One of the original Bronx parks conceived by urban visionary John Mullaly, who called parks "lungs of the metropolis" and founded the New York Park Association in 1881, St. Mary's Park remains one of the borough's outdoor jewels to this day. Said Mullaly of the area that would become the South Bronx's largest park, "all the points that constitute the charm of a public pleasure ground are to be found in abundance: wood and water, trees and shrubs, hill and valley, barren rocks and emerald meadows; and all these so disposed that one form of beauty heightens the other by contrast."
Once part of Jonas Bronck's 17th-century estate, later owned by the family of Gouverneur Morris, the 35 acres of St. Mary's Park were a muddy wonderland during a recent, very welcome January thaw.
A string of cyclists biked through as I watched from atop one of the park's high ridges, while ballplayers gathered across the street from the landmark 1890s Public School 277.
The next photo sums up the state of St. Mary's in the winter:
A child gazes triumphantly from the top of one of the park's tremendous rock protrusions. Behind him, apartment buildings peer through the leafless trees. Below him, someone (presumably the Parks Dept.) has painted over some graffiti with decidedly non-matching green paint. To the left, someone (presumably not the Parks Dept.) has discarded some old clothes, probably just now reappeared as snow melted. To the far left, bundled-up visitors enjoy the sunny, relatively warm day.
In case you haven't guessed it by now, climbing on rocks makes me feel like a kid again myself.
For the less adventurous, St. Mary's Park offers more civilized ways to negotiate its hills.
For lovers oblivious to mud, the park can provide a relatively secluded spot even in January.
The mud didn't deter these parents either.
A few of the trees have distinct personalities.
Announcing an allocation of funds to refresh one of the park's playgrounds in 2015, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called St. Mary's Park "well-loved but under-resourced." Wrote Lisa W. Foderado in the New York Times, "Pity St. Mary’s Park. Too small and too poor to be supported by a park conservancy that might fix up its faded charms. Too big to make it onto the list of 35 parks in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Parks Initiative." In fact, though, St. Mary's Park has a recreation center, a dog park, a fitness loop, tennis courts, and a couple of playgrounds. (In fact, according to the Parks Department, it was the site of the Bronx's first playground, in 1914.)
But what I like best about St. Mary's Park is, in Foderado's words, its "hilly terrain flecked with glacial outcroppings and mature trees." Mott Haven is one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, but it has a real treasure here, along with three historic districts and – in case St. Mary's isn't enough park for you – a recently opened footbridge to Randall's Island.
To close, a footnote: There's another St. Mary's Park in New York City, sort of. Back in 2014, after exploring Carroll Park in Brooklyn (not much to explore, actually), I came upon what I described as "two abandoned, fenced off, gloomy recreation areas called St. Mary's Park and St. Mary's Playground. They look more like movie sets for a gang war film than anything that was ever fit for children." This year, funding was designated to develop these spaces, which are scheduled to open in April 2018. With, presumably, a new playground. But probably without glacial outcroppings.