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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crotona Park

On the evidence of my recent visit, 127-acre Crotona Park is spookily empty during the off-season. I had the southern segment almost completely to myself as I paused for a water and snack break. This area of the former Bathgate Woods is mostly feature-free, save a large playground and a couple of ballfields. When leaf-free as well, it just feels barren.

Long humps of rock echo the rock ridges of Echo Park.

Indian Lake, closer to the center of the park, is Crotona Park's main natural attraction. Unlike some of the more well-known bodies of water in New York City parks, this one isn't man-made.

Planted around it are almost 30 different species of tree, says the Parks Department website.

By the lake is a modest amphitheater, topped by a boulder with graffiti that, well, could be worse. Is this boulder the "Indian Rock" described by Daniel Wolfe in this Bronx Board memoir? I can't tell for sure. (Wolfe also says the lake was drained in 1938 in a search for a Peter Levine, a New Rochelle boy who'd been kidnapped, to much press coverage. The boy's mutilated body was instead found in Long Island Sound.)

From the other side, in front of the boathouse, the lake's semi-iced-over condition was manifest. Equally obvious: the blasé attitude of the geese towards the cold water. They don't call them Canada geese for nothing.

Crotona Park has more tennis courts than I would ever have imagined - 20 of them. A few were even being used in spite of the high winds. (There's also a swimming pool. No pictures of that in March.)

At the north end of the park, a lone pair of lovers sat on a whale of a rock (far right), a rock that reminded me, once again, as firmly as did the apartment buildings rising behind it: Don't forget, this is New York City.

Yes, this is New York City, today said to be the safest big city in America. Crotona Park, though, is reputed to be its most dangerous park. In 2012, 28 felony crimes occurred here. The ancient Greek colony of Croton in southern Italy, for which the park is named, was famed for its physicians, according to Herodotus. But that would be no comfort if you were an assault victim here in the Bronx – even if you were familiar with the misty history of ancient Greece.

The huge rock masses of NYC's terrain – Manhattan Schist, Fordham Gneiss, Indian Rock, whatever we name them – are far more ancient, of course. They'll continue to bear witness to whatever humans build and tear down, and do with (and to) each other, for as long as these lands are peopled. And it's probably a safe bet that couples like the ones in the photo above will continue to find moments of solace and peace in spots like this.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Claremont Park (and a Note on Birds)

Continuing my Bronx adventure, I left Richman (Echo) Park, walked south on Webster Avenue, crossed under the Cross Bronx Expressway, and entered a much larger green called Claremont Park, one of the oldest parks in the Bronx.

But let's stop right here and make a note on the changed terrain of a great city.

Webster Avenue, according to the Parks Department website, used to go by another name: Mill Brook.

Today it's a wide thoroughfare lined with auto repair shops and fast food joints. And that's New York City in a nutshell for you. There is a housing development in the borough called the Mill Brook Houses. But to all appearances, there is no longer a brook.

Claremont Park's history is much more interesting than its landscape. Where once rose the Zborowski Mansion now sits a plain-jane gazebo. Where the apple orchards of the Zborowski estate once grew, now grows grass. Where once lay the "infamous Black Swamp" with its livestock-swallowing maw, now earthworms happily churn black dirt.

The area was once part of the Morris estate. Then in the mid-19th century Elliott and Anna Zborowski de Montsaulain bought this parcel, wisely naming it "Claremont" instead of giving it their own name. Some 40 years later the city purchased an enormous acreage of Bronx tracts, including Claremont, for parks and parkways. The mansion became a parks department headquarters for a while, but was torn down in 1938. Here's an old photo:

Alas, today there's no sign of Claremont's aristocratic past, unless you count this admittedly handsome stairway entrance

But where the mansion once stood, there's just that gazebo.

Otherwise, what you've got is pretty much your basic city park, though it's a fairly big one.

Here's one unusual feature: Fenced off for the season behind these yellow buildings is an outdoor swimming pool.

Naturally, the park is lovelier in the spring and summer. I was there on a sunny, windy Saturday in March. The temperature was in the 50s but the populace seemed not to have caught up to the weather. Few people were using any of the four parks I visited on this Bronx outing. The Six to Celebrate website has a nice photo of Claremont Park in greener times here.

Claremont turned out to be a good location for wildlife sightings, though. A gnarly tree sprouted a squirrel tail:

And my wildlife sighting of the day (nay, of the season) came just as I was leaving Claremont Park thinking, Well, that was pretty boring. Like the squirrel, this woodpecker was too shy to show its face to the camera, but it was a woodpecker, all right – I heard that unmistakeable rat-a-tat-a-tat before I saw it.

While I wasn't expecting to spy a woodpecker, I was even more shocked that I was able to identify it with near certainty. This, my friends, is a female downy woodpecker.

The fact is, I'm almost never able to find, either in my old Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds or in my new Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region, a picture of a bird I've spotted in the wild. I can only conclude that I've discovered a whole raft of new species over the years, many of them right here in New York City.

Most recently it was a swimming and diving creature, black, smaller than a mallard and with a thin beak but otherwise duck-shaped, in the water off Hudson River park. I have named it the North River Diving Duck until otherwise enlightened. Thank you. (No, it wasn't a cormorant; it swam and was shaped like a duck.)

Anyway, I was insanely delighted to find pictures and descriptions of this Bronx bird in not one but both books. Although you can't see its head in the photo, I saw the whole bird. And I hereby assert that it was a female downy woodpecker. I assert it. I do.

Rejuvenated, I continued to the next and largest park on my day's itinerary: Crotona Park.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Richman (Echo) Park

Heading for the Bronx to visit two sizable parks I'd never been to – Claremont and Crotona – I stopped first at a much smaller park I assumed would be a footnote to my Bronx expedition. But Richman (Echo) Park turned out to be the most dramatic stop of the day.

There's plenty of ice age rock to go around in this city – the famous Manhattan schist, of course, as well as the Fordham gneiss. But Richman (Echo) Park has two of the most majestic spines of boulder anywhere in the city. Is this part of the Fordham gneiss? I'm going to have to ask a Bronx-savvy geologist. Meanwhile, take a look. Here, the rock rises behind a small, typical play area, while a polar bear prances at geologic speed off to the side:

From high atop one of the rock ridges, you get a good sense of the scope of the formations, and as a bonus, a nice view of Tremont Baptist Church.

Do you see a face snarling at you, like an open-mouthed tiger's, in the central protrusion of this rock formation? I do:

The beast seems to be disdaining the apartment buildings behind him, as if the ancient rock considers mankind's temporary structures beneath its contempt.

Meanwhile, trees grow where they can – here at the juncture of primordial rock and manmade walls and stairs, and below where there's a bit of space between the huge ridge and a smaller boulder.

Note the hooded human on the bench, basking in the majesty of it all.

It's said that if you shout between the two rock masses you get the echo that gives the park its traditional name. The newer name honors a 20th century city official named Julius J. Richman, a local leader who was, among other things, chairman of the Twin Parks Association.

"Twin Parks"? Now, which parks were those? Something I missed?

Alas, no parks, apparently; Twin Parks was an early-1970s urban renewal housing project.

An informative post on Forgotten NY recounts a walk from the Grand Concourse to Parkchester, giving historical and topographical context to this topographically impressive park. I've always wondered why the Bronx has numbered streets just like Manhattan and yet they curve and curl around each other like blind spaghetti. It's the topography, I learned, that prevents the Bronx from sustaining an flat, regular grid of streets.

Richman (Echo) Park is a prime example. Walking around it is like riding a heavy roller coaster, slow as the ice age but infinitely sturdier than any cyclone.