motor Parkway. According to the Parks Department, this 48-mile road was America's first limited-access all-elevated road for cars. Built for racing and leisure in 1908 by William K. Vanderbilt Jr. (Cornelius Vanderbilt's great-grandson), it ran from Queens to Suffolk County. A surviving section in Queens has been lovingly turned into a biking and walking path that runs for two and a half miles between Alley Pond Park and Cunningham Park.

vanderbilt parkway queens nyc

The parkway itself is a mostly flat, featureless straightaway. Two things make it remarkable. First, its history of innovative roadbuilding, racing and rumrunning, and the continued existence, albeit transformed, of sections of this roadway from another time. Second, the heavy vegetation that has grown up along both sides since the toll road was shut down in 1938, which give it the atmosphere of a country road right here in Queens.

The strip between the modern pavement and the leaves looks like the original roadbed.

vanderbilt parkway queens nyc

Some of the original roadside posts remain, too.

vanderbilt parkway queens nyc

Here's the entrance from the eastern end, in Alley Pond Park.

alley pond park queens nyc

Back in Cunningham Park, there wasn't much action when we visited, though evening concerts, movies, and Shakespeare are all on the schedule.

cunningham park queens nyc
cunningham park queens nyc

The Clearview Expressway bisects the park north to south. You can walk from one side to the other through an underpass.

cunningham park queens nyc

Some nice woodsy paths wind about.

cunningham park queens nyc

The Parks Department website notes that the British soldiers who occupied New York during the Revolution clear-cut the area's forests for firewood, so you won't find many fat trunks around here. The vines are back, though, happy to get a hold on younger trees.

cunningham park queens nyc

When I see a dirt path through the woods I instinctively want to follow it. It's the way some people feel about the smell of bacon. According to the Friends of Cunningham Park, "more than two-thirds of the park remains undeveloped natural land lush with greenery and wildlife." But experience with marauding mosquitos has taught me caution around the unmaintained trails of New York City's large outer-borough parks.

cunningham park queens nyc

The city began to acquire the land that would become Cunningham Park in 1928. arthur cunningham cunningham park queens nycOriginally called Hillside Park, it was renamed in 1934 for W. Arthur Cunningham, a lawyer and World War One veteran who was elected City Comptroller under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933, only to perish of a heart attack while horseback riding on Long Island the following year.

Sculptor Emil Sieburn was already at work on this bronze bust of the rising political star at the time of Cunningham's death. It was dedicated in 1941. But when vandals cut off one of its ears, Cunningham's widow was so upset that she asked that the repaired statue not be put back in the park. It has been kept safely indoors since the 1940s.

And so we take our leave of Cunningham Park, but with one burning question on our minds: Where's Cunningham's ear?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Cooper Park

Just a few weeks after walking through Stuyvesant Oval at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, I learned that Brooklyn has a park named after Peter Cooper, the 19th century inventor, industrialist and philanthropist. Cooper also founded Cooper Union, "the first private college open to all classes, races, and genders" according to the capsule biography on the American Society of Mechanical Engineers website, where you can also learn that as a by-product of one of his glue technologies he invented Jell-O.

In 1838 Cooper relocated his Manhattan glue factory to a strategic shipping location in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn near Newtown Creek. The City of Brooklyn bought the site in 1895, and behold: Cooper Park.

cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Cooper Park seems to get a fair amount of use, and is in a decent if not glorious state of maintenance. It can be fun to find pockets of wild neglect, though. Just across Maspeth Avenue is a stretch of overgrown sidewalk, with a plastic bag on the pavement playing the the role of The Tumbleweed.

cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Cooper Park's dog run is actually one of the nicer ones I've seen in the city, with wood chips and wide open spaces. With a natural look, it hardly even looks like a dog run. Though I don't suppose that matters much to the dogs.

cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Ices, anyone?

cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Early evening shadows turn the landscape into a lushly striped panorama.

cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Lying in the grass seems to get some people's creativity flowing. One woman looked to be writing something on old-fashioned "paper" with a stick-like "pen" or "pencil" device, while some kids were putting the grass to a different but equally productive use.

cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

On the other hand, there was this:

cooper park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Two nearby community gardens looked to be well tended.

red shed community garden williamsburg brooklyn nyc
Red Shed Community Garden
olive garden east williamsburg brooklyn nyc
The Olive Garden, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn

It seems intuitively obvious that a walk in the park, or any time spent in natural surroundings, is good for you. But now there's scientific evidence that walking in the park changes your brain. One of the authors appeared on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show yesterday talking about it:

Next up: a study of whether reading a blog about parks has relaxing and recharging effects too.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Memorial Gore

Just to keep things philologically interesting, Brooklyn's park pioneers denoted a couple of tiny parks with the word "gore" instead of (or in addition to) "park." memorial gore williamsburg brooklyn nycI first encountered the term two years ago when I discovered Cuyler Gore (Park) in Fort Greene. And the other day on my way to visit Cooper Park I happened upon Memorial Gore.

