Picnicking in the Eternal Return

(re)Discovering New York City’s Greenspaces

Every year, out of the depths of winter’s hibernation, from the half-frozen humus, spring returns. As farmers growing crops, or landscape architects designing parks, humans serve as the custodians of nature’s primaveral optimism. Custodians at our best, ungrateful profligates at our worst. In our role as the latter, New York City’s waterways have become clogged with pollution.

Once vibrant with marine life, the bays that encircle our boroughs fell into a toxic hibernation during the 20th century winter of industrialization. In this period New Yorkers had an “out of sight, out of mind” relationship to pollution; whether the toxic byproducts from manufacturing, dumped into the Gowanus Canal, or more macabre disposals (which provide the namesake for so-called “Dead Horse Bay” in the Rocakaways), it seems like many residents of the last century were just hoping we could drive away from industrial waste and fuhgeddaboutit. Only with the turn of the millennium did the city begin to thaw to the reality of our polluted waterways. The battle against environmental degradation is far from over — but in recent years these once-neglected inlets have gained new reasons for hope.

Credit is due to the city government for Barreto Point Park, Bushwick Inlet Park, Gantry State Park, and Hudson River Park — these are all recent parks built on former industrial sites once known as “brownfields” (yuck). In 2016 another development was added to this list, on the former site of the Bush Terminal Company. A 19th century oil refining operation, in the 20th century Bush Terminal was converted into docks for maritime freight, before eventually falling into dereliction during the city’s bankruptcy in the ‘70s.

Forty years of unintentional re-wilding has helped to green those brownfields. Now modern engineering initiatives are helping as well. On the shores of Bush Terminal, The Billion Oyster Project (covered in a previous issue of this magazine) has built reefs from discarded oyster shells, which now house local varieties of fish and seaweed. Where there were once docks, trees have risen from rich maritime topsoil, and Bush Terminal Park is one of the rare riverside parks in New York City that can boast of a (small but growing) forest.

New foliage also serves as a home for the return of native wildlife. A wide variety of birds call these trees home, and the park is now a prime destination for bird watching. New York’s ever-present gulls share turf with ducks, owls, sparrows, and even, on occasion, the rare Eurasian wigeon. Not to be confused with its common American sibling, the Eurasian wigeon stopped in the park on its spring migration in past years — to much excitement from the community — and local birdwatchers are hopeful that (s)he might do so again in 2021.

Bush Terminal birders are also looking out for the appearance of ospreys. These fish-eating raptors make their nests along the New England coastline, and are well-documented Brooklynites. The New York Harbor Osprey Initiative built a platform in Bush Terminal Park several years ago (certainly the best price in town for a waterfront apartment with views of Manhattan) but it has yet to attract any permanent nesting. For any ospreys reading this, researching potential sites for relocation, allow me to break down some of the highlights of Bush Terminal Park, and the surrounding area…

Poets and musicians have extolled the bittersweet melancholy of winter. As spring approaches, these perpetually depressive artists like to find solace from dreaded sunny days by cemetery gates. If you live in southwestern Queens, or Eastern Brooklyn, there’s no shortage of options for your retreat from spring’s saccharine warmth. Sometimes called the “Cemetery Belt” this stretch boasts over a dozen cemeteries, millions of New Yorkers interred within. But what to do if, after a morning spent moping amongst gravestones, you have been so thoroughly rejuvenated by the fresh air and the peaceful landscape, that you feel ridiculous wearing a gothic frown?

Fortunately, not all the greenspaces along Cemetery Belt are reserved for the dead. Forest Park and Highland Park stand out as an oasis of vitality among the necropolis. If these cemeteries are notable for their “evergreen” timelessness (NYC researcher John Rousmaniere says that Evergreen Cemetery was named for symbolism first, and not until decades later were pine trees imported from the Catskills) then the parks are notable for the diversity of their forests, which rise and fall according to the seasons. Brimming with springtime vitality, these parks are borderlands between the worlds of the living and the dead, the animal and the human… or at the very least, the border line between Brooklyn and Queens.

