City Scapes … Places Kids Play

Bicyclists in Riverside Park South, May 9, 2009. Photo by Daniel Avila.

Photograph credit

One reader last week asked about “quiet” places in New York City. To commune with nature, New Yorkers enjoy hundreds of parks, from those like Central Park with broad acreage sculped into the middle of Manhattan, others drawn into the landscape, huddled against the Hudson or Harlem Rivers, or hidden in tiny “pockets” created from vacant lots on odd street corners or between tenements.

For more peace and quite in the great outdoors, we can bask in the sun and fun of our amazing beaches, stretching from the south-western tip of Brooklyn, following the ocean to Far Rockaway in Queens, to waves lapping gently along the Southern edge of Staten Island. Dozens of inlets, waterways, channels and bays like Orchard Beach in The Bronx, or boating and fishing communities like City Island in The Bronx, Sheepshead Bay and Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn.  

Peace and quite designed by great architects are plentiful in our historic libraries, museums, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and community centers. Without exaggeration, these  buildings number into the thousands and provide a safe haven for reading, learning and escaping the madding crowds.

In a special series of City Scapes … Places Kids Play … I would like to introduce you to some of the places my friends and millions of other New York City kids explored during their childhood.

Street kids photos

Kids can find the strangest places to play. Me and my side-kick, a short happy boy named Pete, were considered too young to “hang” with the older boys. Our parents assigned our two older brothers to grudgingly “watch” over us, an arrangement the four of us were not happy about. So, in the summer of our seventh year we began ditching them.

Together we scouted the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, hitched rides on the trolleys, and sat at the end of the docks and watched ship traffic gliding through the Narrows into New York harbor. We swam in the pools in Sunset Park, ran along the park’s tree-lined field stone walls, roller skated down Dead Man’s Hill, and swiped razor blades from the Woolworth on Fifth Avenue when neither of us shaved.

A favorite “haunt” if you will pardon the pun, was Green-Wood Cemetery. Not more than a three block walk from where we lived, we discovered the section of the cemetery nearest our block contained the remaining open fields, not yet in use by the cemetery’s inhabitants. Conveniently, the fence along 36th Street and Fourth Avenue had a space just the right size for two urchins to slip through.

Today, I would like you to come along with me and Pete to one of the most fascinating sites in New York City …

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Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, is a national historic landmark. Its acreage spans three neighborhoods in the borough and has some of the most beautiful landscaping and monuments in the world. The cemetery was the idea of Henry Evelyn Pierrepont, a Brooklyn social leader. It was a popular tourist attraction in the 1850s and was the place most famous New Yorkers who died during the second half of the nineteenth century were buried.  Photographs taken from official web page.

The gates were designed by Richard Uphohn in a Gothic Revival style. The main entrance to the cemetery was built in 1861 of Belleville brownstone. The sculptured groups depicting biblical scenes over the gateways are the work of John M. Moffitt. A Designated Landmarks of New York plaque was erected on it in 1958 by the New York Community Trust.

Green-Wood was founded one hundred and seventy-four years ago in 1838. By the mid 1800’s it drew over 500,000 visitors a year and became a popular tourist attraction, rivaling Niagara Falls. Its magnificent 478 acres of hills, valleys, glacial ponds and tree-lined pathways exhibits one of the largest outdoor collections of 19th and 20th century statuary and mausoleums.  It is still an operating cemetery with approximately 600,000 graves.

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A descendent colony of monk parakeets, also known as Quaker Parrots, were believed to have escaped their containers while in transit, now nests in the spires of the gate. They have become famous Brooklyn residents and wild flocks can be seen in several areas of the borough, including the famous campus of Brooklyn College. Visit the official web page for the parakeets here. 

There are several famous monuments, including a statue of DeWitt Clinton and a Civil War Memorial. During the Civil War, Green-Wood Cemetery created the “Soldiers’ Lot” for free veterans’ burials.

Some of the more famous residents include Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed, Charles Ebbets, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Horace Greeley, Civil War generals, baseball legends, politicians, artists, entertainers and inventors. Read the history and see the listing of famous residents here.  

Article on grave tours

Several wooden shelters were also built, including one in a Gothic Revival style, one resembling an Italian villa, and another resembling a Swiss chalet.

On December 5, 1876, a Brooklyn theatre fire claimed the lives of at least 278 individuals, with some accounts reporting over 300 dead. Out of that total, 103 unidentified victims were interred in a common grave at Green-Wood Cemetery. An obelisk near the main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street marks the burial site. 

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A magnet for history buffs and bird watchers, Green-Wood is a Revolutionary War historic site (the Battle of Long Island was fought in 1776 across what is now its grounds), a designated site on the Civil War Discovery Trail and a registered member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System.

