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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park

One more jewel in the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy's necklace of green (we've already visited others) is this riverside stretch along the Hudson River just north of Battery Park itself, named for Robert F. Wagner Jr., Mayor of New York from 1954 to 1965. Wagner is known for finally breaking away the city's Democratic Party from control by Tammany Hall. He presided over the genesis of the New York Mets, Lincoln Center, and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. On the negative side, his frosty attitude toward the gay community – attempting to rid the city of gay bars to "improve" its image prior to the 1964 World's Fair – makes it seem quite all right to feature his Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park in the dead of a snowy winter.

This sculpture is half of Tony Cragg's "Resonating Bodies" – this piece resembles a tuba.

The other piece (not shown) looks like a lute, and that's the one I should have photographed because I was on my way to an early music concert at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, conveniently located in Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park. Plenty of lutes – theorbos, to be exact – but no tubas.

But honestly, I didn't recognize this as tubaform. Probably because it was so cold I was walking as fast as possible. If anything, what I got from it was human genitalia and an elephant's trunk. YMMV, as they say.

Sculpture aside, the park was more or less deserted. The entrance to the museum is on the street side, not in the interesting hexagonal part of the building, so the pedestrian traffic was anywhere but back in the icy wind off the river.

Here's the Museum of Jewish Heritage (subtitled "A Living Memorial to the Holocaust," lest we forget). Two sides of its distinctive hexagonal architecture, anyway.

Finally, it would be wrong to leave Wagner Park without a gaze at the Hudson River, rough and grey on this January day, and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Carroll Park

During my many years in Brooklyn I found myself in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood many times, but never visited Carroll Park. When I headed out there on the F train the other day to correct that lapse, I was expecting more greenery. I think that's because when I think of Carroll Gardens I think of its residential blocks lined with very deep front gardens. The park, though, turns out to be mostly for active recreation.

However, between a big playground area and the ball courts is a section where you can amble around one of NYC's many World War One memorials, this one a Soldier and Sailor monument sculpted by Brooklyn-born Eugene H. Morahan and dedicated in 1921. The sad image on the side you see in the photo to the right represents a soldier grieving for his slain comrades.

Carroll Park is old – Brooklyn's third-oldest park, once a private community garden, acquired by the City of Brooklyn for the public in 1853. Who's Carroll? I never knew until now. The neighborhood, the street, and the park are named for Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737-1832), the only Roman Catholic to have signed the Declaration of Independence and the last living signatory, dying in 1832 at age 95.

Why, I wondered, is a Brooklyn neighborhood named for a Maryland dignitary? Immediately I thought of the Maryland troops who enabled the safe escape of Washington's army in the Battle of Brooklyn, but it took a printed book (The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn) and not internet research to learn that I was right, more or less: Charles Carroll had sent that regiment.

I had speculated that the area's early-19th-century Irish settlers, feeling proud of the only Declaration signer who shared their Popery, had come up with the name, but in fact the neighborhood didn't get its name until the 1960s. Before that it was just part of "South Brooklyn," a designation that's dropped out of common use. So what was the park called before the 1960s? Readers? Anyone?

Another far-fetched association Charles Carroll had with the Borough of Brooklyn, which is also known as Kings County, is the coincidence that in the 17th century his Carroll ancestor (once "Ó Cearbhaill") emigrated to Maryland from King's County in Ireland (now County Offaly). Something else for the meaningless curious fact file.

I've drifted far from the topic of Carroll Park, but the fact is Carroll Park isn't very interesting. The coolest thing about it is the decorative cast iron gates and fencing, which date from a big 1994 restoration.

It also boasts one of the most beat-up chess tables I've seen in any park:

Oh, and a big rock someone drew a goofy face on:

Is the rock grinning triumphantly at having killed the tree? Or was the tree a victim of Sandy? What's that big hole up the middle of the trunk? Or is there some other explanation for the rock being more emotionally accessible than the tree – which is, in its defense, dead? In any case, I had to look pretty hard for a real dose of chlorophyll and oxygen. I discovered a modest one in the little fenced-off garden area pictured to the left.

I found some more serious vegetation when I ventured out of the park and a couple of blocks down Smith St. to the Transit Garden, so named because it's on MTA property. (Its website headline: Our new shed!)

Transit Garden or no, I wasn't ready to get back on public transit right away, I needed more of a leg stretch, so I headed for another "park." Further south along Smith Street, under where the F train rises into the sky, are two abandoned, fenced off, gloomy recreation areas called St. Mary's Park and St. Mary's Playground. They look like more like movie sets for a gang war film than anything that was ever fit for children.

Across the street I spotted a sign with a truly wacky science-fiction message:

Building for the future is surely a good idea. But transforming the past? That's going to take some serious wormhole action. And obviously, they're working on just that behind the tall fence, a short block from the Gowanus Canal.

