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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Joseph Rodman Drake Park

Alerted by a recent New York Times article titled "Honoring a Hidden Slave Burial Ground," we headed up to Hunts Point in the Bronx to pay a visit to Joseph Rodman Drake Park, a two-and-a-half-acre rectangle with a fenced-off cemetery at its center – and, underfoot, a recently identified and as-yet-unmarked slave burial ground.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

Though long-neglected, tombstones still stand in the white people's cemetery.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

Hunts Point, best known for its produce and fish markets, is a desolate neighborhood on weekends, and besides us there wasn't a soul – well, not a corporeal soul, anyway – in or around the park on a recent windswept December Saturday. Buried here are members of the old landowning families, notably the Hunts ("Hunts Point"), Leggetts, and Willets.

Also here is Joseph Rodman Drake, who gave his name to the park. Trained as a doctor, he is remembered as a noted poet of the early 19th century whose "verse made reference to the natural beauty of the Bronx," as the historic sign says.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc
The nearly obliterated lettering on this stone in the cemetery memorializes Thomas Hunt, Cornelius Willet, and John Leggett.

Forty-four enslaved Africans lived on the Hunts Point peninsula in 1800. Somewhere in this park, outside the cemetery, beneath the trees that include a handsome willow and several sweetgums, lie the remains of up to 11 of them, rediscovered just a few years ago by local students from P.S. 48, also known as the Joseph Rodman Drake School.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc
joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

An earlier generation of kids from the same school planted a mighty oak in the corner of the white people's cemetery. It's nice to see a different and once-forgotten aspect of this area's history being recognized today.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

After writing poems such as "The Culprit Fay," "The American Flag," and "Bronx" ("Yet I will look upon thy face again / My own romantic Bronx, and it will be / A face more pleasant than the face of men"), Drake died of tuberculosis in 1820 at just 25 years old. Edgar Allen Poe, himself a longtime resident of the Bronx, had been a big fan.

"The Culprit Fay," a narrative poem of over 600 lines, predates Christina Rossetti's far better-known "Goblin Market," on a similar theme, by decades. Here's one passage:

The stars are on the moving stream,
And fling, as its ripples gently flow,
A burnished length of wavy beam
In an eel-like, spiral line below;
The winds are whist, and the owl is still;
The bat in the shelvy rock is hid;
And naught is heard on the lonely hill
But the cricket's chirp, and the answer shrill
Of the gauze-winged katydid;
And the plaint of the wailing whippoorwill,
Who moans unseen, and ceaseless sings
Ever a note of wail and woe,
Till morning spreads her rosy wings,
And earth and sky in her glances glow.

After a lot of faery drama, the poem ends with the magical sprites having left the scene:

The hill-tops gleam in morning's spring,
The skylark shakes his dappled wing,
The day-glimpse glimmers on the lawn,
The cock has crowed, and the fays are gone.

Doesn't sound much like the Bronx today. But a fence around a nearby vacant lot – or is it? – bears signs that the fays of old may still hover in the neighborhood.

joseph rodman drake park hunts point bronx nyc

Faeries or no, poetry lives on in the poet Drake's park. The New York Shakespeare Exchange's Sonnet Project paid a recent visit.

After tramping around for a while, wondering if and when funding will be made available to create the proposed memorial at the site of the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground, we, like the fays, left the scene. I'll leave you with a video from the Hunts Point Slave Burial Ground Project.

All photos © Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Parks in the Age of Terror

In the wake of the bicycle path terror attack, the city has added concrete barriers to the path's entrances, even far uptown from the location of the attack. Many of these places also serve as entrances to Hudson River Park, where I go running.
hudson river park manhattan nyc
But that's not the only park where these ugly white bollards have appeared. Want to get into the holiday market at Union Square Park? You'll need to walk around a barrier.
union square park holiday market manhattan nyc
Walking through Washington Square Park the other night, I was surprised to see incredibly bright generator-powered lights supplementing the normal, fairly subdued lighting in the park's central plaza around the fountain. At least I assume they're for extra security.
washington square park manhattan nyc
And there you have it: New York City parks in the age of terrorism. The good news: terror attacks haven't had the intended effect of putting a permanent damper on people's overall enjoyment of life. By my third run past those barriers by the river, they'd stopped registering with me emotionally. Just another feature of life in the big city.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Thursday, September 28, 2017

WNYC Transmitter Park

When I investigated WNYC Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn back in 2010 it was nothing but a construction site.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

Two years later it opened to the public, transformed into a green waterfront space with excellent views.

