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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Snug Harbor

Staten Island: The Next Hot Borough?

The topic of real estate guarantees every New York City social event against uncomfortable lapses into silence. Among the non-rich people I usually hang with, the talk turns to where within the five boroughs it might still be possible for regular people to afford to live. Brooklyn having ascended out of reach, Staten Island has become, suddenly, one of the places that sound interesting to struggling "creative class" types.

View from Richmond Terrace, Staten Island across the Kill Van Kull to Bayonne, NJ

It isn't just my friends. The City Council is talking about increasing the frequency of Staten Island Ferry service. Council Speaker and mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn is proposing a whole new ferry line to West 39th Street in Manhattan, and her campaign visits to Staten Island are heavily covered. (Quinn knows, of course, that Mayor Bloomberg wouldn't have been elected in the first place without the votes of the relatively white and conservative Staten Island population.) Residents themselves are becoming more vocal in urging improvements to Staten Island Rapid Transit. And so on.

It's a big island and many parts are not easy to reach by public transportation from the ferry. Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens, a former home for retired sailors, is, fortunately, a quick bus ride from the terminal, and a visit to review a production by the Harbor Lights Theater Company (also suddenly newsworthy) was the perfect excuse to check out the park as well. Here's the Music Hall, a former vaudeville house, a couple of hours before showtime.

The park has numerous other notable structures, too.

Unlike the show, the Neptune Fountain played (sprayed) for very small audiences on the extremely hot day of our visit.

Snug Harbor houses botanical gardens that were in various stages of gorgeous hot-weather bloom.

A walk through the Allée leads to more gardens – but to a lot more as well, including the Carlo Grillo Glass House, grassy vistas, and the Connie Gretz Secret Garden with its hedge maze.

For me, the wetlands were Snug Harbor's biggest and happiest surprise. Nothing about the vista from the Richmond Terrace entrance – the impressive row of large museum-type buildings – suggests that this park pockets a soggy, quietly humming expanse of grassy waters. Nor does the crisply manicured terrain in the center, with its paved walkways, imply wetlands nearby.

But there they are!

A look back up the gentle hill provides a glimpse into the Chinese Scholar's Garden (which wasn't open that day) and what surely counts as one of New York City's most beautiful willow trees.

Great green masses grow everywhere here at the wild back end of Snug Harbor. You may be only a couple of hundred feet from a street with houses, but in most of this expanse you'd never know.

Here's one creature who seems to like this place as much as I do.

Finally defeated by the pounding sunshine, we headed out, but not before passing Cottage Row, which housed members of the professional staff back when this was a retirement spot for old sailors (the full name of the place is "Sailor's Snug Harbor," after all) and then provided space for artists-in-residence.

Altogether, Snug Harbor has a somewhat confused character. Gorgeous gardens and grounds contrast with buildings that look somewhat faded and even creaky, and with ruins like this old compass rose on the ground at the entrance.

And judging solely from the day of our visit on a hot but beautiful weekend, the place is severely underused. But as I said at the top, Staten Island may be getting hotter in culture and real estate terms. Those who live there now and in the future have a superb outdoor resource here. And I haven't covered all the gardens and attractions at Snug Harbor by any means.

While you're there, check out this bit of nearby history just up Richmond Terrace from the entrance.

The Neville House was built around 1770 by retired naval officer John Neville, which fits the theme of Snug Harbor perfectly. So does its 19th century life as the Old Stone Jug tavern. A judge also lived there at one time. One of the few pre-Revolutionary houses still standing in New York City, it retains many original details and is a New York City landmark and, according to Wikipedia, on the National Register of Historic Places, though there's no plaque indicating the latter, so don't take my word for it.

The house isn't done with us yet. In 2012 a new owner fell through the floor into a well.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

High Line of the Future

We dutifully covered the High Line some time ago. As the most heavily hyped new park in New York City, it needed only a brief post from me – you can find all the information and coverage your heart could desire with a quick internet search. After all, I was the college student who refused to read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when everybody else I knew was reading it, precisely because everybody else was reading it. (Still haven't read that book.)

So I didn't feel the need to put up a big splashy post about the park everyone else was cooing and fawning over. But this summer, the Friends of the High Line is leading a series of walks on the unfinished northern portion of the elevated abandoned train line (above 30th St.), and that was a stop the Park Odyssey just had to make.

To begin with: I'm not going to hold you in suspense. The two photos below show the very end of the High Line, the northern tip where it curves east before joining up with the Hudson rail yards, which are soon to be covered over with a giant platform that will support yet another huge new development of apartment buildings for rich people.

Rather than the carefully selected and landscaped native flora with which the High Line folks have dressed up the completed sections of the park, these little trees and this undergrowth has cropped up here naturally over the years from seeds that blew here or dropped off the freight trains that used to chug up and down all day long.

And we're off.

