Musings of an Urban Park Manager: A Black Male Reflection
Greetings Outdoor Afros:
I’m Morgan Powell and this is my fifth blog here at Outdoor Afro. I’m the founder of Bronx River Sankofa - a documentary series on Cable TV and Facebook featuring African-American environmentalists from New York City’s greenest borough. Many male Harlem Renaissance writers and other 20th century brothers-on-a-soap-box wrote about the invisible man phenomenon or mistaken identity in general stemming from low expectations by others of men of African descent. The playful piece you are about to read contrasts a photo-documentary of my busiest days when I was a manager to a public park with the historical writing I was doing out of view at that time. Among the many conversations with park users that prompts this blog was a conversation in which a well-meaning park volunteer told me she thought I was too smart for my job. Consider this a modern version of so many essays by figures like Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin by an emerging eco-writer. Please ponder parallels between my park and story with places and workers familiar to you as you read this meditation on the park and its regional context in New York City!
The soil and ground of and around Stuyvesant Cove is a regional resource. The park and neighboring Stuyvesant Town development are reclaimed from the East River which met the shore of Manhattan Island further inland along 1st Avenue before Western civilization reached the New World, reshaping the shoreline with landfill and structures built on pilings. A 19th century resident of the Stuyvesant Cove area, George N. Lawrence, recorded a glimpse of local natural history in 1889 published as “An Account of the Former Abundance of some Species of Birds on New York Island, at the Time of their Migration to the South.”
“When I was a schoolboy a favorite skating place was Stuyvesant Creek, a considerable body of water, which had its head quite close to the Third Avenue, about 20th Street, and it emptied into the East River—I think at about 12th Street. On the north side of it, there were high woods, where I have seen Robins pursued by gunners, when the ground was covered with snow and the creek frozen.”
Here we have a historical snapshot that includes a reference to a time of wild hydrological features in the landscape before public waterfront access was an issue. It continues – beyond the selection above – with a description of local bird populations in which their presence is painted so richly as to seem fantastic. But those who have lived in the Stuyvesant Town development adjacent to this park for more than a decade may remember a louder and more diverse seasonal bird community in years past. That was before suburban sprawl paved over yet more thousands of tracts of formerly natural habitats. Such places once supported our regional web of life as near as the neighboring county of Staten Island or as far as the Catskills region to the north. Thanks is owed to the groups of citizens who worked on the transformation of this post-industrial relic we now enjoy as Stuyvesant Cove Park which opened in 2002. Similar praise is worthy for those who helped acquire and restore other parcels of land in the greater New York area one acre at a time.
One plant at a time, we restore the habitat that wildlife need. Our trees provide shelter to migratory birds, but cool shade to strollers walking below them as well. Both hummingbirds, seen occasionally, and butterflies—among them the Great Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) and Monarch (Danaus plexippus)—feed on the nectar of park flowers. They come here for different types of blooms. The hummers prefer tubular shaped flowers like hibiscus, monarda, and trumpet vines that they can probe with their long beaks while hovering in mid-air. By comparison, the butterflies prefer to land atop flower platforms and walk about while sipping nectar. Such butterfly-attractive flowers can be found among the Cove’s asters, goldenrods and other North American native composite blossoms like echinacea. Each year, the plantings at Stuyvesant Cove include more species, making the park a better and better stopover habitat for these winged migrants. Woody plants, as well, play their role to recreate a welcome and familiar habitat amid the concrete jungle that is Manhattan island.
If we could have taken refuge in the local forest of the pre-modern period, what a forest we would have found! Most of the trees would have been oaks, hickories and tulip-poplar trees. Some of the tulip-poplars would have been almost 300 feet tall, taller than any trees we can find in New York City today. Among the prettiest migrant birds, both then and now, are the ones that depend on them. Some of these winged friends make the 2,000+ mile trip to Central and South America in autumn, and then back again each spring. These include the warblers who fuel their journey by feeding upon caterpillars. This food chain exists as just one of numerous life cycles vibrantly played out year round.
When winter temperatures turn East River water to ice on our local industrial relic, the rocky outcrop (at 20th St.) , we see another face of nature. Waterfowl appear there and on neighboring floating ice. Though the waters that lap along our granite bulkhead are not formally part of the park, we remain mindful of it as we hold to a non-toxic cleaning regime that minimally drains through them. Indeed, wetland grasses planted along portions of the bulkhead are our homage to the seamless connection between earth and water. This connection existed before modernity imposed his way. We know that worms in the soil have moved far below the surface and are safe from frost, assuring us that they will help us maintain a quality of growing medium for plants unseen in most urban parks. Much fruit from hardy shrubs such as gooseberry and roses lend color to our walks amid the elegant architecture of trees. Such living gems as red rose hips – faithful sights in cold and even snow – promise leaves and flowers in spring.
From 18th to 23rd Streets, we enjoy the Cove as a unique station along a network of waterfront parkland that is being rehabilitated within and surrounding our city. This network extends to points north and south of New York State forming the emerging East Coast Greenway. In winter and all seasons, we can depend on a steady program of public activities at the park’s museum of green living, Solar 1. Not unlike ancient English house museums that serve as points of departure or destination to amblers of national trails, Solar 1, the environmental classroom here, opens its doors to the public and shares the wisdom of ecology through the creative prism of the arts. As one of just a few sustainably managed public parks in this network, we serve as an example for new park designs from Maine to Florida. We may be known far and wide because our mission and accomplishments have been celebrated in print from the New York Times to design-trade media.
