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Sunday, October 31, 2010

McGolrick Park

An easy walk from relatively flavorless McCarren Park is the more picturesque Msgr. McGolrick Park. Named Winthrop Park upon creation in the 1890s, in 1941 it took the name of Monsignor Edward J. McGolrick, who had served as an influential local pastor for 50 years.

Renovations and improvements in the 1980s and '90s left Greenpoint residents with the very nice-looking nine-acre park you see today.

At the far end of this avenue, you can see the colonnade of an impressive shelter pavilion that dates from 1910 and was designed by Helme and Huberty, the same folks who brought us the Boathouse and Tennis House in Prospect Park and other architectural delights. According to the Parks Department website, it is on the National Register of Historic Places and a New York City landmark.

On the fall day of my recent visit it was being used only as a backdrop for a few kids hanging out. Check them out in the red jackets on the far left to get a sense of the scale:

Countless monuments around the world refer to "the World War" or "the Great War." After what we now call World War One, a lot of people couldn't conceive of another such worldwide conflagration ever taking place, and the use of the definitive article seemed an appropriate, as well as hopeful, designation.

McGolrick Park has one of New York's many such memorials, a winged figure symbolizing both victory and peace. Her pedestal says she's dedicated "to the living and dead heroes of Greenpoint who fought in the World War because they loved America, revered its ideals under God, and supported its institutions, and gave their all that our government shall not perish from the Earth." (I'll bet today's Tea Partiers wouldn't phrase it quite that way if they were dedicating a monument now. Soldiers giving their all…for the government?)

One corner is occupied by a nice garden named for a longtime parks supervisor.

Fall colors make for eye-pleasing displays around the park:

There are some five million trees in New York City, including close to 600,000 on the streets. This brilliant yellow display alongside McGolrick Park seemed worthy of note. What kind of tree is this? Eventually I suppose I will become a little more expert in identifying the city's trees, but I'm still waiting for it to happen, so if a reader would let me know, I'd be grateful.

The one to the right is a London plane tree, one of the most common city trees. There are some 35,000 of these on the streets of Brooklyn alone. This individual, though, being located in a park, gets the rare benefit of an ivy coating. Or is it a benefit? It looks nice, anyway. I had to look twice before I realized that under this carpet was a plane tree like any other.

Monitor Street forms the eastern border of the park, named, not for a lizard or a school hallway cop, but for the Monitor ironclad, the famous ship that dueled with the Merrimac during the Civil War. Why? Because the legendary boat was born at the Continental Iron Works in this very neighborhood of Greenpoint. Shipbuilding was an important industry on the Greenpoint waterfront for a period during the 1800's.

The street name is not the only commemoration of the Monitor. In McGolrick Park you'll find this singular 1939 statue, The Monitor and the Merrimac, which honors both the battle and the Monitor's Swedish engineer John Ericsson (a statue of whom can be found in Battery Park). About the sculptor, Antonio de Filippo, precious little can be found in a quick online search. But he sure had a moment here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

McCarren Park

I've never really gotten McCarren Park, even in summer when it's busy. It's a sprawling space in Brooklyn straddling Williamsburg and Greenpoint, with big ballparks, a track, and streets cutting confusingly through. There's a huge 1930's public works pool, totally gone to seed, that gained new notoriety over the last few years as a venue for unpleasant-sounding big rock concerts I studiously avoided (not because of the bands, but because of the hot concrete setting). When I'm in McCarren Park I can't figure out where I'm going, which direction is which, and really, why I'm there.

If I were a local kid who wanted to play some serious ball, now, that would be different. This is just one small corner ballfield, decked with fall colors in this nice view. The kids on the far left had just finished a game of catch—last gasp of the boys of summer?

This London plane tree has a lot of character...

…and the Tom Stofka Garden is a pleasant spot.

But I find myself drawn more towards the baked goods and ethnic character of the surrounding neighborhoods. In Greenpoint, you hear more Polish on the streets than English, and in Williamsburg everybody speaks Hipster.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Carl Schurz Park

This beautiful Manhattan park overlooking Hell Gate covers 14.9 acres along the waterfront. Carl Schurz Park's winding paths can make it feel bigger than it is, and Calvert Vaux himself had a hand in the 1902 landscaping, though the park has undergone a few re-imaginings since the city set aside the first section of it for parkland in 1876.

Towards the north end sits Gracie Mansion, the Mayor of New York's official residence. But I'm more interested in the elements that (literally) ground the manmade park to the natural geology of the Earth, like this outcropping of (what I assume is) Manhattan schist:

Parts of the park offer some peaceful, even semi-secluded spots for reading or contemplating.

