Monday, May 2, 2011

A New York State of Mind

"Son, where you headed?" 

It wasn't a question I expected to hear walking up the street toward the park but it did come from a police officer and he had stopped the car and leaned toward me through the open passenger seat window of his car.

I walked between two parked cars and stepped toward him in the street, a twenty year old boy in New York for the first time with a sweated through shirt.

"Just going up to Columbia through the park," I said, pointing to a thin strip of green a block or so in front of us, the buildings of Morningside Drive perhaps 100 yards from the edge of the park and a hundred feet above us.

"Hey, I'll give you a ride," the officer said.  "Going up there myself."

I got in, a little puzzled, but decided to think of this as a good thing.  After a day of walking in New York, I was pooped.

It was the end of summer of 1963, the street was in Harlem and the park was Morningside Park, a greenbelt that separates the plateau on which Columbia University sits and Harlem. 

I remember the incident in a couple of ways.  One story is the naive Oregonian in New York, walking into a tough place that chewed up and spat out dufuses like him.  Another was the sensitive and knowing cop who never mentioned the reason why he offered the ride, just chatted about where I was from and where I was going and how come they would name a Division One football team after a Duck. 

Whatever the narrative, it was probably a good thing he picked me up.  I was grateful in the way people are grateful when they are a little embarrassed alongside the thankful part. 
Recently, in the city to see my grandkids, I headed back to Morningside Park to complete the journey I'd started and to learn about the park I never got to use.  It's a steep trail, and as I hit the halfway point on yet another switchback I paused for breath and thought it would be cool if someone came by and gave me a ride, like in a passing golf cart.

Morningside Park is one side of a narrow, five block wide tilting plateau that pokes up a hundred feet above Harlem to the East and 140 feet above the Hudson River to the West.  The park runs 13 blocks along the Harlem hillside.  It has a history of fits and starts and bad breaks.  The New York Parks Board had trouble deciding on a plan for the property.  Starting in 1871 through 1880 it rejected everything.
North end of Central Park
with Morningside Park to
the left and above.

Among its rejections was a plan from the designers of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose northern boundary of their great work is a couple of blocks away at 110th street.

Instead, the board hired a designer named Jacob Mould to rework what Olmsted/Vaux had provided.  He concentrated on the upper part of the park, developing the impressive masonry wall that encloses Morningside Drive running along the top above the rocky and dry soil that tumbles down to Harlem.   

However, Mould died in 1885 before it was all finished and the board had to come back to Olmsted/Vaux to complete the work.  Vaux was the lead and finished the work ten years later, counting it among the best things he ever did.  Vaux drowned the next year.
In time, the park traded in its recreational and contemplative function to become a firm dividing line between the swells on top of the ridge who could afford to go to Columbia and the poor at its bottom who had nowhere to go.  By the late fifties, it was better known for drugs and muggings and as the center of a big time community fight, one in a series of great battles on the Columbia campus and in Harlem during 1968, when Columbia University started building a new gymnasium on the south end. 

In 1983, fifteen years later, the chain link fences still stood around the excavation site scar.

However, a young man named Tom Kiel, a Columbia University undergraduate, formed an organization called "Friends of Morningside Park" and began negotiating a better outcome for the grounds and its neighbors

His was one of the many acts of civic heroism that ended the Great Crumbling of New York to be replaced by its Great Renewal. 

Six years after "Friends" came to life, the foundation site had become a waterfall and a pond.  Many other improvements followed, one of them a memorial to then Doctor Kiel, for whom Thomas Kiel Arboretum now stands near the old gymnasium construction site. 

Kiel had died in a bicycle accident in Australia. He was 36.

Following the park south, the north end of Central Park, at 110th street, is also a place of lovely renovation.  The original Olmsted/Vaux plan had called for a formal arboretum to be the centerpiece of this section, but it never happened. 

Instead, a clunky greenhouse structure, filled with exotic plants and specimens dominated the north end until it deteriorated and was torn down. 

Like all good renovations, this one went back to the roots of the original Olmstead design and surfaced English, Italian and French formal gardens.  It is a quiet and more compact space than almost any other place in the park.  In one of its chapels, a couple is getting married, tucked between flowering trees and with just enough room for the officiant and them. 

One more park has stolen my heart, a playground at 5th Avenue and 3rd Street in Brooklyn.  It is where the Revolutionary War almost came to an end with Washington's capture and the utter destruction of the Continental Army just seven weeks after the Declaration of Independence. 

During the Battle of Brooklyn, the British Army surprised and mauled the Americans throughout the day of August 27, 1776.  As the Americans retreated from what is now Prospect Park, another Olmsted job, toward Brooklyn Heights, they encountered an artillery position that was set up in and around what is now called the Old Stone House, a position that controlled the retreat route.  Out of options, a group of four or five hundred Americans from Maryland and Delaware fought the 2,000 British and Germans commanding the house and fields around it.

It went on for most of the day at a cost of 250 American lives.  What those lives purchased was enough time for a few thousand men to scramble through the swamps along Gowanus Creek to Brooklyn Heights and then cross over to Manhattan Island to fight another day.  This was America's Dunkirk.

Why this house stands is an equally perilous story. Inhabited on and off, a regrading of Fifth Avenue buried the bottom part of the house, allowing just the top half of the house to poke out.  Later, it was razed. 

But during its time, it held great significance as the clubhouse for local sports teams in the 1890s, including the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, the professional baseball team that ultimately became the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

Fortunately, the stones of its reconstruction were buried in place and they now embrace its remarkable history once more. 

Friends of Morningside Park Website

The Battle of Columbia University, 1968

Cool Guide to Central Park

Old Stone House Website

Timeline: From Bridegrooms to Dodgers

Team Roster and Stats: 1890 Bridegrooms' Season



  1. I enjoyed this piece as historic and supportive of the community value of parks.

  2. Fantastic piece Bob! Wonderful weaving of your own history into priceless bits of our nation's.