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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Instant Nostalgia for Governors Island

Said to be the site of the very first Dutch landfall in 1611, Governors Island lies a half a mile below the southern tip of Manhattan (which it's officially part of) and even closer to Brooklyn.

As the Governors Island ferry prepared to leave Manhattan for the two-minute trip (I'm exaggerating, but not by much), this funky picture of the Staten Island Ferry presented itself.

According to this source, Governors Island was the longest-lasting continuously active military post in the US, from 1794 to 1997. It was really a military town, with homes, a chapel, and everything else. During the 20th century there was even a hotel for the use of visiting family.

Since the federal government turned over the former Coast Guard base to the State and City of New York in 2003 for one dollar, essentially nonexistent development became first sluggish and now rapid. With the City now in full control, it's only going to accelerate. These photos from 2008 may already bear the patina of nostalgia.

Castle Williams looms as a somehow unrealistically picturesque sailboat passes by. This part of the island is a National Historic Landmark District.

Much of the island is to become a public park—although in fact it already is—and parts will be developed, including a high school and possibly even a satellite campus for NYU.

Building 406, Officer's Housing

South Battery

Along with history there's plenty of artistic creativity on the island:


…and some unique views.

The Brooklyn, Manhattan, and—if you look carefully on the far right—Williamsburg Bridges, all in one photo—a pretty special view.

I worry that Governors Island will be ruined by all the development. I know there's going to be a beautiful, hilly park. But there is something charming about its present unfinished, half-ghost-town state, and that is almost sure to vanish within a few years. There's already a Water Taxi Beach. Fun, I guess, if you like that sort of thing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Amid the Sidewalks of New York: Abingdon Square

British place names have been pretty scarce around Manhattan since that wee unpleasantness of 1776. Abingdon Square, in Greenwich Village, is a happy exception—happy for me, because every time I pass it I think of the town of Abingdon in England, where I spent a year of my childhood. The park is actually named for the Earl of Abingdon, who remained in favor with the city fathers because he'd sympathized with the colonists.

The word "square" may conjure up a cityscape, but since the 1830's Abingdon Square has been a real park, enclosed by an iron fence…

…and thick with representatives of that neglected minority, Chlorophyll-Americans.

Its centerpiece is the Abingdon Doughboy, another of Philip Martiny's Rodin-esque memorials (see Chelsea Park) to the area residents who died fighting World War One.

On a sunny summer afternoon, the heroic kid watches over peaceful Human-Americans taking advantage of the warm weather and dappled shade.

Nearby you'll find the legendary White Horse Tavern, as well as a store quaintly called Abingdon Market and a bona fide cobblestoned street. The park also has a little cousin, the Arthur W. Strickler Triangle, a bench-free and therefore people-free patch of green recently named after the Community Board 2 District Manager, bowtie enthusiast, and defender of the weak. Watch the end of the video especially, for a priceless photo montage set to the Shannon Quartet's also priceless 1920's recording of "The Sidewalks of New York." They sure don't write 'em like that anymore.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bowling Green, Where It All Began

Here we are at primal Bowling Green—which, come to think of it, should have been the first entry in this blog, because in terms of New York City parks, Bowling Green is really where it all started.

The fountain is one of Bowling Green's nicest features, and definitely its wettest

Along with Battery Park and City Hall Park, Bowling Green was among the "unappropriated lands" of the 1686 Dongan Charter of the City of New York. Prior to that, during the years of the Dutch colony, it served as a parade ground and cattle market. Officially designated a city park in 1733, Bowling Green is the oldest with that status.

Manhattan in microcosm: tiny visitors and Wall Streeters enjoy the nice weather while a tourist bus and a city bus circle behind them

Bowling Green rests at the southern terminus of Broadway, which you've probably heard of. Formerly, in New Amsterdam days, Broadway was known as Heere Staat (High Street), and prior to that an Indian trade route; today, a few miles to the north, it's home to Mamma Mia! and Wicked. (Not to mention Jersey Boys, Memphis, and the hit revival of Chicago, proving that whatever other city or state you're from, you'll probably wind up here eventually.) At the northern corner of the park is that famous symbol of Wall Street, Arturo Di Modica's Charging Bull.

Just as flies surround a real bull, tourists throng about this bronze one

My favorite element of the park is actually the iron fence. (Get it? Element...iron?) It's the original 18th-century fence, and the park's designation on the National Register of Historic Places includes the fence. Legend has it that after the Declaration of Independence, when rebellious colonists tore down the park's equestrian statue of George III, they also removed the royal crowns from the fenceposts. But the fence, now thoroughly democratized, remains.

