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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Henry Hudson Park and Half Moon Overlook

Henry Hudson sailed up the river that came to bear his name in 1609. Nearly 200 years later, in 1807, Robert Fulton's North River Steamboat, the Clermont, made its maiden voyage up the Hudson River, then still called the North River. (The Dutch colonists had dubbed it the "North" to distinguish it from the Delaware, which they called the South River.)

A century after that, planners conceived a monument to the explorer to mark the 300th anniversary of Hudson's voyage and the 100th of the steamboat. There was no Henry Hudson Park at the time, but in 1909 builders broke ground on donated land in the Bronx's Spuyten Duyvil neighborhood and erected in 1912 the 100-foot Doric column that stands in today's park.

henry hudson memorial monument henry hudson park bronx nyc

The idea was that a 100-foot monument on a 200-foot bluff would numerically as well as symbolically signify both of the historic anniversaries marked by the Hudson-Fulton Celebration.

The site dedication announcement included this wonderfully phrased explanation for the choice of location:

It was within view of the location of the monument that the historical conflict for the possession of the lands which now embrace the second largest City on earth, between the Indians and the white men took place, and it was here also that General Washington caused the erection of Fort No. 1, for the defense of the Hudson.

It is, therefore, quite meet and appropriate that this spot was selected as the location of the proposed monument to the memory of the first explorer of the River bearing his name.

But the funding boat ran aground, and the column stood bare until the 1930s. Finally, flush with federal money, Robert Moses completed the nearby Henry Hudson Parkway and the Henry Hudson Bridge linking Manhattan and the Bronx; acquired the land for the Parks Department, and landscaped the park; and enlisted Karl H. Gruppe, then chief sculptor of the Parks Department's Monument Restoration Project, to complete a statue of Hudson to top the pillar, and create two bas-reliefs for the base. The monument was dedicated in 1938.

henry hudson memorial monument henry hudson park bronx nyc
henry hudson memorial monument henry hudson park bronx nyc

Like the statue of Christopher Columbus in Times Square, the Henry Hudson Monument has attracted controversy in line with challenges to memorials of Confederate heroes in the South. The object of complaint has not been the statue atop the pillar, but one of the two bas-reliefs at the base.

On one side is this harmless image:

henry hudson memorial monument henry hudson park bronx nyc

But walk around to the back and you'll find a mystifying depiction of three native Americans including one kneeling before Hudson and presenting him with gifts. It's understandable that this might offend, leaving aside the fact that history doesn't record any such encounter. (Little is known of Hudson's interactions with the local Lenape.)

henry hudson memorial monument henry hudson park bronx nyc

One Bronx activist told the Riverdale Press in 2017, "For a person like me who does work on racial justice issues…it is a jarring image."

The rest of the park is pretty but unassuming. Part of the monument plaza is undergoing some work, but the rest is nicely planted.

henry hudson park bronx nyc

Curved walkways arc through the grass and trees.

henry hudson park bronx nyc
henry hudson park bronx nyc

A picturesque stone shed in one corner looks abandoned, but you never know.

henry hudson park bronx nyc

The street-edges (the park is bisected by Kappock St.) expose impressive rock cross-sections.

henry hudson park bronx nyc

Across Kappock in the other half of the park there's no monument – and evidently no keeper either.

henry hudson park bronx nyc

No matter – it's a nice spot for recreation, both passive and active.

henry hudson park bronx nyc
henry hudson park bronx nyc

And on a sunny weekday afternoon in early fall, there's plenty of nobody, if that suits you.

henry hudson park bronx nyc

I think there's a view of the Hudson River through these trees – or there will be when the branches are bare:

henry hudson park bronx nyc

But for a prime panorama, stop off at Half Moon Overlook just west of the park. The Henry Hudson theme persists in the name of this tiny half-moon-shaped balcony park off Palisade Ave., named for Hudson's ship, the Halve Maen (Half Moon).

half-moon overlook bronx nyc park

It offers a nice view of the river, along with a satisfying feeling of having discovered a New York City secret.

half-moon overlook bronx nyc park
half-moon overlook bronx nyc park
half-moon overlook bronx nyc park

A blogger who explored the West Bronx back in 2007 just before leaving New York wrote in a post about the Spuyten Duyvil neighborhood that from Half Moon Overlook "you can scramble down a steep path that doesn't look like an official walkway. You pass old building foundations and cement pillars covered in graffiti. Once you get to the bottom, there is an open passage to the train tracks."

