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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bayview Terrace Park

Our attempt to visit Bayview Terrace Park in Staten Island was a failure, like our try for the Olmsted-Beil House, though of a somewhat different kind. The latter hasn't been developed or opened to the public. The former, while of less historical interest, is more of a mystery, as we could neither enter nor get much sense of what (if anything) we were missing. The nearby Dead End sign turned out to be an appropriate touch.

Viewed through its gate, the site is obscured by tall grass topped by a yellow sign bearing an even less promising message. You can see the bay, though. As the Parks Department website says, "The watery vista and 17-foot drop to the beach below clearly show the origins of Bayview Terrace's name."

Intriguingly, the website goes on as follows: "The park itself extends out through the beach and into the water. Nearly 90 percent of the parkland lies under the water."

So that's the secret of Bayview Terrace Park: it lies beneath the waves.

The endless variety of New York City's parks never ceases to amaze me.

And here's another indication of a mysterious past: "Though the seaside road remains on maps, in reality, it has washed away." True enough, my 1994 Hagstrom atlas does show a road right along the waterline, though one without a name.

Approaching the gate, we found the park locked, like a community garden during unattended hours. And it is, in fact, a garden, though it's also Parks property, a garden "dedicated to natural methods of cultivation" and whose tending "remains in the hands of the volunteer gardeners," which explains its obviously part-time hours.

These peapods looked as anxious to get out as we were to get in, but to no avail. Maybe another day. Meanwhile, every time I visit Staten Island I become more convinced that the place will never give up all its secrets.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Blueberry Park and the Beach at Mayberry Promenade

City parks don't come much more nondescript than Blueberry Park, a public patch of dirt, grass and trees inserted into the private Atlantic Village community in Eltingville, Staten Island. Here it is, in all its pretty-much-nothingness.

As you might imagine, I spend a good deal of time on the New York City Parks and Recreation website, which is loaded with a great deal of useful information. Rarely if ever have I come across a park page there with absolutely nothing on it. If you want to know what that looks like, visit Blueberry Park online.

Fortunately for the residents, Atlantic Village also has its own beach, which runs parallel to a street colorfully called Mayberry Promenade. (There's also a Strawberry Lane here. It's a berry theme; there are no actual berry patches that I know of.)

But as the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy approaches, the aftermath is evident along the strand.

This was once a nicely laid out entryway. The staircase is still navigable but partially crumbled.

The jetty has certainly seen better summers.

Across the bay is New Jersey, which was hit just as badly. But if you simply look out over the water, all looks peaceful - same as it ever was.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Olmsted-Beil House

Most of these posts recount successful visits to parks, but it's fun to document failures as well. We heard that the Parks Department had taken over the Olmsted-Beil house on Staten Island, where Frederick Law Olmsted lived and worked, and thus we imagined that it, or at least its grounds, had opened to the public. How wrong we were!

The property is guarded by beefy, barking dogs (thankfully behind a neighbor's fence) and ferocious mosquitoes, so of course we didn't dare intrude beyond the "No Trespassing" sign that hung incongruously with the pleasantly welcoming historical information sign. These photos were taken by my top-secret drone camera. Even so, getting a good view of the house itself through the thick overgrowth isn't really possible.

This beat-up old annex is a little more accessible, if you dare to access it.

In the late 1600s the original land grantee, Petrus Tesschenmakr, built a one-room house which, according to the historical sign, "still survives as part of the basement" of the house that Olmsted inhabited in the mid-19th century. ("Tesschenmakr" might mean "bag-maker" in Dutch, or some old version of Dutch. On the other hand, it might not.) Olmsted called the property "Tosomok" (and what does that mean? I haven't found out, so I'm wildly postulating that Olmsted made up a Native American-sounding version of "Tesschenmakr") and turned what had been a wheat farm into a tree nursery, planting cedars of Lebanon, some of which still grow there, although someone better than I at identifying trees will have to certify whether this gnarly survivor is one of them:

Bobbing around back, my drone camera got a good view of how very un-maintained this property is.

