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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Governors Island: The Hills

Readers of this blog know there are hundreds of outdoor activities and places to explore throughout the five boroughs of New York City. One thing hard to come by, though, is a place to climb.

One poor woman was so desperate she resorted to scaling the base of the Statue of Liberty. (I know, it was a political protest. But look at the form her activism took, and don't tell me she wasn't a climber at heart.)

Aside from Lookout Hill in Prospect Park, and a few stretches of path in Inwood Hill Park and Wave Hill, the best most NYC kids can do is clamber up Central Park's schist outcroppings.

That is, until the masterminds of Governors Island opened the Governors Island Hills in July 2016.

Back in August 2015 when we last visited, the project was still under construction, the hills inaccessible mounds of dirt crowned by backhoes.

governors island hills nyc

Today visitors to this still-evolving former military base in New York Harbor can climb to their heart's content.

The easy, long route up the highest hill, called Outlook, follows a gently sloping, switchbacked, ADA-compliant paved path.

governors island hills nyc
governors island hills nyc

Naturally, I prefer the rock scramble, built from the remains of an old sea wall.

governors island hills nyc
governors island hills nyc

I spotted some kids loping up one of the other hills. I'm not sure whether this is the one called Discovery or the one called Grassy. Whichever, that's the kind of fun I always want to have.

governors island hills nyc

There are actually four hills: Grassy, Discovery, Outlook, and Slide. Slide provides the most organized fun, with slides of various heights and widths. The age limit is supposed to be 14, but we saw plenty of young adults partaking of the joys of gravity. Fourteen seems a pretty silly cutoff, anyway. Many kids that age have reached adult size. So what's the point of allowing a 14-year-old but not a 15-year-old?

governors island hills slides nyc
governors island hills slides nyc

In addition to the satisfaction of simply getting oneself up to 70 feet above sea level – something you otherwise can't do in the vicinity of Lower Manhattan without being inside a building – you're rewarded with a great view of the harbor and skyline from the peak of Outlook.

governors island hills statue of liberty nyc
governors island hills nyc
 

When you go, though, don't just take in the vista. Also give a thought to the brains that went into the construction.

The plan was to build Outlook out of rubble from the buildings that used to be here, notably Building 877, supplemented by dirt and gravel barged in from upstate quarries.

 

But the result would have been too heavy for the 100 or so feet of "loose, crappy soil" beneath to support, as the project's geotechnical engineer, David Winter, told Curbed in a fascinating article on The Hills and Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze's whole Olmsted-inspired design of the Governors Island project. (The title of the article: "On Governors Island, the World's Smartest Hill.")

To solve the weight problem, they considered using foam. But that just seemed, well, too unnatural, and would have been hard to work with given the setting.

Instead, Outlook is bolstered by Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE) – fill layered in plastic fabric (see this Informed Infrastructure article for photos and more technical information) – and lightweight volcanic pumice. Buried electronics keep an eye out for unhealthy settling, and irrigation and drainage are built in.

But to look at – and to climb – you wouldn't know any of it.

governors island hills nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Lincoln Terrace / Arthur S. Somers Park

Located in the eastern corner of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Lincoln Terrace Park is 17 acres of grass and trees, paths to wander, ballfields and tennis courts. A park since the 1890s, it was expanded in the first half of the 20th century, and in 1932 the city renamed the western portion Arthur S. Somers Park after the local philanthropist and education advocate (1866-1932) known, according to his family website, for driving the streets at Christmastime handing out silver dollars to children.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

The neighborhood could use some of those silver dollars now. The western half of Crown Heights has been gentrifying, but things are still pretty working-class around here. Or, at least in this spot, derelict.

crown heights brooklyn nyc

But the park – at least the passive-recreation part – seems in pretty decent shape, and a nice place to walk through, though I visited on an early-July day so hot I felt I was melting even in the shade. It was a weekday, and there was no one else in the park but a couple of guys walking their dogs.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

Points of interest are few. I did take note of a sideways tree.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

Why should a tree grow like that in Brooklyn? Maybe it was leery of the anti-aircraft gun bases that were positioned here in "serviceable but inconspicuous locations" during World War I. (Except that this doesn't look like a 100-year-old tree.)

As the April 8, 1918 issue of Aerial Age Weekly reported, "Action has been taken by the War Department toward protecting New York and vicinity from possible air raids." The White Fireproof Construction Company was hired to build concrete anti-aircraft gun emplacements in sites around the city including Lincoln Terrace Park, Green-wood Cemetery, and Tompkins Square Park. The article doesn't say whether guns were ever in fact placed in the emplacements here.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

A more peaceful association arises from the nickname the park acquired from the area's Yiddish-speaking residents in the old days. "Kitzel Park" ("Tickle Park") was a favorite spot for "hanging out and flirting." Former resident Jack Wilson recalled in 1999, "Sometimes we would stop by Lincoln Terrace Park otherwise known as 'Kitzel' park. Unfortunately we moved[,] so being so young at the time, I don't have memories of kitzels at the park." Others were luckier. Ron Ross specified in his book Bummy Davis Vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter that Kitzel Park was "the area of Lincoln Terrace Park noted for its nighttime necking and related activities."