On September 27, 2006, Green-Wood was designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior, which recognized its national significance in art, architecture, landscaping and history.

After almost two centuries, Green-Wood is as beautiful as it was at its founding. But such historic beauty is fragile. Time and weather have taken their toll on marble sculpture, granite monuments, brownstone mausoleums, cast-iron signs and landscaped parkland.

Established in 1999, The Green-Wood Historic Fund’s mission is to maintain Green-Wood Cemetery’s monuments and buildings of historical, cultural and architectural significance; advance public knowledge and appreciation of this significance; and preserve the natural habitat and parklands of one of New York City’s first green spaces. With funding from memberships and donations, The Historic Fund not only preserves the past to enrich our future, but keeps a vibrant presence in our current time by presenting open-to-the-public events which include themed walking and trolley tours, book talks and special seasonal events.” Taken from the official web-page.

For several magnificent tours and photographs of this historic wonder, please visit Mille Fiori Favoriti, My life in the big city, a blog done by Pat, a lifelong New Yorker. The title means “Thousand Favorite Flowers” in Italian. Thanks Pat.

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As teenagers, we walked around the perimeter of the cemetery to get to the roller rink on Fort Hamilton Parkway.

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As a young adult my future husband and I took Sunday rides or strolled down the many pathways in the cemetery. We would stop and watch as some people did etchings, others painted or sketched, some like us, just walked the grounds searching the monuments and stone markers for names and dates.

Green-Wood’s unique design and popularity became the inspiration for the creation of many New York City parks, such as Central and Prospect Parks.

It was also a great place for two rowdy kids to take twenty-five cents of bologna, share a Coke and a smile and spend a peaceful afternoon away from bossy big brothers.

How about you, would you visit a famous cemetery?

What is the strangest place you played as a kid?

fOIS In The City

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42 Comments

Filed under City Scapes

42 responses to “City Scapes … Places Kids Play

  1. “So, in the summer of our seventh year we began ditching them.” Lines like this one are what make you such an interesting person. I can see you’ve had that adventurous spirit since you were a kid. You’ve made life in New York come alive for me with posts where you eloquently describe the setting, landmark, or activity. Thanks, Florence.

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  2. Amazing, Florence – thanks for the tour for those of us who didn’t have the opportunity to grow up there!

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  3. This is fabulous! I’d no idea about Green-Wood. This pictures are truly stunning and you’ve given me a couple of ideas for writing (thank you for that!). The only area of New York I’m even vaguely familiar with is parts of Brooklyn cuz I dated the most marvelous Italian/Irish boy/man – young love. He was truly stunning, yet traumatized after visiting me in Idaho ;-). Now, to cemeteries (love ’em, favorite is in the middle of the Dartmouth campus or there’s one in Konigsberg, Bavaria/Germany – very cool). And places to play – exploring a small town is great, but riding your bikes seven miles to the butte (where, it’s rumored, aliens often landed) ~ best kid thing ever. As a parent, in retrospect, OMG – rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes (which are unlikely to attack, but who knows), broken legs, dehydration, scorpions, crazed strangers (not that anyone was normal in a rural community), speeding spud or sugar beet trucks, swathers . . . still doesn’t sound as scary as what you described. 😉

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    • Thanks for the visit, Liz. Isn’t growing a bit on the wild side fun? I mean who needs “normal” in this “abby-normal” world we live in? Sounds like you had a wonderful time in your part of the country … a reason I love exploring other settings in books and blogs. A better reason to take a few road trips. Honestly … Green-Wood wasn’t as scary as those bossy brothers we were escapting 🙂

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  4. I’ve never visited a famous cemetery, but have wandered about some rural ones, some abandoned and some not. They were replete with wildflowers, history, and mystery. I love this blog; it feels so real.

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    • Rural cemeteries are some of the best to explore.

      Lindsay, I believe that cemeteries allow us to enjoy nature, history and architecture in ways we cannot with traditional “haunts.” Thanks for the visit.

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  5. Wow Florence – no wonder you write! How could you not turn into a writer/adventurer after growing up with Green-Wood as your playground. Those pictures are just stunning!!!!!
    I used to take LONG walks to the water towers around Minneapolis as a teenager. Not nearly as breathtaking, the towers were still unique – some with lovely architectural designs. I loved them.
    Thanks for sharing the photos and the treasured childhood memories!

