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Greener Pastures: A History of Bronx Parks, 1888-2001

Photo of Children on a jungle-gym. Links to an enlarged photo

Parks is proud to present Greener Pastures: A History of Bronx Parks, 1888-2001. The exhibition includes 60 photographs, as well as vintage postcards, historic renderings, artifacts and memorabilia representing the colorful history of the Bronx Parks.

Highlights of the collection include images of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses at the opening of Orchard Beach in 1936, pictures of Bronx playgrounds from the early 20th century and photos of Hispanic Day at Yankee Stadium in 1972. An invitation to the 1899 Bronx Zoo opening, war medals recently unearthed from the time capsule in the Bronx Victory Memorial and a marble statue from the destroyed Zoborowski Mansion will also be on display.

Victory Memorial restoration. Links to enlarged photo.

Most of the photos are from the New York City Parks Photo Archive, with additional images on loan from the Bronx County Historical Society. The exhibition is curated by, Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities.

         The Bronx parks system is both a success story and a work in progress. In the 1870s the area that is now New York City’s northernmost borough was a sparsely populated terrain of varied topography and much natural beauty, known as the 23rd and 24th Wards and including part of lower Westchester County. Early in the decade esteemed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted helped design a network of parks and parkways to conform  to the existing features, but his plan was never realized.

Mayor La Guardia speaks at Orchard Beach. Links to anlarged photo.

 In 1881, journalist and reformer John Mullaly also recognized the scenic potential and “marked [natural] diversity” of this region, far beyond its few scattered parks and village greens. Anticipating further annexation and massive population growth, he formed the city’s first open-space advocacy organization, the New York Park Association. The Association argued that nearly 4,000 acres above the Harlem River should be seized immediately as parkland, since they required little improvement and their acquisition would dramatically increase the value of adjacent properties. The Association helped secure State legislation in 1883 to establish six large parks and three broad parkways. Political wrangling slowed the process, but on December 12, 1888, Bronx, Claremont, Crotona, St. Mary’s, Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Parks, as well as Crotona, Mosholu and Bronx-Pelham Parkways, were vested to the City of New York. These new holdings quintupled the City’s green space overnight.

Resources were scarce at first, but in the 1890s the now-famous zoo and botanical garden were chartered in Bronx Park, and the nation’s first municipal golf course opened at Van Cortlandt Park.

Peter Pan the Magician. Links to enlarged photo.

By 1902 the city had acquired St. James, Poe, Cedar, Rose Hill and Echo Parks; historic Drake Cemetery was incorporated in 1909 and the Seton estate ceded to the City in 1914. Macombs Dam Park opened in 1899, with tennis courts, baseball fields and a track, and eight Bronx playgrounds were built in 1914.

        Starting in 1934, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses directed a major overhaul and expansion of the Bronx parks. In his first six years he tripled the number of playgrounds in the borough. In 1936 the man-made crescent-shaped Orchard Beach opened, as did the mammoth pool at Crotona Park. In 1951, St. Mary’s Park became home to the City’s first post-war recreation center. Soundview and Ferry Point Park rose upon landfill. The new Henry Hudson Parkway (1938) and Major Deegan Expressway (1955) linked parks but, alas, also bisected them.

Men playing bocce. Links to an enlarged photo.

 In the late 1960s, with greater community input, pools and vest pocket parks were built where needed, and parks programming embraced the contemporary arts scene and a broader ethnic mix. Today more than 130 dedicated citizens organizations have formed partnerships with government to revive long-neglected amenities like the Bronx River, and to reinvigorate local parks, playgrounds and community gardens. Parks’ own efforts have included wetlands preservation, reforestation and species reintroduction.

         Though the borough has long been saddled with a reputation for urban decay, the reality is that a full quarter of its acreage is parkland, much of it bucolic, and filled with unique attractions from Edgar Allen Poe’s last home and the lavishly carved Heinrich Heine Fountain to legendary Yankee Stadium. The foresight of park proponents such as Mullaly helped ensure that the borough, whose population is now more than 15 times what it was in 1888, would truly be a land of greener pastures.

The Arsenal Gallery is located on the third floor of the Arsenal building at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue in Central Park.
Gallery hours are 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday
Admission is free.

The exhibition will run until
September 6, 2001.
For more information, please contact the
Curator/Public Art Coordinator at 212.360.8163.

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