Search This Blog

Monday, January 31, 2011

Sara D. Roosevelt Park

I'd planned to make my "official" visit to Sara D. Roosevelt Park in the summer, when its athletic fields would be in use and its garden green. But as it turns out there's life in this long, Lower East Side strip-park even amid the snows of January.

Somehow paths get dug and a bench gets cleared, allowing this woman to sit and chat on her cell phone, winter be damned.

Could that be Sara D. Roosevelt herself? Back from the grave? Signs point to no, but we shouldn't rule anything out. Named for the philanthropist mother of President Franklin Roosevelt, Sara D. Roosevelt Park (D is for Delano) runs down the Lower East Side for half a mile or so in the narrow space between Chrystie and Forsyth Streets, from Houston all way south to Canal. In 1934 when it was dedicated, the President's mother was still alive. Cannons were fired and, according to the Parks Department website, the Parks Department Orchestra played. There is no other mention of this orchestra anywhere else in the online universe (I even Binged it!), so if anyone has information on this mysteriously vanished outfit, please share.

But here's why I'm posting this in the winter:

That's right, a soccer field is available. After 19 inches of snow fell on top of many more inches that had never melted, somebody got out a big machine and shoved all the snow clear of this field so these guys could play.

Nearby, the M'Finda Kalunga Garden awaits the Great Snowmelt and the return of its dozens of gardeners. The name honors a nearby African-American burial ground that dated back to 1794. The cemetery was closed in the 1800s when the need for land for development became more important than the memory of "mere" black people, and though most of the remains were moved, they missed some; workers found remains when they were digging the foundation of the New Museum on the Bowery just a few years ago.

The name, by the way, means "Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World" in the Kikongo language. Kudos to the poetic soul who thought of such a name. By the "other side of the world," did he or she mean the Great Beyond? The Land of the Dead? Is this garden really a portal between universes?

Could that be how Sara Roosevelt came forward in time, to sit on a 21st-century bench in the park named after her, phoning instructions to her stockbroker?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Maria Hernandez Park, Snowbound

The former Bushwick Park is named for a community leader who was shot through her window in 1989. Maria Hernandez didn't live to see the Bushwick neighborhood's recent hipness infusion, but it's nice that the folks moving in and opening little coffeehouses and such will know her name because of the park.

Mostly devoted to athletic fields, Maria Hernandez Park is nevertheless a nice place to walk through, which I did the other night after a four-inch snowfall. Parks don't go away when it's cold and dark out—they await you, cloaked in winter mystery. A police car with bright headlights crunched through this diagonal path, too, shortly after I took this picture:

Neither the Parks Department website nor a Google search turned up an explanation for the buffalo reliefs on this gate. Perhaps a reader will…

Meanwhile, imagine yourself in the quiet chill of a January night in the 17th century Dutch town of Boswijck, which means "heavy woods." Or imagine walking through the neighborhood in the late 1800s when, heavily German, it was home to more than a dozen breweries (including Schaefer—"the one beer to have when you're having more than one," as old Mets fans like me all remember).

Or just go back to September 2010, when a tornado trashed the park, as this video attests:

That's right, a tornado. Snow's not the only thing we get around here. But snow is what I'll leave you with.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Washington Market Park

We're not through with Tribeca yet!

Washington Market Park, covering more than two acres, links the neighborhood with the Borough of Manhattan Community College. As New York City parks go, it's is a baby, conceived in the 1970s in the wake of the urban renewal projects of the previous decade and named for the Washington Market, the city's wholesale market until it moved up to Hunts Point in the Bronx. (See Forgotten New York for some details on the neighborhood that used to be called the Lower West Side, and click here for a great photo of West Washington Market in the 1880s.)

But in its short life the park has seen a lot; just as an expansion and freshening-up was about to get under way, the September 11 attacks damaged the park, just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of the attacks, according to the park's website, "Covered in debris, the park was used as a lot for emergency vehicles and as a power station. Thereafter, the playground had to be closed for several months, delaying the construction and improvement project." However, a new playground was completed in 2003.

To my eye the park is remarkable not for its modern playground or gazebo but for its unusual trees, and for its wide open spaces, looking especially broad and stark in the wintertime, full of shadows…

…and the occasional pedestrian.