Having ventured this far, I concluded by hoofing it a few more blocks to an open but deserted playground called Admiral Triangle, which I checked out only because of its curious name. A quick internet search has not revealed an explanation for "Admiral," but this geocaching website is helpful for the other half of the name: "It is interestingly named because the park is a triangle, surrounded by trees spaced around it in a triangle, that is within a street that is also a triangle." Now you know.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Central Park History

History pokes up through the soil of Central Park in so many places. There's geologic history, of course, in the backs and shoulders of schist around which Frederick Law Olmstead crafted the landscape we know today. But equally interesting are the relics of human history. Recently we scouted out three such spots.

A historical sign marks the location of Seneca Village, an uptown settlement where several hundred free blacks and immigrants lived from the 1820s until it was demolished in 1857 to make way for the park. A few remains are visible in the area of the West 80s, including this foundation of a house.

Next up, chronologically, is a survey bolt believed to be one of the original bolts hammered into the ground to mark the sites of future street intersections per the 1811 grid. The streets were never laid out in the area that became Central Park, of course, but the surveyors had no way of knowing there'd be a huge park here. The bolt is in an "undisclosed" location (urban explorers don't want it disturbed) but it's not hard to find if you do a little internet digging. It's near the lower left corner of this photo:

Finally, in the Ramble you'll find the Ramble Cave, also known as Indian Cave because the chamber appears to have been leveled by human hands in ages past and used for some purpose by Native Americans. Rediscovered during the building of the park, it was developed for rowers in the nearby Lake to explore, but not surprisingly, being a creepy hole in the ground it attracted disturbing doings. In 1929 The New York Times told us that the cave was a primary location for arrests of men for "annoying women" in the park. Accordingly the Parks Department sealed it up in the 1930s.

Today you can see the location and the staircase leading down to the cave from above, but you can't get in. I wonder: Is it really fully "sealed"? Who or what is living down there, in there, now?

I can't resist ending with these shots of The Lake in winter. Honestly, my best Central Park experiences have almost all been in winter. The beauty of this grandly sculptured land becomes starker and more striking when the water is frozen and the trees bare.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Verdi Square

I must have come in and out of the subway station at 72nd Street where Broadway crosses Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan a hundred times without realizing it's situated in the midst of a plaza that, by a stretchy definition, might be considered a park. Verdi Square has seating, landscaping, shrubbery, and a tree with an artificial owl in it. What more could you ask?

If nothing else, it provides an opportunity to gaze at the Ansonia, one of the city's grandest (former) hotels. According to Wikipedia, the turn-of-the-20th-century residential hotel's famous residents included Arturo Toscanini, Igor Stravinsky, and Enrico Caruso. The legendary tenor, in an early example of what today we call "pre-war" real estate preferences, apparently "chose the hotel to live in because of its thick walls."

It's fitting then that the adjoining plaza honors Giuseppe Verdi, one of opera's greatest composers. The monument, with a sculpture by Pasquale Civiletti, was dedicated in 1906, just five years after Verdi's death. The statues on the base below Verdi represent some of the most famous characters from his operas (Falstaff, Aida, Otello, and Leonora of La forza del destino).

Standing guard over the square (actually, like most Manhattan "squares," it's a triangle), an owl keeps the composer company.

I don't know the significance of the astronomy-themed paving design. If you do, please leave a comment!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Septuagesimo Uno – NYC's Smallest Park?

Tiny Septuagesimo Uno has something of the feel of a medieval alley (and something of the moldy smell too). According to the Parks Department website, Mayor Lindsay undertook a "vest pocket park" initiative in the 1960s to increase the amount of open space in the densely developed Manhattan grid. At just 0.04 acres, Septuagesimo Uno, off 71st Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues, is a good example. I've heard of a few others, specifically in Harlem, which I plan to investigate. But I'm pretty sure I'm safe in saying that not many parks resulted from the vest pocket initiative.

Originally and boringly known as "71st Street Plot," the park certainly deserved a name change. Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern's choice of the Latin for "seventy-one" was an odd one, but I'm not complaining; the varied and the strange help make New York City the infinite wonderland that it is.

Just as its giant cousin a few blocks away is splashed with banners seeking contributions to the Central Park Conservancy, Septuagesimo Uno isn't shy about begging for alms – specifically, water for its "plants, flowers, schrubs and trees." I was particular taken with the Yiddish-ish misspelling of "shrubs," but unfortunately hadn't brought any water.

The widely spaced paving bricks, alcove-like rear, and heavy iron gate at the entrance (closed at night) make this parklet a surprisingly resonant space. You could almost be in the Old City of a European (or let's say alt-European) metropolis.

Taking landscape-oriented photos here was a challenge for me. This place is basically a corridor. To offer a sense of it in a snapshot means angling into portrait mode. So here goes:

If you have a little extra time and you're on the Upper West Side during daylight hours, dash into Septuagesimo Uno for a moment and pretend you're in a city much older than the 19th century grid that made Manhattan into the huge block of warrens it is today. And judge for yourself whether you've come to the smallest park in NYC. Me, I'm withholding judgment.