The neighborhoods that ring this strip of inter-borough greenery are unimaginably diverse, and within the parks themselves, picnics and cookouts provide ample evidence of the varied cuisines to be found in the surrounding neighborhoods. Coming in from the north side, you’ll find a vast swathe of Eastern Europe represented locally, with pork products dominating the culinary landscape. Ridgewood’s Polish delis (such as Hetman and Zabka) and Glendale’s German beer halls (Zum Stammtisch claims to be the first German restaurant in America) combine to form a vortex of delicious swine. The epicenter of the porknado is surely Muncan Food Corp, a Serbo-Croatian mini-chain of butcher shops, which sells some of New York’s finest bacon, cracklings, salamis, and more.

There is something of a hemispheric shift as you come in from the south side of the parks. Cypress Hills, Woodhaven, and eastern Bushwick are destinations for Latin American food in the area. El Gran Mar de Plata is one of the classic Latino restaurants in the area, famous for its 24-hour service and weekend salsa dancing. However these neighborhoods are very diverse, a fact reproduced in the nightlife. One example is Neir’s Tavern, which holds the honor of being the oldest bar in the entire USA. Built in 1829, it has been operating ever since — though it spent the Prohibition years on the wrong side of the law. What better way to meditate on the cycle of the seasons, knocking back drinks in a bar that has seen spring bloom over 190 times?

Neir’s Tavern is so old that it pre-dates the Ridgewood Reservoir by some 22 years. If you wanted something to drink in the 1840s in eastern Brooklyn, you could find a cocktail more easily than some potable water. The Reservoir is no longer functioning (it was fully decommissioned in 1989), but remains a beautiful destination. A path slightly over a mile rings the lake, and offers a sweeping view of southern Brooklyn. As the weather warms, the reservoir’s local inhabitants come out of the frozen water; on a nice day, you’re likely to see some turtles soaking up the sun, and migratory birds offer both a sight for birdwatchers as well as lunch for the resident red-tailed hawks.

Have you cast off the chill of the cemetery yet? Has your game of tennis (Highland Park has 18 tennis courts, Forest Park has 14) inspired thoughts of lunch or dinner? Forest Park and Highland Park both provide ample areas for picnicking and barbecuing. Full of the energy of the surrounding neighborhoods, it’s not a scene to miss, though coveted seats fill up quickly in nice weather. If you’re ready to join in the fun, here are a few suggestions…

New York’s parks are a celebration of the in-between. They mark the fertile space between boroughs, and act as a public space for friends, families, and strangers to meet together, in-between the private spaces of our apartments. It’s no surprise then, that it is a park which marks the very limits of the city, at the junction where the Bronx fades into Westchester. New Yorkers best know the limits of their city by the limits of the subway system. And even if you’ve never been to Rockaway Parkway, Inwood 207th Street, or Coney Island Stillwell Avenue, these names are recognizable if you’ve ever ridden the L, A, or F trains. They represent the terminus of the urban, the
absolute limit of NYC. For years in my mind, that was all that was signified by “Pelham Bay Park” — if I was trying to catch a 6 train uptown, then I knew I was on the right side of the tracks.

New Yorkers take pride in the size of their parks. Prospect Park is easily a neighborhood unto itself, while Central Park is the size of several neighborhoods put together. In a city consumed by commercialism, our parks have always been a place to take a stand for the public interest, real estate prices be damned. However, despite the generous proportions of these iconic parks, the largest greenspace in NYC is the lesser-known Pelham Bay Park. With a total area triple that of Central Park, Pelham Bay Park nearly commands the size of its own borough.