I imagine these benches have seen their share of kitzeling and kanoodling over the years.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

At least one living person presumably retains such memories. A racehorse born in 2014 is named Kitzel Park.

In recent years Lincoln Square Park's reputation hasn't been so nice. A DNAinfo article from 2013 called it "bustling" and quoted a precinct commander who described is as "beautiful" and "lively" but also termed it "the Bermuda Triangle of crime" because of its location at the intersection of four police precincts. The site makes it easy for criminals – smartphone thieves, for example – to swipe something and duck into another radio division, making it harder for police to track them down.

I don't know why this weathered steel plate is here.

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

It looks old, but the "NuTemper" trademark dates only from 2008. So what this sheet of metal marks, or commemorates, if anything, I have no idea.

Renovations are taking place at some of the athletic facilities. A couple had foregone the park's greenery to take some shade on the steps. I wondered why. Something made me take their photo. We all have our reasons, sometimes mysterious ones, for going to a park. Or its fringes. What was theirs?

lincoln terrace park arthur s somers park crown heights brooklyn nyc

A kitzel, maybe?

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Trail

One of NYC's most magical natural areas is all but unknown to most residents of the city's cosmopolitan core. The nature trail through the Marine Park Salt Marsh in southern Brooklyn takes you through an environment as different from Manhattan's urban hubbub as you can imagine.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Restored salt marshes can be found elsewhere in the city, for example on Randall's Island/Ward's Island and in Inwood Hill Park. The city even has a Salt Marsh Alliance, headquartered at the on-site Nature Center here. But nowhere else in the five boroughs, that I know of, can you take a lengthy walk through a large salt marsh environment.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

There are watery vistas to be seen from the Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Trail. After all, this is New York City, with its purported 578 miles of coastline. (I don't disbelieve that figure, but I've never pinned down who came up with it or how it was derived.)

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Mostly, though, you're ensconced in flora as you trek along the sandy trail.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Exertion-wise, it's an easy hike.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

But bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. You'll be exposed to the elements without a break. The sunshine can be roasting-hot even in the fall, as on this October day.

Birdwatchers can rejoice at the edges of the water.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

And if you look hard enough you can find some color amid the grasslands.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

The southern spur of the salt marsh grounds can get very muddy. We didn't explore too far down that way.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc
marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

This dog and owner were more adventurous.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Perhaps there's an opportunity here for a venturesome seaweed-farming entrepreneur.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

The Salt Marsh Alliance website tells us that over the decades, more than three quarters of Jamaica Bay's original salt marsh has been filled – that is, destroyed – to make way for homes and industry. The Marine Park Salt Marsh, once "a wasteland filled with trash and abandoned cars," is now "restored to its natural condition – proof that a rare and fragile ecosystem can safely exist" even adjacent to an urban one.

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

Located in the middle of the inlet is Mau Mau Island, which you can see from the Nature Trail. It has an interesting history. Untapped Cities explains that this man-made isle was a trash dump. When Robert Moses covered it with sand, then asphalt, he unintentionally initiated the gradual natural restoration of a piece of the Jamaica Bay coast's grassland habitat.

Maybe more people from outside the neighborhood would visit if the subway came down this far. But Marine Park's relative isolation is probably a blessing for the salt marsh environment, and for the pristine atmosphere you feel on its lonesome walkways.

(However, you can get to Mau Mau Island via the A Train and a boat if you get a gang together, dress in costumes, and join up with the Battle for Mau Mau Island flotilla. But that's a story from an alternate universe.)

marine park salt marsh nature trail brooklyn nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Healing Garden: A Mobile Public Park

What's the smallest park in New York City? I don't know if anyone knows for sure. Septuagesimo Uno was probably the smallest I'd ever visited.

Until a couple of weeks ago. Strolling through the the Rubin Museum Block Party, we happened upon a trailer with open doors on the side and in the back. We walked past, not giving it much thought. But then I did a double take, had to double back and step inside.

The trailer, as I later learned, is called The Healing Garden. Its creator, Kim Holleman, describes it as a "mobile public park."

healing garden nyc
Image from kimholleman.com

The cut-through image above, from The Healing Garden web page, belies the trailer's actual plain-metal outward appearance. All the more startling, then, is the contrast when you step inside, where you find plants (native to New York, of course), wooden benches, a "naturalistic stone water-fall and fish pond," and happy visitors.

So here it is: my new candidate for Smallest Park in NYC.

healing garden nyc

The Healing Garden has been hauling around the city since its debut at an NYC Parks Department event in 2006. It's quite an idea, bringing a park to the people instead of making the people go to a park – even only a handful of people can squeeze inside. I'm glad we ran into it.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media except where noted

Friday, June 22, 2018

Domino Park

Like most New York City parks that have opened with fanfare in recent years, Domino Park, on the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, isn't city-run, but privately funded and maintained.

