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Monday, December 24, 2012

Hinton Park

A trip to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens gave this explorer the chance to visit not only Park of the Americas (formerly Linden Park) and National Plaza (formerly Corona Plaza) but Hinton Park as well, a big rectangle just across the Grand Central Parkway from Citi Field, the fancy new home of the New York Mets. Nearby you'll find the Louis Armstrong School and the Louis Armstrong Playground.

No one was playing outdoor chess on this December day, but no matter the weather the compass never tires of pointing in every direction.

Most of the park's acreage is devoted to grassy baseball fields…

…which, you'd assume, would be entirely abandoned in the winter, but you'd be wrong.

Little parks with little character bordering on flavorless highways – that's a kind of identity, I suppose. Reverend George Warren Hinton park is named for a longtime pastor of the Corona Congregational Church, who died in 1969 – the same year the Mets won their first World Series, and long before the building of Citi Field inspired the team to…well, to continue to not be very good. Sigh.

Maybe one day the guys in the photo above can do something about that.

A final note: While it's true that Hinton Park is unremarkable, even lacking anything in the way of a surrounding neighborhood to lend it character, it's also true that walking towards it along 37th Avenue over slightly hilly terrain, passing streets jutting off in irregular directions, I could detect past ages when this land was entirely rural. Imaginative overreach? I don't think so. Try it and see if you agree.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Park of the Americas and Corona Plaza/National Plaza

Park names are a jumble in the bustling part of Queens known as Corona, a neighborhood I admit I'd previously known only from the line in Paul Simon's song "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." ("Goodbye Rosie, queen of Corona.")

Aiming for a park that's called Linden Park on all the maps, we disembarked from the No. 7 train at the stop just a block away called 103 St./Corona Plaza. That the Corona neighborhood should have a Corona Plaza seems to make perfect sense, but they have changed the name. To National Plaza. Because it's at National Street, I presume, but why the change? And why does the subway station still have the old name?

The plaza, a block-long triangle under the El, is part of the Park Department's Greenstreets program and on the day we visited it was hosting a busy marketplace at which, as in the rest of the neighborhood, we heard not a single word of English – Spanish only. Here's the plaza, whatever it's called.

And the naming confusion doesn't stop there. We're only just now getting to our actual destination, the onetime Linden Park.

For a reason I haven't been able to uncover, Linden Park has been renamed Park of the Americas, though the old sign has much more character than the generic new ones, as usual.

On this blustery December day an airplane cut through the agitated sky.

Was the name change to Park of the Americas related to the famous one that turned Manhattan's Sixth Avenue into Avenue of the Americas? That happened way back in 1945, but it never stuck – no one uses the new name except the post office. Were they trying again with a sneak attack at an obscure little park in Queens? Or could it be because there's a Linden Park in Brooklyn too?

As you can probably imagine, I don't go looking for flower photos in December. But if I happen upon a rosebush that's still putting out, how can I not take advantage, even if I do have to wait a while for a pause between gusts of wind?

A rose of another sort, this compass rose, points any way you want to go:

This old detailing on the facilities building continues our horticultural theme while evoking decorative times gone by, when Linden Park was still Linden Park.

Meanwhile, the playground displays a more modern flair. One good thing about winter is you can sometimes take a picture of a photogenic playground without anyone playing in it.

This one has appealing yellow squiggles and roofs.

Our visit to Linden Park/Park of the Americas was actually occasioned by a trip to the nearby Louis Armstrong House Museum, where Satchmo and his wife lived for decades and which is now operated as a museum – well worth visiting for music fans – by Queens College and a fundraising foundation. It gets a mention on this parks-focused blog because the Armstrongs turned the lot next door into a very nice garden, which now hosts concerts during the warmer months. Despite what I mentioned above, the museum tour is given in English, not Spanish – the only English we heard during our entire excursion to Corona, although the tour guide did mention that the neighborhood has a growing Asian population. In any case, Corona's ethnic makeup has certainly changed any number of times, even just since Lucille Armstrong decided to buy the house on 107th Street back in the early 1940s.

The museum has two paintings of Satchmo by Tony Bennett, who, speaking of name changes, signs his work "Benedetto." But regardless of ethnic changes or name changes of parks and plazas and singers and everything else, I hope we can all agree on one thing: Long live the Louis Armstrong House Museum. And its garden.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Gorman Park

Now here's something different: a park that's essentially just a giant staircase.

OK, yes, Gorman Park has a terrace-like seating area at the top.

The upper entrance is off Wadsworth Terrace circa 189th St., a block east of and a big climb up from Broadway. Up there is where you'll see the benches, along with a stone wall chiseled with the vital information that the park was named for a real estate investor (how New York is that?) named Gertie Amelia Gorman. But once you get beyond that flat balcony, it's pretty much nothing but big wide stairs, hairpinning all the way down the hill.

Gorman Park volunteers work to beautify the park. Several people were there clipping during my December visit, although the results of their work are surely prettier in the warmer months.

The most recent entry on their website, from June, has this invitation, which must have been irresistible: "I hope you can make it by Gorman Park tomorrow for some exciting weeding and ground-cover planting." Exciting? Really?

But I always like discovering that even the smaller, more obscure parks around the city have devoted neighborhood boosters. It shows how important parks are, every one of them, to urbanites. Long live Gorman Park.

Incidentally, speaking of stairs, my walk from nearby Bennett Park to Gorman Park took me along 187th St. which itself consists, for one block, of a huge bank of stairs (eight flights, I think). They don't call it Washington Heights for nothing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bennett Park: Highest Point in Manhattan and Site of Fort Washington

Though named for the founder of the New York Herald, a newspaper launched in 1835, Bennett Park in Washington Heights carries much more history than that. Belying its modest appearance, this small uptown park occupies the highest point on the island of Manhattan and the site of Fort Washington, where General George Washington and his Continental Army made their last stand on Manhattan in 1776 before the British rolled over the city.

I would have figured the island's highest point above sea level would be somewhere along the western edge, with its dramatic views down to the Hudson River, or maybe in an uptown park with a real climb in its midst, like Marcus Garvey Park. But no, it's at this much humbler site a few blocks inland from the river.

Ron Chernow in Washington: A Life describes Fort Washington as "a huge pentagonal earthwork" whose "defenses meandered across a rocky bluff stretching from present-day 181st to 186th streets." But it "had several significant defects" – no internal water source, no topsoil for trench building, not enough room to shelter all the forces, and so on. In the fall of 1776 Washington's men "were shivering with cold, ravenous for food, and prey to one malady after another."

Not only that, the strategy of using Fort Washington, together with Fort Lee across the river in New Jersey, to prevent the British from moving ships up the Hudson failed, and Washington's army didn't last long on this site. Granite paving marks the original contours of the fort. The engraving in the photo below reads "Fort Washington Built and Defended by the American Army 1776."

A replica of a Revolutionary War cannon stands guard:

At the high point of what now feels like a very modest hill, an outcropping of good old Manhattan schist bursts up out of the pavement:

Bennett Park has a nice playground as well, but the park as a whole is in the midst of a multiyear upgrade project. With budget cuts, and in our new era of superstorms, there's no telling when any particular parks project will get finished, but another visit next year or the year after might produce very different photos than these December shots. In the meantime, pay a visit to this historic high point and remember New York City's importance in America's struggle for independence.