The Parks Department has owned the house since 2006, a very short time in the history of the house but long enough, you'd think, to do some clearing and provide some public access. You'd think. That the "perpetual protection" indicated in the historic sign should be provided by hostile dogs and bloodthirsty insects was a surprise to me. Anyway, for now we'll have to settle for black-ops penetration and satellite views.

If you squint at the lower right corner of the above satellite image, you can see Google offering a "Report a problem" link. I have a problem: the Olmsted-Beil House isn't open. What do you think, should I click?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Blue Heron Park

Near the end of the last century, I found myself at the Great Blue Heron Festival, many hours deep into the distant reaches of Upstate New York. As a result I came to associate great blue herons and other large, exotic birds with far-off, countrified lands where sooty cities were only a distant memory or a dream.

Around the same time, decades of work by Staten Islanders were coming to fruition with the dedication of a park in their borough named for that same bird. Little did I know that blue herons, far from shunning the vicinities of cities, frequented Staten Island.

We didn't see any herons the day we visited Blue Heron Park, except for the sculptured one on the front gate and the heron-shaped blazes painted on trees to mark the trails. Maybe the real birds were attending a music festival upstate. Who can ken the ways of the heron? What we did find was abundant natural scenery, the rich smells of wet and wooded lands, and the muggy exhalations of several beautiful ponds.

The duckweed that coats the surface of this pond with a sheen of green is just the right setting for these peaceful-seeming creatures, who, in the absence of herons, will have to do.

Blue Heron Park has its ponds and its ferny woods…

…and its wetlands in between.

One pond was covered in lily pads, and at least one is a kettle pond left by a retreating glacier, like Forest Park's Strack Pond.

Though these waters are choked with life in early September, there are clear patches where you can see reflected blue sky and white clouds.

The trails aren't always well marked, but over the short distances involved here, it would be an accomplishment to get really lost. At the Nature Center we talked at length to a conversation-starved Urban Park Ranger.

He knew his beat but couldn't tell us anything about the site that had drawn us to Staten Island that afternoon in the first place: nearby Olmsted-Beil House, the former home of Frederick Law Olmsted himself, acquired by the Parks Department a few years ago but, as we had discovered earlier in the day, still not open to the public. Some words and pictures on that, and a few other parklands on Richmond's south shore, in the next few posts.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Calvert Vaux Park

It's a sad irony that a park bearing one of the most famous names in the history of New York City parks – Calvert Vaux, who was the architectural half of the legendary Olmsted and Vaux partnership that created Central and Prospect Parks – has no architecture, nor even any landscaping to speak of.

Calvert Vaux Park is not a park most of us ever hear about. I only discovered it when exploring Coney Island Creek, which it borders to the south. My circa-1994 Five Borough street atlas calls it Dreier-Offerman Park, a $40 million renovation of which was supposed to be part of a big capital project under Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC initiative. It doesn't look like that ever got underway. But the date of the announcement gives a clue: August 14, 2007. Before the crash.

The park's featurelessness made me wonder what it's used for now. Coincidentally, the only mention of Calvert Vaux Park I'd ever seen in the news came just a few days ago, when a man was killed there by his own remote-controlled model helicopter. That at least provided one answer to the question: What do people do here?

In fact, model aircraft fields are officially noted on the Parks Department web page for Calvert Vaux. We visited several days before the fatal accident. No one was flying 40-pound model helicopters just then. Practically no one was there at all, in fact. As we entered, four young men carrying fishing rods were riding their bicycles out. That was pretty much it.

We did see a great many migratory birds, though none close enough to identify. Not that I could have identified them close up, either – I'm terrible at birdwatching. It's not just ignorance, it's something occult. Show me a bird close enough that I can get a good, clear photo of it. Then watch me try to find that bird in any of my several bird books. It's never there. Never. I've begun to think I have a knack for discovering new species.

Anyway, I can at least identify these creatures as birds:

I'm not sure about these wormy things, though. What will they be when they bust out of their webby nest?

At first, as with Kaiser Park across the creek, we weren't at all sure we'd get a good look at the water. Though the view through the fence did at least let us orient ourselves: Note the famous Coney Island Parachute Jump to the far left.