Next time I'm in the neighborhood I mean to investigate whether that's still the case. Maybe the path in question leads to Spuyten Duyvil Shorefront Park, which seemed to be closed for development when I tried to get to it, but appeared open (if troubled) in a Riverdale Press article from May 2018, just a few months ago. I never stop marveling at the never-ending scope of New York City's parks.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Friday, October 5, 2018

Willy's Garden

Willy's Memorial Garden, just north of Washington Square Park at One-Half Fifth Avenue (the actual address), is an exuberantly planted alley-like courtyard that I've walked by hundreds of times on the way to and from Washington Square Park.

Yet I've never really noticed it. Maybe the gate's usually closed?

willy's memorial garden nyu manhattan nyc

Landscaped by NYU, the 8,000-square-foot garden with its native inkberry functions as the entrance to the university's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and some faculty residences. But the garden extends its welcoming, flowery arms even to passersby who have no business there – when the gates are open, anyway.

According to the Local Ecologist website: "The garden was planted in zones: woodland, flowering meow, berry patch, and Three Sisters," all species "collected by the Lenape peoples," the original inhabitants of today's Big Apple.

Beckoning to the explorer from the far end is a figure who, on close approach, turns out to be Miguel de Cervantes.

willy's memorial garden nyu manhattan nyc

The statue is a replica of an 1835 work by Spanish neoclassical sculptor Antonio Solá. The original remains in Madrid; La Paz and Beijing also have replicas. The Mayor of Madrid presented the statue to New York City in 1986. It stood for a few years in Bryant Park. Then, deeming it too delicate for Washington Square, the city donated it to NYU. Here it has stood since 1989.

The one thing I haven't been able to glean from an internet search is who Willy was. After whom did NYU name this peaceful space? Please leave a comment if you know the answer!

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Narrows Botanical Gardens

The Narrows Botanical Gardens lie amid the strip of parkland just south of the Bay Ridge Pier in Brooklyn – the northern tip of Shore Park, really. It's a small wonderland I learned about recently from a Roger Clark NY1 TV report – but it's been here since 1995.

We were visiting the neighborhood a few weekends ago via the NYC Ferry. (Bay Ridge Pier is the last stop on the South Brooklyn Route). Stopping by, we found the Gardens closed. But as this is a pretty narrow space, it's easy to see inside.

narrows botanical gardens bay ridge brooklyn nyc
narrows botanical gardens bay ridge brooklyn nyc
narrows botanical gardens bay ridge brooklyn nyc

The Narrows Botanical Gardens website lists events like movie nights, a springtime planting event, and in the fall a Harvest Festival and Canine Costume Contest. Bees and butterflies buzzing and flitting were the only activity when we visited.

narrows botanical gardens bay ridge brooklyn nyc
narrows botanical gardens bay ridge brooklyn nyc
narrows botanical gardens bay ridge brooklyn nyc
narrows botanical gardens bay ridge brooklyn nyc

Condé Nast Traveler ranked the NBG one of New York City's "Outstanding Urban Gardens" – along with the likes of Fort Tryon Park, Wave Hill, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden – in a 2013 feature, pointing out "a butterfly garden, a zen garden, two rose gardens, a lily pond, and a turtle sanctuary." I'd love to get a better look at those one day. The website doesn't say when the Gardens are open, though. My guess is that, as with many of these places, availability of personnel to open and oversee is irregular.

Meantime, take a look at the website for a photo of what the site looked like back in 1941. What a testament to the power of community and imagination.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Friday, August 31, 2018

Ewen Park

Bridging the Bronx neighborhoods of Kingsbridge and Riverdale slopes Ewen Park, eight-ish hillside acres that used to be the estate of Brigadier General John Ewen.

A New York State Militia commander during the Civil War and a successful businessman, Ewen later became Comptroller of the City of New York. This property in what was then rural Westchester County was his country abode.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

Entering from Riverdale Ave., you immediately see you're in for quite a climb to the top. It's no surprise the New York Times wrote that Ewen Park is "considered one of the city's best for sledding."