Right now at least, this Williamsburg gore is the less welcoming of the two.

A "gore" in this context is a small triangular park. The word may come from the textile industry, where a gore is a triangular piece of cloth, as the Parks Department website suggests – much like Mayor Lindsay's vest pocket parks. But the OED tells me the word is also used for a triangular piece of land, as well as triangular components in architecture and other fields.

Once an English major, always an English major. If you've got a problem with that, take it up with Garrison Keillor.

In any case, triangles are the common factor, and here's something else with three sides and a point: a spearhead. The use of "gore" for a small pointed park seems to be from the same root that gave us today's much more common meaning of being impaled by a spear or bullhorn, and by extension, the viscera that come out of your body as a result. Nice!

Violence like the shooting that occurred last week in Franz Sigel Park are unlikely in Memorial Gore, at least for the moment, as it is locked up tight.

memorial gore williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The memorial is perfectly visible from the surrounding sidewalks, though. Sculpted by the Piccirilli Brothers of Lincoln Memorial fame and dedicated in 1920, its sides are engraved with the names of World War I dead.

memorial gore williamsburg brooklyn nyc

It's all the same white color, but the big sphere is marble and the eagle bronze, according to the Parks Department website.

memorial gore williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The site also notes a $20,000 renovation funded in 1999, but evidently this affected the little park's surroundings more than its grounds. It also reports that "Council Member Kenneth K. Fisher is funding a $50,000 renovation to the site that will provide new play equipment with safety surfacing and new fences."

I couldn't detect any play equipment, old or new, through the fences or the locked gate. The only sign that people were ever meant to enter here is an extremely overgrown pathway leading in from the gate. Peer carefully into the following photo and you can pick it out. It's at the bottom and just to the left of center.

memorial gore williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Maybe someday we'll be able to tread its secretive stones.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Clement Clarke Moore Park

clement c mooreAs it's named for Clement C. Moore, author of the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (popularly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"), it's only fitting that the name of Clement Clarke Moore Park is itself a micro-poem:

Clement Clarke
Moore Park

There, you see? And who says a poem needs a verb?

Moore's family estate, which includes what is now the General Theological Seminary, was once a farm. Moore's grandfather, Captain Thomas Clarke, bought the property in 1750 and named it Chelsea, the name borne now by the whole neighborhood.

So I figure this little corner park, though mostly just playgrounds, is worth a mention because of that connection to the history of the area. Also, the surrounding trees sure do look nice in bloom in the spring.

clement clarke moore park chelsea manhattan nyc

Stopping by again on a warm summer afternoon, I found all the gates mysteriously closed, and all but one locked – yet there were people inside, a scattering of tiny children and their caretakers. Feeling unwelcome, I stayed outside the iron fence.

clement clarke moore park chelsea manhattan nyc
clement clarke moore park chelsea manhattan nyc
clement clarke moore park chelsea manhattan nyc

Just across Tenth Avenue you can see the High Line. But there's no serenity on the street. Although we're several blocks south of the tremendous Hudson Yards development now under construction, the traffic backups make Tenth a noisy crawl of trucks, buses and cars all day long.

high line chelsea manhattan nyc

It's hard to imagine the Hudson River is just one further block west. But maybe that's just what this spouting seal is doing. Though surrounded by colorful offerings left him by the local toddlers, he pines for the open water.

clement clarke moore park chelsea manhattan nyc


Friday, July 3, 2015

Bath Beach Park and Shore Parkway Greenway

Bath Beach Park, also known as Bath Beach Playground, is a utilitarian space at the seaside edge of Brooklyn's quiet Bath Beach neighborhood. A walkway through the park ending at a curved wall is named for Joseph L. Pezzuto, a local community activist who had a major hand in the livelihood of this park and the whole Bath Beach neighborhood through a big chunk of the 20th century.

