Greener Pastures: Bronx Parks Today Celebrate 125th Anniversary
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.
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. 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.
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. Recent additions to the Bronx Parks system include Concrete Plant Park and Baretto Point situated in post-industrial areas, Macombs Dam Park (on the site of old Yankee Stadium) and the Poe Park Visitors Center. Thus, 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.
Written by Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art and Antiquities
QUOTATION FOR THE DAY
"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered;
the point is to discover them."
(1564 - 1642)