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

You can't see the whole way up, but a plaque in the ground tells you how many steps lie ahead: CLX (160 in Roman numerals).

ewen park clx steps kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

Actually there are 158; two steps were removed during a stairway reconstruction. But the name "CLX Steps" stuck.

ewen park clx steps kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

A mower was hard at work – well, at work – on the large green sward south of the entrance.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc
ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

Meanwhile near the top, a lone basketballer practiced basketing.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

As it was a hot weekday afternoon, few people were using the park. I saw only that guy on the court, a few people on benches just inside the park (including a young beggar who asked me for money – not the same person in the photo in this article about Ewen Park becoming a homeless encampment) – and a couple of people walking dogs.

ewen park kingsbridge riverdale bronx nyc

The backstory – why John Ewen's spinster daughter Eliza donated the land to the city – is more interesting than the park itself, whose layout dates from 1935 when Eliza died. The blog History Underfoot, inspired by visible remnants of the estate's driveway, spins a detailed narrative of spinster daughters, gold-digging fraudsters, even a Broadway starlet. It just goes to show what I find again and again: Do a little digging (figuratively or literally) and even the most ordinary-looking park reveals a colorful history.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Monday, August 20, 2018

Fort Totten Park

Every one of New York City's hundreds of parks has something interesting about it – features, history, sometimes both. Fort Totten Park in northeast Queens is a multifaceted curiosity – a weird combination of park, fortress, and mostly-abandoned village.

fort totten park queens nyc

Fort Totten itself was never deployed defensively in wartime. The original 1857 design, ironically by none other than Robert E. Lee, was outdated almost before it was built, and while construction began during the Civil War, the fort was never needed as such, as the South never attacked New York City. Right now, though, in the park that surrounds the old fort, there's a bit of a war going on as the long, humid summer of 2018 wears on (more on that later).

You wouldn't know it from a walk around the quiet grounds. These 60 acres lounge peacefully at the tip of the Willets Point peninsula, where the East River ends drooping into Little Neck Bay off the Long Island Sound. The U.S. Army Reserve and the NYC Fire Department still use some of the facilities here, but many of the buildings in this former army installation sit abandoned and slowly decaying.

fort totten park queens nyc

By the parking lot there's a long pier and a good view of the Throgs Neck Bridge.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

A nice big flowerbed greets you a short way inside, along with some picturesque trees.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

But much of the park looks like an abandoned neighborhood – because it is. As with Governors Island, a whole military community used to live here. Unlike Governors Island, all, or at least most, of the old buildings here still stand – though some look like they could topple any minute. (AbandonedNYC has some great interior shots.)

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Some architecturally worthy buildings have been maintained and look good. The Castle, now home to the Bayside Historical Society, is a New York City landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It used to be the Army Corps of Engineers' Mess Hall and Club.

fort totten park queens nyc

The visitors' center, in the former ordnance building, houses some interesting 19th-century infrastructure, and a small museum with informational displays and an eclectic collection of historical ephemera.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Behind it a row of batteries held supplies. The sign on the right reads "Torpedo Battery." ("Torpedo" in the 19th century meant a mine – undersea warfare hadn't been invented.)

fort totten park queens nyc

Some of these spaces are open to explore.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Around the side of the building, a long tunnel leads to the Water Battery, the large fortified structure on the water that we think of as the fort itself. Graffiti in the tunnel dates from the Spanish-American War period.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Higher levels were envisioned, but new ballistics made the walls obsolete, and the fort was never completed as planned. A century and a half later, the environs are overgrown. There's even a stairway that now leads nowhere. But the structure itself was renovated in 2005 and made safe – so safe that in this litigious age, its heights are remarkably open to exploration.

fort totten park queens nyc
fort totten park queens nyc

Come back out through the tunnel and make your way to the water's edge and you're rewarded with a view across Little Neck Bay of some of Long Island's North Shore mansions. This is the new-money "West Egg" peninsula of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

fort totten park queens nyc

There was no West Egg action on view. But we did get a ringside seat to a violent bird-fight for dibs on a rock just offshore.

fort totten park queens nyc

And as I mentioned at the top, a human conflict is brewing too. A stranger to the Bayside neighborhood has founded a Fort Totten Park Conservancy without consulting local politicians or existing community groups like The Friends of Fort Totten Parks and the Bayside Historical Society, but with, it seems, tacit approval from the Parks Department.

How might this incipient tussle fit in with the Parks Department's "master plan?" According to a sign in the visitors' center, Parks is "in the midst of embarking on" (a carefully worded phrase if I ever read one) a plan involving a re-landscaping of the northern part of the park, tearing down 18 1950s "Capeheart" townhouses, preserving three, and building a new playground. Possible future projects include "an outdoor performance area, a Veterans' Garden, and a comfort station." (The current bathrooms are in a temporary trailer-like structure.)

For now, the Water Battery remains the crown on the raggedly regal body we call Fort Totten Park. On the hot summer weekend of our visit, we encountered only a few handfuls of people, though there appeared to be a nice little crowd at the pool. Since the subway doesn't come up here, many Manhattanites, Brooklynites, and other New Yorkers don't even know this place exists. They should.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media