When this section is parkified, you won't be walking on this track. It'll be pulled up, or mostly pulled up, and there'll be easily navigable paving and pretty flowers to admire. This is more fun though. And it's not as if nothing blooms there now.

Interestingly, although this stretch is open now only for guided tours, it's been decorated with an installation of site-specific sculptures by Carol Bove. The artworks are, in fact, the professed justification for the walks.

Even in the city, nature takes over when we let it:

Smaller but more evocative than the sculptures is this old switch box.

I've mentioned before that the High Line isn't actually very high. It is lofty enough to give you a decent pigeon's eye view of Long Island Railroad trains in the yard and Circle Line tour boats motoring by...

...but you (or at least I) can mistake a passing cruise ship for just another building if you don't take a second to remember where you are.

This new section will surely be a nice addition to the High Line park, but we will lose something when the ratty charm of the actual abandoned tracks is entirely ripped away and replaced by a more manufactured sort. The remaining walking tours this summer are sold out, but you can sign up to receive announcements about the fall.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Van Cortlandt Park

Van Cortlandt Park is the fourth largest park in New York City, at 1,146 acres (according to the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy), or 1,122 acres if you ask the Parks Department.

It's been a park since 1888, but its history, from a European point of view, goes much further back, to the early Dutch settlers and specifically Adriaen Van der Donck (1620-1655), who came to own all the surrounding land in the Bronx after arriving in America as the schout (sheriff and public prosecutor) for the semi-independent Dutch colony run by Kiliaen van Rensselaer.

Van der Donck, who gave his name to the city of Yonkers, was one of the most fascinating characters of the early years of Dutch settlement of the Hudson Valley and New Amsterdam. (Read Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World for an intensely interesting history of the period; Van der Donck figures prominently.) In 1694 Jacobus Van Cortlandt bought some of Van der Donck's land, the genesis of a great New York City name and dynasty.

I always like to get to the heart of things, when such an organ exists, and for our Independence Day excursion to Van Cortlandt Park we aimed almost unconsciously for just that point: the now-overgrown burial ground of the Van Cortlandt family.

I don't know why I end up in the giant parks on the big holidays. Cinco de Mayo happened to be the day we planned our Park Odyssey visit to Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens – which turned out to be the location of the city's main Cinco de Mayo celebration. July 4 of this year turned out to be the perfect day for a jaunt north, to the last stop on the #1 train and the southwestern entrance to Van Cortlandt Park.

The park is so large it can seem overwhelming. We envisaged exploring just the southwestern corner and possibly making our way as far as a spot marked on the map with the mysterious name of Vault Hill. So, after bustling our way through a sea of barbecuers, we set off through the tall grass.

Quickly we came upon the southern end of Van Cortlandt Lake, an 18-acre body of water chock full of yellow perch, sunfish, brown bullhead catfish (catch those using hot dogs as bait! says the Department of Environmental Conservation website) and other fish. In the following photo, the building on the right is connected to one of the park's golf courses. Van Cortlandt Park is the site of the first public golf course in the country, which opened in 1895.

The park has several named trails. We headed north on the Putnam Trail which runs alongside the lake and then continues parallel to Tibbetts Brook (part of which was dammed back in the late 17th century to create the lake).

The trail passes some picturesque wetlands.

Long-abandoned rail lines run through the area too.

Looking for a side trail that was marked on the maps but nowhere to be found in the meat world, we passed under the Mosholu Parkway, then turned back and found a hole in the fence, which seemed to lead in the general direction we wanted. What it in fact led to was the Van Cortlandt Golf Course.

Only a few players were out on this very hot day, and they didn't pay us any mind as we scrambled south along the edge of the course, eventually escaping through another hole in another fence.

And bingo! Vault Hill, final resting place of generations of Van Cortlandts, of whom there are no more, which presumably is why no one's maintaining the place.

Turning from the burial ground we came upon raspberries about to ripen, and reaching the Parade Grounds, where the National Guard trained a century ago, discovered a tree that must have been here a good deal before that.

Much newer is the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, modeled I assume on the Central Park Conservancy, and co-existing with the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. The latter, among other things, raises funds for trail restoration, and I can think of one trail that, per my July 4 experience, needs to be restored into existence – but perhaps there's an explanation for the Case of the Missing Trail. Maybe something to do with its pink color on the PDF map? Or its existence in a different location as per Google Maps GPS – a location that also, in real life, is sans trail? I await enlightenment from the sages of Van Cortlandt.

Meanwhile, a visit to the rest of this giant park will have to wait for another day, as will exploration of the Van Cortlandt House Museum which, not surprisingly, wasn't open on the July 4 holiday.

Memorial Grove was open, though. This linden-dotted field honors men from the Bronx who served in World War Two and the Korean War. The throngs of barbecuers were mostly leaving it in peace – out of respect, I assume. As it should be.