Few fences get their own plaques like the Bowling Green fence does

To the south is Cass Gilbert's Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, now partly given over to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The museum is very worth a visit, but I also recommend checking out the main hall of the Custom House itself. The artwork and architecture are unique and impressive.

So next time you're downtown, for whatever reason—and I mean way downtown—pause a while and admire the oldest park in New York City. Relax, watch the tourists, eat lunch, look at the flowers and the fountain—go ahead, even touch the bull if you like.

You can't bowl, though. For pétanque, head up to Bryant Park.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

City Hall Park

There are so many layers of history on the old Commons, you can get dizzy reading about them. Pastureland in the seventeenth century; not one but two almshouses beginning in the eighteenth; a debtors' prison, where the British who occupied the city held American prisoners of war during the Revolution; a post office; the famous African Burial Ground, discovered during construction in 1991; and tons more. There's prettier history underneath, too—one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world, a City Hall stop that's been closed to the public since 1945. It was designed by Heins and LaFarge, architects of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. You might need to say a few prayers if you ever hope to see it, though.

The Mould fountain has had a few adventures of its own. But why wasn't it turned on the day I went down to take pictures? Why??? WHY?????

One thing you can't get much of a look at from City Hall Park—which I'm considering to be the southern triangle, not the greenery to the north surrounding City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse—is City Hall itself.

Since 9-11, not too welcoming

This year, through December 3, an installation of figurative sculpture called Statuesque is gracing the park. If the barricades and police presence aren't enough to discourage your unauthorized self from getting too close to the House of Bloomberg, maybe Thomas Houseago's bronze Untitled (Red Man) will do the trick.

He ain't scaring these little kids, though, in spite of his large size and holes for eyes.

In Manhattan parks, looking up usually pays dividends. Here we see pretty lamps on the left, lit for the approaching evening hours, and the white towers of McKim, Mead and White's Beaux-Arts Manhattan Municipal Building on the right. Maybe one day I'll have a camera that can show things in shadow and things in light in the same photo.

Nathan Hale keeps an eye on City Hall, courtesy of sculptor Frederick MacMonnies. Hale was actually hanged about four miles north of here. There's a Starbucks there now, so this is probably a better spot for him.

Today, City Hall Park seems mostly a place for working people to eat lunch on nice days, and tourists to wander through on their way to gaping at Ground Zero. But there's culture to be had as well, and not just silent sculpture installations. Here, patriotic quartet 4Troops sing at the southern tip of the park.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bryant Park

After extensive renovations 20 years ago, the former potter's field once known as Reservoir Park became a crazily successful hub for social activity, which it remains today. Bryant Park's own website has a good quick history along with abundant information about what's going on there—which is an awful lot—eating, drinking, ice skating, sitting, going on a carousel…even playing pétanque. Concerts, movies, you name it. Right in midtown, behind the Public LIbrary, with a south view of the Empire State Building, it doesn't get much more central than this.

Last winter we sat under a heat lamp at the outdoor Southwest Porch bar and were went home with free Slankets. (They're like Snuggies except better quality.) Woo-hoo!


The one thing that didn't go on in Bryant Park this year was Fashion Week, which moved uptown to Lincoln Center. A good thing, too. Fashion Week ruins the park for everyone else.

Bryant Park Grill, just before the dinner rush

The lawn on a quiet late afternoon

An after-work crowd relaxes

City street scene: man dressed like monk just outside Bryant Park takes picture of skyline

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chelsea Park

This long, skinny park between Ninth and Tenths Avenues is given over mostly to recreational facilities, but it gets an entry here because the tip that faces Ninth is parklike, in a humble sort of way, with some benches and trees and two monuments. The central World War One monument holds the Chelsea Doughboy statue, a striking piece by Philip Martiny, who studied with Saint-Gaudens. It was dedicated in 1921.

More interesting to me are the granite gateposts memorializing Frank L. Dowling, a Tammany Hall leader who served as President of the Board of Aldermen (an antecedent of today's City Council) in the nineteen-teens. Faded, eroded, they're rather fitting as a remembrance of those bygone days of corruption. (Because as everyone knows, local politicians today are squeaky-clean, every last one of them!)

