The Staten Island Greenbelt is an irregularly shaped band of parkland around the center of the island. I played hooky on an October Wednesday and took a walk in Willowbrook Park, one of the Greenbelt's northern reaches, with a group organized by the Parks Department and the Greenbelt Conservancy. We met at the Carousel for All Children, so named because it's accessible to kids with disabilities. Carousel season was over, but goose season was in full swing at Willowbrook Lake.
There were Canada geese aplenty. Nothing unusual about that.
Those in the next photo, though – I think they are snow geese. As of this writing, the city is ogling a mandarin duck in Central Park. But if all those bird enthusiasts were to venture to the outer boroughs, they could feast their eyes on all kinds of birds you don't see every day.
The lake is manmade, but the ducks don't care. Nor do the fish – or the people who come to catch them.
Fall colors were just beginning to appear over the lake.
I'm told that the park headquarters building is the only such log structure remaining in the parks system. Apparently when others were replaced with more modern, safer buildings, this one was sort of accidentally omitted. I certainly haven't seen anything else like it in the city parks.
There's also a nice compass rose at the base of the flagpole in front of the carousel.
Behind it there's a grassy picnic area.
Lots of parks have bodies of water, picnic tables, carousels. How many have archery fields?
Our group of a dozen or so park enthusiasts set off on our mini-hike through the woods.
Willowbrook Park has a few tremendously tall old-growth tulip trees, among New York City's most treasured living things.
Another distinctive tree is the shagbark hickory. I took home some hickory nuts that had fallen to the ground, which are theoretically edible, but the insides turned out to be too hard and dry.
And then there are the trees that have lain down to return to the earth whence they came.
Our guide pointed out the poison ivy vines growing up certain trees. No sir, poison ivy ain't just "leaves of three" underfoot.
We followed the trail, marked with painted blazes. Recent rain had left muddy patches traversable by wooden boardwalks.
We hiked in for half an hour or so, as far as this picturesque remnant of the home of the Corson family. Nothing remains but their great, tall chimney.
Does the name "Willowbrook" sound familiar? The neighborhood that gave its name to this 164-acre park also gave its name to the infamous Willowbrook State School, and it became a household name when that institution's deplorable conditions were exposed by Geraldo Rivera and others. This "snake pit" (in Robert F. Kennedy's words), "built [per an article in SILive] for developmentally disabled children and adults in the 1930s...became an institution where the borough's most vulnerable residents were abused, starved and neglected – the opposite of its intent."
Reformed to a degree in the '70s, the institution closed in 1987, its land and its "gutted and renovated neo-Georgian-style buildings" [per the New York Times] becoming part of the College of Staten Island. And visitors to peaceful Willowbrook Park needn't give it a thought. See the Greenbelt website for information about upcoming hikes and other events. Just look out for the poison ivy.
All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media