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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St. Nicholas Park

A while back I visited the northern end of St. Nicholas Park, which houses historic Hamilton Grange (Alexander Hamilton's house), but that post didn't actually explore much of the park itself. It's time to redress that failing.

St. Nicholas Park is another of those long thin Manhattan parks that extends along one or another of our north-south Avenues. Despite its narrowness it contains a lot of topography. No doubt the un-developable big slope that stretches over part of it is why it's a park in the first place, and not, oh, I don't know, housing.

The entrance from the south isn't too promising if you're looking for an experience of nature. The first thing I saw was the buckled pavement of the path, which instead of being repaired has been marked out with yellow paint.

The park's southern section is devoted to athletic facilities, unremarkable except for some interesting colored patterns worked into the fences. But as you head north, it isn't long before the natural terrain asserts itself.

Looking east over snow-dusted scrub and through bare March trees, the steep slope down to St. Nicholas Ave. is pretty evident:

And near the western edge, a big schist formation rises from the pavement and grass.


…to this impressive wall.

Regarding the next photo, I just liked the pattern the snow made on the vegetation. What do you call this form of vegetation? Is it just assertive grass? Anyway, like other parks cut out of the ridges of Manhattan, St. Nicholas Park teems with stone staircases. The tiny red streak just above the center of the image is a person in a red hooded sweatsuit walking up one of them.

A walk through this park provides views of some pretty monumental architecture, both to the west…

…and to the east. I don't know what any of these buildings are any more than I know what to call that grassy stuff. If you know, please leave a comment!

As I wrote in my post on Hamilton Grange, "The city originally acquired some of the land that's now St. Nicholas Park for the Croton Aqueduct. That land ended up part of a long 23-acre 'ribbon park' that also features a dog run, a playground, sports facilities, and some Revolutionary War history." That history is notable at the nondescript southern end, where at the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776 General George Washington took up a position. According to the Parks Department website this spot is known as "The Point of Rocks," though other references to that designation aren't easy to find online. Anyway, now it's a playground.

Construction of the park began in 1906 to a design by Samuel Parsons Jr., who, according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, "specialized in sites that had steep terrain." Parsons talked about "a high hill made higher, a rugged slope more rugged, a deep valley made deeper, thus invariably following nature's lead."

You know you've reached the northern end of nature's lead when you come upon Hamilton Grange, the manor house Hamilton built around 1790 (it was moved here from a nearby site not long ago), and catch sight of the imposing St. James Presbyterian Church.

The park was renovated in 1996 after a "Take Back St. Nicholas Park" community initiative. Presumably they wanted to take it back from neglect and decay, and perhaps from drug dealers or other undesirable human elements. I'm guessing it wasn't from re-emergent Indians or stubborn Dutch farmers. It's clear that some partying still goes on here. But that's true of just about any space where people can find some seclusion or some relief from the claustrophobia of city life.

I headed back via the east side path, where I spotted one family unafraid of cold temperatures.

Like the buckled pavement with which I began this narrative, this staircase is evidence that the community hasn't entiredly taken St. Nicholas Park back from an earlier state of decrepitude. Don't worry, I took this picture through a high fence; no one's going to accidentally find themselves trying to navigate this particular bit of "steep terrain."

And looking closer, it was precisely here that I spotted another signifier – like those people camped out on the grass – that spring is on the way.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, a memorial to the former president, opened on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in 2012. It's not a city park but a state park, and not a park of trees and dirt but of cold angular hardness, designed by architect Louis I. Kahn. Kahn died way back in 1974, but much as Jimi Hendrix puts out new albums four decades after his death, Kahn has had an old design realized long after his.

I visited on the same snowy day I walked through adjoining Southpoint Park, the somewhat misnamed park you walk through on your way to the brand new memorial at the actual southern point of the island. The snow seemed to fall harder the further south I pushed.

I had the area almost, but not entirely, to myself. A few security personnel were stationed nearby, and two other visitors emerged from the endpoint just as I approached, as if summoned by my desire for a photo that really showed the size of things as well as the perspective.

The design is supposed to suggest a Greek temple, made of permanent-looking North Carolina granite and fringed in linden and copper-beech trees. A quote from FDR's Four Freedoms Speech, which gives the park its name, is carved in a huge block of this stone, and the large bronze head of FDR sculpted by Jo Davidson is the FDR pilgrim's ultimate destination:

But regular readers won't be surprised that I'm more enamored of this cold rock with sea birds upon it, rising up from the river just south of the tip of the island.

I walked back on the less manicured eastern (Queens) side, from which the Queensboro/59th Street/Ed Koch Bridge was just visible through the snowy mist. And the weather wasn't bothering the ducks any more than it was the seagulls.

