There's a marvelous hidden treasure in Highland Park.
On a plateau on the border between Brooklyn and Queens sits a beautiful piece of city history: Ridgewood Reservoir, built in 1859 with three basins that provided drinking water to both boroughs. The reservoir functioned as such until the 1980s.
Two basins have been filled in, but one remains, and the whole area is being allowed to naturally reverted to a forest where native plants, birds (more than 150 species according to the Parks Department website), and other wildlife – even accidentally imported Italian Wall Lizards (we saw some) – can make their home.
The place's water-supply past is preserved outside the park, too, in the name of Force Tube Avenue, which cuts diagonally across the Cypress Hills street grid for a few blocks until it runs into the park. A pipe called a force tube or force main brought water along this route from the reservoir to a nearby pumping station.
Best of all, you can walk all the way around the basin on nicely maintained paths that offer lovely views.
Enter Highland Park at Jamaica Avenue and Highland Boulevard and the first thing you see is a rolling tract of nice-looking but unremarkable city parkland.
To reach the reservoir, you can walk up the bike path alongside Highland Boulevard, parkland on your left, the road and Cypress Hills National Cemetery (behind a screen of trees) on your right.
Cross the road where it bends, head up one of the staircases (we took the one to the left), climb to the top of the plateau and voilà.
You can get an even closer look at the water on a guided tour to the normally closed West Causeway. But the views from the other paths are worth a visit anytime. Brokelyn has some really nice photos from a different, even more picturesque season: fall.
We visited on a beautiful but hot summer day.
This leftover building had some reservoir-related function.
The pathway along the east side of the basin overlooks the 160-year-old Cypress Hills Cemetery. Among the notables buried here are Mae West and the painter Piet Mondrian, one of whose paintings stared down at me in poster form from my wall when I was in college.
No, you can't go swimming in the reservoir, and I don't think you'd want to. Highland Park is more than the reservoir, though. Among its attractions are a kind of sprinkler circle (who needs fancy suburban water parks?) and tennis courts – a lot of tennis courts.
A stairway leads up to Highland Boulevard, which bisects the park. Cross the road and there's more park, with plenty of space for picnicking and just hanging out.
On the way out, we stopped to watch a soccer game.
Through a locked gate we viewed a verdant, wild-looking garden. The Parks Department web page mentions a swamp being reclaimed for a flower garden during the main period of the park's construction, between 1901 and 1905. Maybe that's this one.
Walking back to the subway, I couldn't resist grabbing a photo of the Don Juan Tax & Ice Cream Parlor. No, I'm not the first blogger to discover it. But what to make of it? Your guess is as good as mine.
All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media