But after a while things began to open up.

Zooming in provided a look at the beach we discovered off Kaiser Park across the bay/creek.

After a while, you come to a stretch where you can stomp your way through the tall grass to the water's edge. There you're greeted by a typically urban combination of natural beauty and human scribbles. That's the Verrazano Bridge in the hazy distance.

Glaringly incongruous amid these undeveloped acres is this humble but obviously modern bicycle rack.

Is it a promise, or at least a hint, of things to come? Will Calvert Vaux Park ever become one of the "jewels of our park system" Mayor Bloomberg envisioned six years ago? A Walk in the Park had a pretty sour attitude about the prospect back in June of last year. But greater miracles have happened.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Kaiser Park

Back in June of this year, a trial-run ferry took a boatload of ferry-boosters from Wall Street to Coney Island. The folks behind this proposed new service conducted the one-time trip to demonstrate how the line would run, and to raise funds to improve the pier at Coney Island Creek where the ferries would dock.

On the way we passed barges and tugs, and crossed under the Verrazano Bridge, impressive and sometimes even sublime sights but common enough ones for New Yorkers.

What isn't commonly seen by most New Yorkers is Coney Island Creek itself.

Before I began this park odyssey, I'd been to Coney Island by subway, by car, and by bicycle. I knew you didn't have to cross a body of water to get there. So why Coney Island? Because it was an island once. And a clue to that history is Coney Island Creek, which separates the western part of the "island" from Brooklyn's Gravesend neighborhood.

The creek begins as an inlet off Gravesend Bay. As the ferry entered the inlet we saw, to our surprise, a sandy beach with a handful of people on it.

This isn't part of the famous beach at Coney Island where millions of people cavort every summer. That's along the south coast. This, by contrast, is an untended stretch of sandy land off a completely different part of the island, facing north toward "mainland" Brooklyn.

Further into the Creek we spotted a number of boats washed up and left to rot last year by Sandy, and a more historic wreck: the Yellow Submarine, hand-built by a man who wanted to use it to raise the Andrea Doria.

A man, probably wondering what a big ferryboat was doing drifting around in Coney Island Creek, serenaded us on the tuba.

The return trip saw us through a spectacular sunset. But it left us wondering what that beach was, and the grassy areas adjacent to it, and how could we get there?

So one recent weekend we set off to find out. From the Stillwell Ave./Coney Island subway station we walked up to Neptune Ave. and headed west to where, according to the map, the creek bent south. Sure enough, water came into view after a while. At first we thought a glimpse through a gas station fence was the best we'd get.

But then we found the entrance to Kaiser Park, which is right by Mark Twain Intermediate School for the Gifted and Talented, and is named for a principal of that school back when it was more humbly known as Mark Twain Junior High School. Nearby, too, is a huge Greenthumb garden, more of a farm than a garden, with a big variety of crops growing, and even people working in the fields.

And then, as we entered the park: Payoff!

Here's the yellow submarine again, this time from shore.

I can't resist the visual fascination of once-developed or industrial but currently non-landscaped shoreline. I had to look twice to realize this was a drain.

Aside from a few people setting up to shoot a video in one of Kaiser Park's many athletic fields, the only major activity on this particular day was fishing.

A big tidal mudflat was filled in to create the 26-acre park, beneath which, according to a historical sign, "numerous shipwrecks lie." If you dug up and fixed up all the shipwrecks buried around New York City's hundreds of miles of coastline and gave them to the ancient Greeks, they could try again and really conquer Sicily this time.

At the far western end of the waterside path, an avenue of trees leads back out to the street.

Here at the western end the park per se comes to an end, but go through an opening and there it is: the mysterious beach we saw from the ferry. Untended, hardly anyone there. A father and son, a couple of lovers, a kayaker, and a guy wading way out into the middle of the cove with a fishing net.

There you have it. New York City and its parks: a place of endless endlessness and infinite discovery. Next up: Calvert Vaux Park, on the other side of the creek. Stay tuned.