It wasn't bothering me either, exactly, but when I got back to the tram I was snow-covered enough that I decided to save the opposite end of Roosevelt Island, with its Sandy-damaged Lighthouse Park, for another visit. So stay tuned for Roosevelt Island II: The Voyage North, coming soon.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Southpoint Park, Roosevelt Island

Last year there was much press coverage of the opening of Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, but I'll cover that spot in my next post, because as I discovered while heading there one snowy day in March, there's another park to walk through first: Southpoint Park, which opened in the summer of 2011 after a design process that involved the Trust for Public Land – and with, it seems, much less fanfare.

The tram from Manhattan is the fun way to get to Roosevelt Island:

It drops you right by the brawny leg of the Queensboro/59th Street/Ed Koch Bridge:

Heading south, you discover that the whole west side of the southern part of the island is park-like:

Entering Southpoint Park, you discover it's mostly open space, though it encloses the grounds of the half-crumbled Smallpox Hospital as well as the nicely restored Strecker Memorial Laboratory.

This grassy mound suggested to me an ancient Indian burial ground. (That's right: I was using my imagination.)

For summertime photos of Southpoint Park, visit the Roosevelt Island Historical Society website. As you can see, I went in more sublime conditions: cold fog, heavy snowfall. Look closely at the photos above and you can see the falling flakes.

The dramatic snowfall meant I had the southern end of Roosevelt Island almost to myself as I reached Four Freedoms Park, for which, see the next post.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tompkinsville Park

You can walk on the gravestone of Daniel D. Tompkins (1774 – 1825) – financier, patriot, Governor of New York State, and Vice President under James Monroe – outside St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in Manhattan. I've done that. You can visit the park named for him, Tompkins Square Park, once an anarchists' playground, now a peaceful East Village oasis. I've done that. And you can still fail to realize that the Tompkinsville neighborhood of Staten Island, too, is named for Daniel D. Tompkins. I've done that also.

In 1815 Tompkins founded the settlement that became the neighborhood that bears his name. Much later, according to the Parks Department website, in 1932, during the reign of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the park in the heart of the neighborhood was officially dedicated to Tompkins. But the history of the site goes much further back, to the early 17th century, when it was the site of a spring known to colonial navigators, as the plaque pictured explains.

Now, there's the genesis of things, and then there's the physical presence. In Tompkinsville Park, the main item of note is the Hiker statue honoring the local soldiers who fought – not in the First World War, as with so many statues in New York City parks – but in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, where soldiers trekking through steamy jungles were nicknamed "hikers." This particular cast of Allen G. Newman's sculpture hiked here from another location, and for this I just have to quote the Parks Department website again:

The Hiker in Tompkinsville Park was the official monument of the United Spanish War Veterans and was located in front of Staten Island Borough Hall. The statue was moved to Tompkinsville Park in 1925 after a series of cars hit the statue.

You just can't make that stuff up.

Otherwise, the park is pleasant but not remarkable. It had a major renovation in 2007. Must have been pretty run-down before. In any case, much like nearby Tappen Park, which I visited on the same expedition, it's the kind of neighborhood green space that provides an essential break from the hard sprawl of buildings and pavement. I don't think Daniel D. Tompkins is turning over in that grave of his across the river.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tappen Park

Readers might be excused if they thought that I neglect Staten Island, New York City's oft-forgotten borough. If that has been the case, I hereby declare it no longer to be so. Richmond County has lots of great parks and open spaces, not to mention a Greenbelt, and I have visited a number of them, but alas, that was before starting this project.

To them I shall return, but the first Staten Island entry on this blog goes to humble Tappen Park, which I discovered on an excursion to eat lunch at Lakruwana, a celebrated Sri Lankan restaurant in the Stapleton neighborhood. And in itself, Tappen is something like the quintessential neighborhood park, with a fountain, a gazebo, London plane trees (of course, because this is New York City), places to sit, and paths to amble on (but amble slowly or you'll rapidly run out of amble).

The park dates from 1867. In olden times the place was called Washington Square, not to be confused with the much more famous Washington Square in Manhattan, which has retained its name (rather than being rechristened something like "NYU Plaza"). Then it was Stapleton Park. It became Tappen Park in 1934 honoring James J. Tappen, a soldier killed in France in World War I.

The pretty lamps hanging about the park are worth a look. But the remarkable thing about Tappen Park is the presence of the old Edgewater Village Hall, a beautiful Romanesque Revival building built in 1889, which together with the park merits a place in the National Register of Historic Places. (Edgewater, needless to say, vanished long ago amid the agglomeration of New York City. If you really want an Edgewater, there's still one in New Jersey.)

Here's a detail showing the arched windows and doors, the brickwork, and other architectural elements whose names I can never keep straight.

So go and admire. (And while you're there, grab a meal at Lakruwana.)