Here, through the fence, you can see a parks worker in a green uniform taking a breather from shoveling in the aftermath of the 2010 Christmas week blizzard:

And here, a student walks through the park towards BMCC, which sits at a height above the park:

According to the invaluable Garden Guide, Washington Market Park "boasts a handsome stand of dawn redwood, a grove of cherry, beech, and willow trees, a blue Atlas cedar, and several dogwoods and crab apples," and it "succeeds in being both greener and more adventurous than most city parks [with] an almost suburban atmosphere…" Greener? Probably. More adventurous? I don't know exactly what the authors of this excellent book mean by that—"adventurous" and "suburban" seldom go together in my mind—but a real greensward in a small city park like this is rather unusual, so perhaps in that sense it's adventurous.

The coolest thing, though? This shed, built into the wall that forms the park's western boundary:

Hardly looks like a New York City building, does it? But that's the great thing about wandering the city and its parks—discovering surprises like this.

A view from the steps leading up to BMCC puts the park in context...

…and a look at its signage often provides a clue to a park's priorities. What's that in the bag, human? Not a blanket, I hope…

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Duane Park

Continuing our Tribeca miniseries, today I'm giving a nod to Duane Park, a triangular traffic island with a wee footprint but a dense history and a Friends of Duane Park website that's almost more substantial than the park itself. At least some of the rich people who made this former warehouse district into the luxury haven it is now really do care about their tiny little park.

By calling Duane Park a "traffic island" I mean no insult—after all, almost by definition a city green space is surrounded by pavement. The park is named (as are Duane Street and, by extension, the ubiquitous drugstore chain Duane Reade) for James Duane, a member of the Continental Congress, signer of the Articles of Confederation, and New York City's first post-Revolutionary War mayor.

The park has an equally impressive history. After Bowling Green, it's the oldest public park in the city, and the very first space the city purchased specifically for use as a public park, acquiring it from Trinity Church for five bucks in 1797 specifically to be "promotive of health and recreation." Recreation? Well, sports-wise you couldn't fit much more than a foursquare court here, but there's enough historical information on the Friends of Duane Park website to occupy your mind while you promote your health by sitting in the "fresh" air for a little while.

The sycamores of Duane Park, planted around 1940, provide a welcome break from the thousands of London plane trees (Robert Moses' favorite species) that make arboreal near-monocultures out of some of our New York City parks. You can see several of them behind the fence in the first photo, above, and another trunk in the photo to the right. Of course like most trees these look nicer when they have leaves on them, but as I've mentioned before, our Park Odyssey does not cease in the wintertime, though it may slow down. If Captain Picard can boldly go for years and years through the galaxy, I can go for a walk in the cold.

I don't understand the layout of the park. Why is there so much empty space smack in the middle? Why not more green? Shrubbery? A fountain? Why not a statue (might I suggest a likeness of yours truly?) set amidst a flowery, landscaped mini-garden? The park's long history of redesigns suggests that no one's ever quite known what to do with it. Calvert Vaux himself "must have scratched his head over how in 92/100s of an acre to fulfill [the park superintendent's] instructions to 'create a feeling of quiet and restfulness by having pathways that meander.'" Meander for five seconds here and you'll find yourself out in the middle of Staple Street in front of an oncoming FreshDirect truck.

Even amid winter snows, though, there's green, and even red, to appreciate if you look. Even in a pocket-sized spot like Duane Park.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tribeca Park

Once known as Beach Street Park, Tribeca Park is a .038-acre parcel in the shape of two overlapping triangles, with Beach Street forming its longest boundary. Alas, there's no sandy shoreline nearby; "Beach" is a variant spelling of Bache, as in Paul Bache, who according the Parks Department, was the son-in-law of Elsie and Leonard Lispenard, owners of this once-swampy land in the 1700s. (Lispenard Street is also nearby.) The City acquired the area around the intersection of Beach, Walker, and what is now West Broadway for a park in 1810.

I happened upon Tribeca Park during a ramble around the neighborhood, having never heard of or noticed it before. As you can see from this photo, it doesn't exactly jump out and grab you:

But that's probably fine with this woman, who looks like she just wants to read in peace:

The park's oddball shape makes for some unexpected angles:

But, not surprisingly for Tribeca, the surrounding architecture steals what little thunder the park might have. The 11-story American Thread Company building, built in the 1890s, for example, is a fine example of the Renaissance revival style.

Its architect, William B. Tubby, is also responsible for the Ethical Culture building on Prospect Park West (check it out when you visit Prospect Park), and Dunnellen Hall, Harry and Leona Helmsley's former estate in Greenwich, CT, among other notable buildings.