Why does Pelham Bay Park remain an under-appreciated emerald, secretly nestled in the upper crown of the Bronx? Other parks on this list can be woven into the ebb and flow of daily activities — Pelham Bay Park is a day’s worth of activities unto itself. As the weather warms up, Pelham Bay Park becomes a prime location for New Yorkers seeking sun and surf, while nearby City Island offers up complimentary surf and turf. Ringing the eponymous Pelham Bay is Orchard Beach, the hottest seaside ticket in the Bronx. Known as the “Bronx Riviera,” the Beach is fitted with Art Deco bathhouses and playgrounds. All around Pelham Bay Park are coves and inlets where you’ll find locals fishing, boating, and picnicking. If you’re looking for somewhere more private, chances are that you’d be better off asking a group of giggling teenagers, than consulting your guidebook. In a park as large as Pelham Bay, there are abundant cozy coves, perfect for a private picnic.

Just on the other side of Pelham Bay Park is City Island, which has possibly the greatest concentration of good seafood in the Five Boroughs. Almost every restaurant on the island has a tried-and-true reputation — with not even one square mile of real estate, every restaurant on City Island is an institution in its own right. If you’re looking for classic boardwalk eats like fried clams, calamari, and shrimp, two of the top options are Johnny’s Reef and Tony’s Pier. If you’re looking for lobster, you might want to check out the Lobster Box, or the City Island Lobster House.

These recommendations are but a brief glimpse into the bounty of Pelham Bay Park. We recommend that you arrive early, stay late, and bring plenty of snacks. With one foot in the city, and one foot out, here are some ideas to get the most out of your time…

In the heart of New York City, Central Park is a haven of calm among streets and sidewalks crazed with activity. Even on its busiest summer days, Central Park reserves a space for everyone who is looking to slow the pace of life, every careworn stranger who’d like to stop and smell the proverbial roses. In this city that is so defined by its ceaseless hustling, it’s important to remember that at its core, the identity of New York harbors a deep passion for playfulness, for social coincidence, for the unexpected and delightful.

Every morning, millions of people from Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey stream into Manhattan. How many transactions take place, how many goods and ideas are exchanged, how many worries pile up, or are alleviated? At night, the arteries of the City clog, as these same commuters rush home to their communities. Likewise, people from all over the world come to NYC either to visit or to live. It’s in this relationship of the urban city center to the suburban or rural periphery, that New York’s identity takes shape.

Walking into Central Park on the West Side between 82nd Street and 89th Street, there is a unique opportunity to understand how the center relates to its periphery, since there was a time, if you can believe it, when this part of Manhattan was virtually suburban. In the early 19th Century, most of the City’s population resided in Lower Manhattan, and this strip of the Upper West Side was settled by one of the most marginalized populations at the time: free African Americans. Starting in 1825, the neighborhood known as Seneca Village thrived in this northwestern enclave of what would later become Central Park.

This was the first community in New York City settled predominantly by African Americans. Living outside of the densely populated downtown neighborhoods gave these Black families an opportunity to own land, and with that land, a stake in electoral politics, in a time when the right to vote was restricted to landowning men. This historic neighborhood came to an end in 1855, when the City voted to use eminent domain to requisition the land for what is now Central Park. Landowners were compensated for their property — but under compulsion and with prices determined by the city, this transaction can hardly be imagined as a fair deal.

The truth is that the destruction of Seneca Village was one of the first examples of gentrification in modern New York City history (the displacement of Indigenous peoples requires a more violent terminology) but it was also the beginnings of a cherished public space in a city dominated by private real estate. The marginalized or peripheral spaces of society do not have to be at odds with the central commons, but in order to achieve this harmony, it’s necessary to be honest about systems of hegemony, and to re-imagine forms of coexistence. The City plans to put up a monument to the Lyons family, an African American family on the Seneca Village charter whose boardinghouse doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Hopefully it will be near to the playgrounds currently standing on this stretch of Central Park, and, in a moment of idle curiosity, it will catch the eye of the nearby schoolchildren. What futures will these children imagine, once they realize, as James Baldwin said, that, “History is not the past — it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

written by J. Daube
for Brooklyn Fare

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