bath beach park pezzuto walkway brooklyn nyc

Atop the wall is a raised platform with benches.

bath beach park pezzuto walkway brooklyn nyc

Visiting on a warm weekday afternoon in early summer, I encountered a whole lot of not very much, just a scattering of children and their caretakers. From some angles it was easy to imagine I was in an episode of Life After People. The dusty softball field looked like a desert, the bocce courts and chess tables just as empty.

bath beach park bocce brooklyn nyc
bath beach park chess tables brooklyn nyc

It was only the middle of the afternoon, so there wasn't too much going on in the playground itself either.

bath beach park playground brooklyn nyc

But at the back of the playground a strange gate beckoned. Why was it open? Where did the path lead?

bath beach park playground brooklyn nyc

I had to investigate, so, keeping an eye out for poison ivy and goblins, I followed the trail around the corner of the playground…

bath beach park playground brooklyn nyc

…and to the end. Where I found, not to my surprise, nothing.

bath beach park playground brooklyn nyc

Behind the handball courts is another unused grassy area. It all seemed to add up to something strange about Bath Beach Park. In college at NYU, Joseph L. Pezzuto was a member of the Rho Epsilon real estate fraternity – did you know there was a real estate fraternity? I sure didn't – but he died in 1999, so I can't ask him about Bath Beach Park's weird extraneous real estate.

bath beach park hadnball brooklyn nyc

Just across Shore Parkway a pedestrian bridge leads to the long bike path running alongside the Belt Parkway and the edge of Gravesend Bay, the Shore Parkway Greenway.

shore parkway greenway bath beach brooklyn nyc

Looking west you can see the Verrazano Bridge, which upon its completion in 1964 became the longest suspension bridge in the world, a distinction it held for some time. In that great age of accomplishment, the U.S. could boast many firsts, bests, and biggests.

shore parkway greenway verrazano bridge bath beach brooklyn nyc

This pair made a nice silhouette against the span.

shore parkway greenway verrazano bridge bath beach brooklyn nyc

And with them, we bid farewell to Bath Beach, that former fashionable retreat, and, at least for now, to the Shore Parkway Greenway.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Milestone Park

Milestone Park in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn is the site of New York City's oldest surviving milestone, a relic from 1741 now at the Brooklyn Historical Society for safekeeping. A marker explains that the post "stood at the juncture of two colonial roads[,] Kings Highway and Old New Utrecht-Flatbush Road (now 18th Avenue). It also served as a gauge to determine postal rates."

milestone park bensonhurst brooklyn nyc

The milestone indicated distances to "N York Ferry" (8 1/4 or 10 1/2 miles depending on which road you took), "Deny's Ferry" (2 1/2 miles), and Jamaica (15 miles). Today it's all one big fat city, of course. But it's easy to imagine the time when today's Queens neighborhood of Jamaica was a village hours away through farms and forests, and it was a long hike to get a ferry to Manhattan.

Near the marker an old water fountain caught my eye. I thought it might be some kind of historic post as well – it looks like it could have been here since 1741 too – until I saw a man bend over it and take a drink.

milestone park bensonhurst brooklyn nyc

The Chinese immigrants gathered around a gaming table reminded me of Columbus Park in Manhattan, where you can find similar scenes.

milestone park bensonhurst brooklyn nyc

Hexagons, cobblestones. Hexagons, cobblestones.

milestone park bensonhurst brooklyn nyc

On the next block: the New Utrecht Reformed Church.

new utrecht reformed church bensonhurst brooklyn nyc

In front of the church, the New Utrecht Liberty Pole "marks the spot over which the American flag first waved in the town of New Utrecht. The original pole was erected by our forefathers at the Evacuation of the British, November 1783, amid the firing of cannons and demonstration of joy."

new utrecht liberty pole bensonhurst brooklyn nyc

I only learned why 84th Street also carries the name Liberty Pole Boulevard while doing research after my visit to Milestone Park. While there I failed to notice the tall flagpole topped with an American flag and with the original eagle and weathervane from the 1783 pole. The Friends of Historic New Utrecht website has plenty of photos.

Another historical note: the park is also the site of the 17th century Van Pelt Manor House, which lasted the better part of three centuries before succumbing to history's onward rush. Wikipedia has a capsule history.

van pelt house bensonhurst brooklyn nyc