The first completed stage of a larger redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar Refinery, six-acre Domino Park is a vast improvement over the desolate stretch of waterfront that had defined this edge of the neighborhood since Domino closed the plant in 2004. And with its creative reuse of relics of the industrial past, the park is spectacular in a splashy sort of way.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

It's also weirdly theme-park-ish, an effect that's especially notable if you cross into it from dusty old Grand Ferry Park which borders its northern edge. Grand Ferry Park also has an industrial relic – a hundred-year-old smokestack from a Pfizer molasses plant. You could say Domino Park took that idea and ran with it to the extreme – inspired also, no doubt, by the High Line, New York City's most famous conversion of industrial infrastructure to park facilities and another instance of private development stepping in where city funds don't dare to tread. But the contrast between the big, shiny new park and its little, scuffed-up old neighbor is extreme.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The photo above shows the northern entrance to Domino Park and to the elevated catwalk called Artifact Walk, which stretches for several blocks.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The walk incorporates two large cranes from refinery days, the whole thing painted in what Curbed describes as "the park's signature turquoise," a cheery, summery hue that softens all the hard, heavy metal into a gentle, Disneyish playpen.

domino park artifact walk crane williamsburg brooklyn nyc
domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The elevated walkway offers a panoramic view of the park, the river, and the Williamsburg Bridge, which was the world's longest suspension bridge when it opened in 1903.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The park platform itself, with its "sustainable foliage and trees, a mix of natives and exotics" according to Architectural Digest, has been built "above the 100-year flood elevation and set back 100 feet from the water's edge." Of course, we know terms like "100-year flood" have little meaning now, well into the Anthropocene.

There are a couple of signs of our times in that last paragraph. The first is the mere fact that landscape firm James Corner Field Operations, which also led the development of the High Line, considered climate change and sea level rise when it designed the new park. Second, note the interest taken by a prestigious architecture publication. This facility has been laid out as deliberately as the interior of any new building.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

But the interest taken by Real Estate Weekly is also the sharpest indicator of how crucial commercial and financial considerations are to the fate of potential parkland in the city. Its website gushed that Domino Park is "nothing short of miraculous" and "should serve as a national model of urban renewal and an example for future developments."

Kudos, then, to Two Trees Management, owner and operator of the whole Domino redevelopment, including the park. I remember when Two Trees was a small family concern just getting a toehold in Dumbo, where my band shared the rental of a rehearsal studio in the rundown old days. The Domino development will include 2,800 rental apartments. Seven hundred of those will be "affordable." Which means available to (maybe) the five percent, as opposed to just the one percent.

Domino Park isn't just about architecture and real estate. It's also art. Just before it opened, Daniel McDermon of The New York Times heralded "One of this weekend's most anticipated art openings." He was referring to the playground. Designed by Mark Reigelman and incorporating spinning valve wheels cast from Domino originals, it's meant to mimic the sugar refining process. "The idea is that a child enters as raw sugar cane, and exits at the last portion of the playground as molasses, or sugar cubes," Reigelman told the Times. Fun? Creepy? Maybe both. Either way, the ghost of the old Pfizer molasses plant next door would surely approve.

In any case, when I visited, kids were definitely enjoying the refining process.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Meanwhile, up on the Artifact Walk, workers were putting the finishing touches on what looks like a giant "C." What will it help spell? "Come and Play?" "Children Are Our Future"? "Can You Afford to Live Here?"

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Grown-ups were enjoying the outdoor seating at the Danny Meyer taco shack.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Old screw conveyors, repositioned as design elements, jutted up from the ground.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Below ancient tanks, steam rose from vents installed in a cut-away section of the pier. If this "poof of noirish fog" (as Gothamist slinkily described it) looks refreshing on a hot day, be aware that if you step into the steam, you will get wet.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The park is manicured to within an inch of its life. Along with the kinetic fountain, playground, steam vents, and artifacts, there are bocce and volleyball courts and a couple of sharply defined stretches of grass to stretch out on.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Meanwhile, across Kent Ave., plenty of development remains to be done.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

And the life of the city churns on, oblivious, on the nearby streets and on the East River. I spotted the tugboat Coral Coast motoring under the bridge.

domino park williamsburg bridge brooklyn nyc tugboat

I have mixed feelings about Domino Park, as I do about any public facility run not by the municipal or state government but by private owners. You have to wonder what would happen if – or should I say, what will happen when – the developers fall on hard times. What if the real estate market crashes? Or a huge storm surge or other natural disaster runs roughshod over the sparkling new park, knocking over all the amenities like, well, dominoes?

Of course, when hard times hit, city-run facilities deteriorate too. Just ask the people who founded the Central Park Conservancy.

On balance, any way it comes about, a new park is a good thing. And, all philosophical and social questions aside, on the hot day of my visit this dance step seemed to say it all:

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media