Can you spot the humans in the far right of the photo?

The surrounding community actively supports the park. It's not an accident that it's named for a German-American statesman. Carl Schurz was a Union Army General in the Civil War, a Senator, a newspaper editor, and a Secretary of the Interior, among other things. The nearby neighborhood of Yorkville used to be well-known as a German-American neighborhood, remnants of which remain (in the form of one or two restaurants, at least).

Schurz had an admirable take on the sentiment "my country, right or wrong." His 111-year-old gloss: "Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right." Words to try to live by in our insanely partisan age.

This grassy "avenue" has a pleasant look…

…but you can't beat this recessed circle (what's it called, anyway?) for visual appeal:

The statue of Peter Pan is a nice attraction. Sculptor Charles Haffen created it in 1928 for a lobby fountain in the old Paramount Theater. It found a new home here in 1975, around the time the Carl Schurz Park Conservancy began working to bring the park back from years of neglect and decay.

Peter Pan is a universal symbol of not wanting to grow up. By contrast, what could be less universal and more New York than this Vauxian archway? Almost makes you think you're in Central Park or Prospect Park.

Combine a visit to Carl Schurz with a walk on the East River Esplanade which it adjoins. Waterfront vistas and secluded woodsy groves all in one place, right in Manhattan. You probably won't run into Mayor Bloomberg—he uses Gracie Mansion only for official dinners and such. But wander over to First Avenue or Second Avenue and you can get a darn good bagel.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Astoria Park

This big stretch of waterfront greenery is a treasure most people from other boroughs (or even other parts of Queens) rarely if ever see. And by "see" I don't just mean "visit," I actually mean see. For one thing, from the Manhattan side of the East River it's difficult to even get a look at Astoria Park because Ward's Island is in the way. How many Manhattanites know that this Queens waterfront park, which dates from 1913, has the city's oldest and biggest swimming pool? Olympic trials were held there in 1936 and 1964. There's also a great track, lots of fields and play areas, and plenty of room to just wander around enjoying the open spaces and sublime river views.

Facing Southwest as the sun sets

The RFK Bridge (formerly the Triboro Bridge) dominates the southern section of the park, but unlike at, say, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the span is so high up that you don't get much traffic noise.

Farther north you can walk under Hell Gate Bridge, which carries trains. The water looks pretty from the vantage of these photos, but Hell Gate wasn't named for nothing; look down on it from the path along the waterfront and you can see it eddying and charging like Scylla and Charybdis. It's rough stuff.

And it has a rough history—over a thousand people died in the General Slocum disaster, an accident which took place in these waters in 1904. Until 9/11 the burning and sinking of the paddle steamer General Slocum ranked as the most deadly accident in New York City history. Centuries earlier at Pot Cove, at the park's southern end, an Indian village thrived off maize and fish. There are no more farms along the East River, but people still come to the park to fish.

Look similar to something? The Hell Gate Bridge, pictured here, inspired the design of the bigger and more famous Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.

I don't think these people were supposed to be out there on these rocks...

But I like the fact that they could climb their way down there without any uniformed nannies bothering them. Of course, it's probably less dangerous to run around the track…

…or just take a walk. Which you can do for a good while in Astoria Park without running out of things to see.

Under the Hell Gate Bridge, nature gives way to monumental found art. Or something. Why is this bridge support painted just this way? What's the big font of dirt for? For every city secret we penetrate, a hundred more remain locked in mystery.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grand Army Plaza (Brooklyn)

It's grand. It's a plaza. But the only "army" in Grand Army Plaza is the swarm of cars that zip around it. It was created as an impressive entranceway to Prospect Park. But entering the Plaza itself is a pedestrian-hostile process from most directions. So on nice days, you'll see plenty of people in Prospect Park itself, but a paltry few visiting the Arch, the Bailey Fountain with its startling Neptune, and the smaller monuments. Pity.

The bust of JFK (foreground) was gone for renovation for what seemed like decades, but it's back

The Bailey Fountain features nude figures representing Wisdom and Felicity...

But below them is Neptune, a figure I find much more artistically compelling:

Photo found on Wikipedia.

When summer comes, try to find out when the arch is open to the public and go up inside it. The view is nice, the interior even more interesting. I once saw a theatrical production inside the arch. It used a lot of puppets, and was very long. Anyway, here it is:

It's big. It's over-the-top. It's...the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch! In 1889, William Tecumseh Sherman laid the cornerstone. Covered in Civil War action figures, it would be one of the Seven Wonders of New York City if such a list existed.