The Parks website seems confused about the pillars, noting correctly that the Horatio Seymour Tammany Club put them up, but getting the year and the honoree wrong. One suspects there might be some confused old ghosts passing through the posts, over and over, wondering "What's my name?" and "Why have I been misremembered?" Or even "Have I been totally forgotten?" (Yes, pretty much.)

The guy in this photo is probably thinking about something more current. We'll never know. At least he found a nice bench.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Signs of the Times (Old and New) at Seward Park

Unless you're in the Chinatown area and happen to be looking for a playground, Seward Park wouldn't seem to have too much to recommend it.

Some of the surrounding buildings, like the former Jewish Daily Forward Building and the handsome 1909 Seward Park Library, are more interesting-looking than anything in the park itself, which in terms of activity seems mostly focused on its playgrounds.

The north playground, according to the Parks Department website, opened in 1903 as "the first permanent, municipally built playground in the United States." Pretty historic, but not much to look at.

The park is named for William Seward, an impressive statue of whom commands the southwest corner of the much prettier Madison Square Park a few neighborhoods to the north. What Seward Park lacks in beauty it seems to make up for in unexpected Sewardine semiotics, such as a "Mount McKinley" play unit honoring "Seward's Folly"—Alaska. I prefer the more obvious signage, though, like the superbly ungrammatical "Please Flush" notice in the men's room.

That's right—this is one of those parks with public toilets. Make a note of it.

One more thing: the Parks Department thinks that Seward Park is the ideal opportunity to talk about beavers, apparently because the city flag appears in the park and it features a beaver. (Beavers, as any aficionado of early New York history knows, were critical to the economy of the early Dutch colony). As it happens, we recently visited a park just a couple of hours from the city that's loaded with beavers (or "loaded with beaver" as a pelt hunter probably would have said): Mount Tom State Reservation in Massachusetts. We didn't see any of the big rodents, but found plenty of evidence of their eagerness and busyness, including an abandoned dam and many chewed and toppled trees. So if you're interested in beavers, head up to Mt. Tom, not Seward Park. Here's a tree from up there, half-chewed-through by beavers, accompanied by a pair of human legs artfully presented for scale.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

John Paul Jones Park

Deep in southwest Brooklyn, next to the massive on-ramp to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, sits square-shouldered John Paul Jones Park.

Named for the naval hero of the War of 1812, not the Led Zeppelin drummer, the park is chockablock (I always wanted to use that word!) with military monuments, as is perhaps appropriate given its proximity to Fort Hamilton. From within, the park feels pretty substantial in area, especially when you think about it compared with some of those tiny parks we've been talking about squeezed into crowded Manhattan, but its most dominant feature is a monstrous Civil War era cannon.

The cannon is used now only for the most peaceful of purposes—like climbing on. Still, this is not a quiet park. The reason: that aforementioned on-ramp, which pours a constantly undulating stream of traffic noise over the soft spaces below.

I visited on a blustery, cloudy September afternoon with fall in the air, but just as I was leaving, the sun came out for a moment, illuminating the great granite obelisk and the flagpole. The obelisk commemorates the Dover Patrol of the First World War English fleet. The flagpole comes from a Navy destroyer. The park also contains memorials to the Civil War and the Revolutionary War.

But while we're mindful of the sacrifices of our warriors and those of our allies throughout the seemingly countless wars that gape through our history, let's remember one of the main purposes of parks: parking. As in, parking your butt on a retired cannon. Which is to say: playing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Isham Park

I discovered Isham Park on a trip to another, much bigger, rockier swath of green and purple and grey, Inwood Hill Park. Nestled up against its vast neighbor in far upper Manhattan, Isham is a hilly, 20-acre patch whose undulating terrain makes it seem bigger than it is. Springtime, of course, is the most colorful time to visit a park like this:

The park is named for a leather merchant named Isham whose mansion once stood on top of the hill. Now, as the Talking Heads would say, there's "nothing but flowers."

Hessian troops landed here during the Revolutionary War. I wonder if they're responsible for this malformed piece of woodsiness. I don't know what to say about it. Just—here it is:

And lest we forget we're in the big city, the colors don't stop with the spring flowers.

Isham Park is well worth a visit. You can even get some exercise here walking up and down and around the hill—without even crossing over into Inwood Hill Park itself.

And if you're headed that way, to do some real climbing and check out the only remaining bit of original Manhattan forest, take a little time for Isham too. In any other part of town not contiguous with a huge and more famous park, Isham Park would be a well-known treasure.