Only five years late to the party, I arrived to check it out.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

I always like to see landscaping that evokes a woodland or grassland trail.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

Dominating the park from what would otherwise be a bleak brick wall is a huge mural of a girl with flowers by the artist Faile, part of a "street-art project." (Does "street-art" mean it's temporary? Online sources don't say.) Faile told Patch, "The idea was the timeless theme of 'love me, love me not'—aiming to depict a moment that asks the question of what kind of relationship we have with nature. Are we here to love it and take care of it or not?"

wnyc transmitter park mural greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The sheer size of the mural is astounding.

wnyc transmitter park mural greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The frog in the painting isn't the only animal in the park. Here's a real one.

wnyc transmitter park butterfly greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The park is the former home of public radio station WNYC and a ferry terminal. An entry on the website of the New York City Economic Development Corporation's website at the time of the 2012 opening states: "The former WNYC radio broadcasting building was converted into a café." But if that was meant to happen, it hasn't. Dwarfed by a spectacular willow tree, the building is closed up and appears to be just a historical relic.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

In fact, the Friends of WNYC Transmitter Park (every park needs an advocacy organization these days) has a petition to stop the opening of a bar/café here. The Friends want instead to convert the building into a "botanical learning center surrounded by gardens featuring native species," DNAInfo reported in April.

There are two more reasons to oppose a bar/café within the park. First, there's a small playground.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

And second, there's already a party boat, the Brooklyn Barge, next door.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The sign etched into the side of the old transmitter building (with contrast increased for readability) says:

CITY OF NEW YORK
DEPARTMENT OF PLANT AND STRUCTURES
TRANSMITTER HOUSE
RADIO STATION
WNYC
1936

with the names of Mayor F.H. LaGuardia and Commissioner F.J.H. Kracke. LaGuardia's connection to WNYC was a deep one. The station's Wikipedia page shows a photo of him in the studio broadcasting his "Talk to the People" program in 1940. WNYC-AM broadcast from here from 1937 to 1990.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

As for Mr. Kracke, the portfolio of his Department of Plant and Structures included bus and trolley transportation along with, evidently, either communications or buildings (or both). Though long defunct, the department lives on in the wall here in Transmitter Park – and in the suspicious smirks of its 1922 women's basketball team.

The park was well used on this warm September weekend…

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc
wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc
wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc

…though only a few were taking the long walk out over the water for a better view of the Manhattan skyline – from the Empire State Building to the UN and the slant-roofed Citicorp Tower.

wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc
wnyc transmitter park greenpoint brooklyn nyc manhattan skyline

What will we find in Transmitter Park in another five years? Who can say? Does anything ever stay the same in New York City? Or anywhere?

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Gardens at St. Luke's

The Gardens at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields were resplendent in green when we stopped by in mid-August. Open to the public most days, the private gardens of the 1821 West Village church date from the 1950s.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

A brochure available in the Gardens describes "more than two-thirds of an acre of walks, lawns, and a fine collection of garden standards, rare hybrids and native American flora," and "a small but important way-station for migrating birds and butterflies during the spring and fall seasons," with "heat-retaining brick walls" that "create a warm microclimate."

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc
gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

It's a peaceful retreat for a quiet read.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

The planting is so dense it can almost feel tropical.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

Well into the summer, there remained plenty of color to please the eye.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

No one talks about pavement. But I'm partial to bluestone paving. (Speaking of color.)

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

This is one of those places you can lose yourself, forget you're in the city. As Atlas Obscura observes, "Although the garden is scattered with benches, few are regularly occupied. The occasional West Village resident ducks in to read or snack or sit, but no one within the garden's confines generally speaks louder than a whisper."