So when you visit Prospect Park, brave the traffic (and the uneven paving stones) and check out the Arch and Grand Army Plaza's other sights. Maybe you'll run into a wedding party taking pictures in front of the fountain. Maybe you'll run into nobody. Either way, there's no other public space quite like this in NYC.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Athens Square

A recent visit to the heavily Greek-American neighborhood of Astoria, Queens to review the Greece-themed musical comedy OPA! was the perfect opportunity to check out a couple of local parks, including the former playground Athens Square. Greece being the birthplace of theater, the juxtaposition seemed all the more fitting.

The central section of the little park is designed to resemble a Greek amphitheater and is anchored by an impressive statue of Socrates. I like how the man sitting below is unconsciously echoing the philosopher's pose.

A few kids were taking advantage of the beautiful weather to kick a ball around the amphitheater.

Stepping further back you get a view of the prettiest element of the park: the statue of Athena. The base of this replica of the Piraeus Athena notes that it was a gift from the people of Athens, Capital of Greece, to the people of the City of New York. Note the pigeon to the lower left, looking longingly up at the goddess's helmet; he longs to perch there, but there's a crest in the way. I always wondered why Greek helmets had these crests, but I think this bird has helped me figure it out.

In the background, to Athena's left, you can see a bust of Aristotle, a very recent gift to us New Yorkers from the people of the northern Greek region of Chalkidiki, where he was born.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Walk Down the East River Esplanade

Sticking to the Manhattan East Side theme of our last couple of posts, a look at the East River Esplanade seems in order. Entering at 96th Street and heading south, we encounter this pleasing vista:

Looking north towards East Harlem, there's this one:

And a glance into the water may be rewarded with a picturesque sailboat, like so:

I'm more intrigued by this monolith, though:

It's actually a highway sign, sort of. On the other side, facing the traffic on the FDR Drive, is an old runic-looking inscription:



It's a monument to an earlier time. The East River Drive is now called the FDR Drive, and the Triborough Bridge is now called the RFK Bridge. Also, these days we don't usually make street signs out of huge stone menhirs. But I'm glad we did at one time.

I also love details like this iron windmill built into the fence that keeps drunken cyclists from careening into the water.

A bit further South, near Carl Schurz Park, we come to a section known as the John Finley Walk, which has this wonderful sign. (Finley seems to have been an interesting character.)

A walk down the Esplanade will also net you a nice view of the Blackwell Island/Roosevelt Island Lighthouse.

But Roosevelt Island and its parks (including Lighthouse Park) deserve separate attention, which we will save for another—probably very long—day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stuyvesant Square

That Peter Stuyvesant sure got around.

The famously bitchy Director General of the New Amsterdam colony has his fingerprints all over lower Manhattan in the vicinity of his old farm. Very close to Stuyvesant Cove, Stuyvesant Town, oddball Stuyvesant Street (it runs due East-West in defiance of the rest of the Manhattan street grid), the original location of Stuyvesant High School, and the remains of old Peter himself, you can set a spell in Stuyvesant Square.

This double rectangle of green, sandwiched between the Beth Israel medical complex and the grand old St. George's Episcopal Church, is a respectable old park, a little dingy around a couple of the edges but very verdant, with plenty of benches, flowers in season, water, trees, lots of bushes, and in general a generous amount of good-natured parkitude.

J. P. Morgan worshipped at St. George's, a magnificent Romanesque Revival church that predates the Civil War. Originally it had Gothic stone spires, which you can see in a drawing over at New York Architecture.

As for the hospital, we can let these folks represent:

There's water shooting up and flowers shooting up but as far as I've seen on my numerous visits, no junkies shooting up. (Junkies don't shoot up any more, do they? And they're not called "junkies" either. Am I still living in the 70's? Yes, I suppose, in some ways. You dig?)

Stuyvesant Square Park is split down the middle by Second Avenue, but even so it's a nice size, a legacy of Peter's descendant, Peter Gerard Stuyvesant, who bestowed four acres of the old farm on the city for the express purpose of creating a public park.

The statue of the legendary Director General (photo at the top of this article) is by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, of those Vanderbilts).

I'm more partial to the likeness by the renowned sculptor Ivan Meštrović of the composer Antonín Dvořák, who lived nearby on East 17th Street.

But sculptures do not make a park. The nicest parts of Stuyvesant Square Park provide peaceful spots to, uh…lose yourself in a tiny screen held on your lap—while, however, breathing some extra oxygen from all the plants.

This fly is in fly heaven:

So we've got Stuyvesant for history and Dvořák for music. Finally, for literature, I give you novelist Gary Shteyngart, who in this video is shown writing away in Stuyvesant Square. (It's 1:49 in.) Never let it be said we're not fully cultured here at the Park Odyssey blog.