A Meditation on the Cove’s Air
Devotees of urban parks are doubly fortuned by nature’s compelling inspiration coupled by the convenience of designed spaces. We may gaze spectacular natural and man-made views often with benches, tables and restrooms nearby. Praise to urban living! One may marvel at the view from 20th Street in Manhattan, New York – all its glistening, moving water we call the East River – and recall or imagine more rustic settings beyond city limits.
How do air, water, and earth combine in the urban ecology? Waterfront parks provide space to wonder at the answers. Though city parks may seem somehow removed from our conceptions of the natural, an essay by Simon Shama offers us that “they are all the nature we ever had.” Let us be mindful that we humans are part of the web of life and have been agents of change in the local landscape and beyond since days much earlier than writings record. Let’s explore a few natural aspects of the park we love over time and in focus! Perhaps we will see that these Stuyvesant Cove Park’s 1.9 acres are integral to a community of life both locally and regionally.
Local air seems to be a regional resource. Ken Chambers of the American Museum of Natural History has written on birding here and celebrated his subjects as “the aristocracy of the air.” I think of birds mostly as natural soundtrack musicians.
The “tseep, tseep, tseep” calls of the warblers, orioles and their kin in summer bends our ears to the sounds of “traffic” along an ancient “highway.” It’s called the Atlantic Flyway. This Flyway is a continental swath of land and air that see heavy concentrations of winged migration among a wide range of bird species. Though no two migratory bird species follow exactly the same route, there are annual travel patterns between particular breeding grounds and wintering grounds for each species. I’ve asked myself often, “How large an airborne community passes over this land at the height of their season on the busiest nights?” Chambers and other birders have informed me a hundred birds might pass through per hour at peak times. Quiet and early mornings that follow such nights reward the visitor with glimpses of migrants having landed to rest and feed. We have seen warblers such as the American Redstart, with its black and red plumage feeding upon insects around the shrubs and larger perennials (i.e. grasses and milkweeds). We once saw an Ovenbird walking and foraging, making its loud “tea-Cher, tea-Cher, tea-Cher” call too. The night migrants, many thousands, even millions of them, pass over Manhattan on their journey north in spring and again on their way south in autumn. River valleys like ours along the great Hudson can be ideal for flyway routes. Over fifty-five species of birds, close to a dozen butterflies, and even a bat have been observed at this site in season.
We would also be wise to appreciate the air itself. Consider the heat island effect—that phenomenon wherein the dense infrastructure and intense human activity of cities create thermal halos, making a center city warmer than the suburbs that extend from it. Your and my conservation work helps restore the primordial balance within the blue-green world that predated so many highways, gas pipe networks, housing complexes, and miles of asphalt. Scientists at Cornell University and elsewhere are studying ways to mitigate the heat island effect by planting groves of trees in and around metropolitan areas. They are also using such groves to study the way trees clean the air with the removal of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from the air we breathe. Fewer VOCs in the air mean healthier environments for people, especially the young, old and ill. By the way, these considerations may be yours should you repaint an interior environment because low VOC paints are popularly available on the retail market!
Our urban forests, inclusive of cherry trees and other key air cleansing species are, indeed, both cooling and cleaning all that we inhale. These woods – both modest as city vest pocket parks and grand as large destination ones – are valuable. Our care for them is our commitment to the good life.
“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
? George Washington Carver
My Favorite Parks to Visit and Write About
Antwerpen Parks, Antwerp, Belgium
Barcelona Botanic Garden, Spain
Battery Park City Parks Conservancy and Historic Battery Park, New York
Boerner Botanic Gardens, Wisconsin
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York
Chicago Botanic Garden, Illinois
The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Commons, Boston, MA
The Conservatory Garden (of Central Park), New York
Crotona Park (Great example of depression-era WPA successes), New York
Devon House (estate museum and crafts market), Jamaica, West Indies
Flagler Museum & the Breakers (Hotel and golf club), Palm Beach, FL
Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Mareno, CA
Jardin Botanique de Montreal, Canada
Jardin Exotique de Monaco (famous for rare succulents and Riviera views), Monaco
Le Jardin et les serres d’Auteuil, Paris, France
Le Jardin de Plant, Paris
Lincoln Park Conservatory, Chicago, IL
Longwood Gardens, PA
Madison Square Park (19th century sculpture of), New York
Megeve (alpine forest of), France
NYC Historic House Trust
Old Port of Montreal, Canada
Planting Fields Arboretum, New York
Quaker Hill Native Plant Garden, New York
Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, Spain
Rock Garden Park, New York
Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, Great Britain
Stuyvesant Square Park (19th century charm), New York
Staten Island Botanic Garden, New York
Ile de St. Marguerite, Nice, France
Vanderbilt Historic Site – FDR Presidential Library, Hyde Park, NY
Versailles Palace and Grounds, France
Woodlawn Cemetery (world famous for classical fine art and architecture), Bronx, NY