It's perfectly appropriate that this place should be a peaceful refuge. Nearly 200 years ago, the founders of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields named their new congregation after the physician evangelist "in recognition," the church's website explains, "of the village's role as a refuge from the yellow fever epidemics that plagued New York City during the summers" – a reminder, among other things, of a time when Greenwich Village was an actual village. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation describes people beset by yellow fever and cholera in the late 18th and early 19th centuries fleeing "north to the wholesome backwaters of the West Village," where the population quadrupled from 1825 to 1840.

gardens church st lukes in the fields manhattan nyc

There's no population explosion here, though. Just an explosion of flora.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sutton Place Park

Checking Google Maps to remind myself where Greenacre Park was in preparation for my recent visit there, I noticed a tiny sliver of green all the way to the east, hugging the FDR Drive between 53rd and 54th Streets. Couldn't be a park, I thought. But I zoomed in, and sure enough:

Sutton Place Park is indeed tiny, but it's a park all right.

sutton place park manhattan nyc
sutton place park manhattan nyc
sutton place park manhattan nyc

Complete with landscaping, a curved path, plants and flowers, and locals relaxing and walking dogs, Sutton Place Park (or Sutton Place Park South, to distinguish it from Sutton Place's enclosed vest-pocket parks) is dedicated to landscape architect Clara Coffey (1894–1982), who became the Parks Department's Chief of Tree Plantings in 1936.

sutton place park manhattan nyc

Coffey supervised numerous landscaping projects, including the Park Avenue Malls. At the base of a handsome urn decorated with Greek-style reliefs in a small garden (a onetime sandbox) in Sutton Place Park, a stone plaque commemorates her work.

sutton place park manhattan nyc
sutton place park manhattan nyc

There's even an armillary sundial (or armillary sphere), like the one on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade but more ornate. Albert Stewart designed it, inspired by Ancient Greek astronomical models.

sutton place park manhattan nyc
sutton place park manhattan nyc

Look out over the East River and you'll see Roosevelt Island's Smallpox Memorial Hospital, which is just north of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip of that island, and beyond it the now landmarked Pepsi sign just north of Gantry Plaza State Park, where a landing just opened for the newest NYC Ferry line, the Astoria Route.

sutton place park manhattan nyc

Everywhere you look in New York City, there's a park. And another park beyond that one. And another one beyond that.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Greenacre Park

"Greenacre Park." Sounds homespun and country-ish, right? But Greenancre Park in East Midtown Manhattan is exactly the opposite: planned, artsy, sculptured to within an inch of its life. And yet a peaceful oasis of relief in a busy, blocky neighborhood with very few such.

greenacre park manhattan nyc

Upon entering you're greeted with a block-paved plaza with tables. It looks more like a sparsely furnished outdoor cafe than a park. And, in fact, a prominent sign points you to Carol's Cafe, a refreshment window tucked into the southwestern corner.

greenacre park manhattan nyc
Carol's Cafe, Greenacre Park, morning. (It gets busier at lunchtime.)

But step in a little further, keep your ears open, and the park's most unusual feature begins to dominate: a loud, 25-foot-high, granite waterfall, really a water sculpture. The mechanism pumps 2,500 gallons of water per minute to keep the roaring sheet of liquid in action.

greenacre park manhattan nyc

The raised terrace under the trellis roof on the west side is part of Hideo Sasaki's design, which reflects – to my unpracticed eye, anyway – a Japanese influence. The layout of the park's mere one-seventh of an acre "conveys an impression of far greater size through a series of well-defined, separate spaces, lush planting, textural variation, and the dramatic use of water," according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

greenacre park manhattan nyc
greenacre park manhattan nyc

The terrace offers a view of the waterfall from above. amNewYork's Mark Chiusano interviewed me here for the article about Park Odyssey he wrote for the paper a few weeks ago, and was kind enough to pose for my camera before I did so for his.

greenacre park waterfall manhattan nyc
greenacre park waterfall manhattan nyc

The water theme extends to a stream that runs along the edge, visible clearly from the street but easy to miss amid the raucous excitement of the waterfall.

greenacre park manhattan nyc

Privately owned and managed by the Greenacre Foundation, the park opened in 1971 on East 51st St. between Second and Third Avenues with the hope that the people of New York City "will find here some moments of serenity in this busy world" in the words of the founder, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé.

greenacre park manhattan nyc

I had been by a few times before, but the park had always turned out to be closed. It's open from March to December, but not late into the evening. Google tells me the hours are 8AM to 8PM, but I recommend stopping by during business hours on a weekday, when you can observe not only the park but some of the people who work in the neighborhood taking a well-deserved artificial-nature break – and take one yourself.

Walk close to the waterfall and I can almost guarantee you won't hear a spit of noise from the street.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media