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Friday, June 15, 2018

East River State Park

We discovered this park on Brooklyn's East River waterfront in the Williamsburg neighborhood some years back when we went to a Smorgasburg event there. I returned for a lunchtime visit on a sunny, windy weekday in June to take some photos.

One feature I like about East River State Park is its extensive stretch of cobblestones (more properly called Belgian block), remnants of the park's history as a 19th-century shipping dock.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The streetside area blooms colorfully in springtime.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

But a large expanse of cracked concrete dominates the park's seven acres, good for family picnics and Smorgasburgs but not exactly soothing to the eye.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The old, unfinished-looking grassy sections have a certain charm. Kids like 'em. So do lovers.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

In spite of all the waterfront development going on in the city, plenty of these un-manicured stretches remain. Because they're not beautiful, they can offer a feeling of privacy, even isolation.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Why is this a state park? I'm not sure, but it probably has to do with the park's origins in the 1990s as a project of the Trust for Public Land, which stepped in after local residents had rallied to prevent construction of a new waste-transfer station on the abandoned site. Up the river in Queens is another State Park, Gantry Plaza State Park.

One consequence of State Park status: No dogs allowed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Paley Park

Like nearby Greenacre Park, only even smaller, Paley Park on East 53rd St. just off Fifth Avenue offers a tiny respite for stressed-out midtown Manhattan office workers, with a waterfall and a café. Described by the Cultural Landscape Foundation as "the original 'vest-pocket park,'" it's so small, at just a tenth of an acre, that it's difficult even to get a perspective to take a photo.

paley park manhattan nyc

When I was younger, everyone knew who William S. Paley was. The legendary radio and television career of the architect and chairman of CBS spanned most of the 20th century.

In the middle of that century everyone also knew about the place that then occupied the site. From 1934 until 1965 this was the location of the posh Stork Club, its door famously guarded not by a rope but by a gold chain. Frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra, this infamous celebrity hangout was the site of Walter Winchell's radio broadcasts, which made it, as CNN's Bob Greene wrote in a piece called "Where Celebrity Culture Was Born," the "embodiment of stardom."

When the club closed and the building was torn down, Paley arranged for and financed a park to be created on the site. Designed by noted landscape architect Robert Zion (who was killed by a dump truck in 2000 at the age of 79), Paley Park opened in 1967 with the official name of Samuel Paley Plaza, after Paley's father.

paley park manhattan nyc

For half a century now, this privately owned space, formerly home of an exclusive club, has welcomed the public.

paley park manhattan nyc

The ivy on the walls, the honey locust trees, and the hiss of the 20-foot waterfall help mute the cacophony of the surrounding streets.

paley park manhattan nyc

Paley Park is a perfect example of how even the tiniest of city parks can open a wide window onto cultural history. It's featured prominently in urbanist William H. Whyte's charming 1979 film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, itself a fascinating look at NYC in tougher times.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Newtown Creek Nature Walk

Newtown Creek Nature Walk

Synonymous to many New Yorkers with pollution and blight, Newtown Creek is seeing a bit of a conceptual renaissance. Unlike its neighbor to the south, the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek doesn't run through now-trendy and artsy neighborhoods. Instead it separates the industrial top edge of Greenpoint, Brooklyn's northernmost neighborhood, from the industrial southern edge of Queens's Long Island City section, whose artsy and developing quarters lie some distance from the shores of the canal-like waterway.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nycSo the existence of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk will be a surprise to many New Yorkers, and, I wouldn't doubt, even to many residents of the nearby neighborhoods. Not a city park per se, it's a semi-natural environment built along the southern bank of the creek, designed by sculptor George Trakas and landscape architect firm Quenelle Rothschild & Partners, LLP for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). (Quenelle Rothschild has had a hand in many NYC spaces, including Hudson River Park, the Battery at Manhattan's southern tip, and the Astor Place/Cooper Square redesign.)

The approach begins at the intersection of Paidge Ave. and Provost Street. Your only neighbors seem to be the enormous Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, and a Spectrum facility where the vans that come to your apartment when your internet or cable service is out go home to sleep. But two granite boulders, dumped nearby during the Ice Age, mark the start of an unusual urban adventure.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The curved bars of the shiny gateway are meant to suggest the water. Or perhaps reeds being pushed to the side by a rampaging hippo. I get the idea, but to me, it's not the most welcoming entryway.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

But a hidden outdoor dungeon underneath, described as a "fragrance garden," makes up for it. This is a space unlike anything else I've seen.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

A long walled path called the "vessel," shaped to mimic the design of 19-century ships, leads you to the waterfront.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

On a corner plaza, granite circles surround a honey locust tree, each etched with native place names.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

A sign gives their meanings. These translate as "Wet planting place" and "Where there are sharp rocks."

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

Nature sprouts up from a set of north-facing steps engraved with taxonomical and geological terms. But the view across the water is actually more interesting. It was hard to stop watching a giant claw load smashed cars onto a barge. The tugboat CMT Otter was picturesque too.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc tugboat

Want to know more about the Otter? Of course you do. Who wouldn't? Who doesn't love a tugboat? And it wasn't hard to find. (When it was built in 1980 it was named the Papa Tom. How's that for hyper-specialized trivia?)

We had the place almost to ourselves. A couple with a dog went by, a few young folks were ensconced around the corner on the Whale Creek Path, and a lone jogger zipped in and out. That was it.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The Newtown Creek Nature Walk isn't gorgeous, and it isn't spectacular. Also, it stretches the definition of "nature walk" almost to transparency. Yet it's one of those places that reminds us of a few important truths about parks.

Especially in a city the size of New York, there's room for an endless variety of interesting ways to preserve or express nature, including transforming industrial spaces and even infrastructure into pleasant outdoor environments. And just as their conceivers and designers had to draw on their creativity to make them, these places can draw out our own imaginations when we visit, expanding our urban world and injecting city life with not just a dose of fresh air, but an added dimension – and an important dimension, at that, because without it our spirits decay.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc geese

George Trakas at the Water's Edge: Newtown Creek from Urban Omnibus on Vimeo.