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    • Thank you so much, Meredith. I think I was the fortunate recipient of both biological and geographical luck. Anther group of Italian crazies or in another place and I might have missed out on some of the best fun of my life. I also think that it is the penchant of most swriters to get lost in their own world and our walks are a way of setting the stage 🙂

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  6. Oh my goodness, Florence, you didn’t know but I am a cemetery FREAK. I love visiting cemeteries and to think that this is what you chose to introduce us to quiet places in the New York City area. THANK YOU so much. Just a few weeks ago my family and I went to an old and beautiful cemetery in Oakland but it can’t compare to the pictures and the descriptions of this one in your post. Wow. I am in awe. And now I don’t feel so intimidated to visit there.
    Patti

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    • Patti, I hope you know that great historians, architects, artists and memoirist spend copious amounts of time doing research in cemeteries? They are a wealth of information. Glad to find a kindred “spirit.” Think of me the next time you roam amid the stone markers and monuments 🙂

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  7. Florence, this is a beautifully written description.You obviously put a lot of work into it. Best wishes.

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  8. What a tour to take us on. I mean that! I don’t visit cemeteries with any frequency, but I do find something strangely peaceful about them . . . all the memories held there by the people who visit . . . the equalizing sense of “from dust to dust.”

    On the less peaceful side I’ve been to old Jewish cemeteries in Poland where the headstones were knocked down and used to pave roads. Ick.

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  9. Beautiful pics! I love little old historic cemeteries. I just had a dream last night about Central Park, too–so perfect timing on this blog:)

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    • Thanks Jamie …until I did this research I didn’t know that Green-Wood was the prototype for Central and Prospect Parks. I did Central Park on City Scapes last year, but you can honestly spend at least two or three posts on that one 🙂

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  10. Timely as always. With Memorial Day upon us and as we honor our Veteran’s and those we’ve loved and lost – this blog sets a perfect tone. As a large family, we’ll gather together at a rural cemetery in Kansas–coming from all four points of the US to pay tribute. A tradition that hold strong. We’ll celebrate each war coming forward from the Civil War – decorating with fresh flowers and continuing with story telling. This is the time of year we pass along family stories. Thanks for sharing your story.

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    • Sheri, that is a beautiful way to honor our war veterans who has passed away. My mom used to tell us that the cemetery is a wonderful place to sit and think about our loved ones. She and my aunts took such good care of all the graves of our family. I am fortunate that there is a second cousin who still does that. Thanks so much for the visit 🙂

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  11. I’ve never been to New York, but your descriptions have given me a great “view” of this particular corner. Cemeteries are peaceful places, but the only time I’ve really spent any time in one was when I was searching for my great-grandfather’s gravestone for my genealogy project.

    I like spending time in and around old buildings — the abandoned barns and log structures of a previous era. I’ll sketch or photograph them and try to catch the mood of life there long ago.

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    • Carol, what I thought of is the beautiful pictures you would take. It’s not just a cemetery, it is also a wild life perserve. Follow the link to Millie Fiore and look at her amazing photographs of my city. Thanks so much for the visit. Now I will expect some great shots of barns and abandoned log structures 🙂

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  12. What a wonderful pictorial stroll down your memory lane, Florence. I understand why you retain in the city despite your relocation to Florida.

    I agree with Brinda’s comment. That sentence about “ditching” the older brothers and heading out on your own delivers a message of your independent and adventurous spirit from an early age.

    The next time I am near New York, you can bet I’ll nag you mercilessly to join me so I can see it through your eyes. What a treat of a read!

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    • Thanks Gloria. I am planning in advance for the RWA Nationals in NYC in 2015 and intend to meet at least a dozen of us and take grand tours.

      Yes, me and Pete had a great time. We are both grandparents now, but we never forgot our times together. He introduced me to his wife at a reunion as his best friend and the only person to beat him in five consequetive races 🙂

      I have the feeling his three=legged dog could beat me now 🙂

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    • Gloria, you can bet that when the day comes that we meet in NYC I will gladly take you on a tour of my favorite neighborhoods … the only problem will be deciding which ones 🙂

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  13. christicorbett

    Such beautiful pictures and fun stories too. Thanks so much for sharing your hometown memories with us who can only dream of traveling to the Big Apple and surrounding areas.

    I enjoy these posts very much!

    Christi Corbett

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    • I appreciate the visit my dear friend. Christi, I truly believe that you and I will journey to a special place and meet. I don’t know if it will be on the east or west coast. When we do, we will discover as we have, that time and place melts when two hearts and minds blend 🙂

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  14. Beautiful pictures, Florence, and such wonderful memories. I love hearing about the history of “your” city. Yes, I will always think of NY as “your town”. And I’m with Gloria. If I’m ever do lucky to travel to NY, I’ll be begging you to join me!

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    • Sheila, we should develop a “plan” to take a tour of several places in my city. Folks like you and Gloria and a dozen others I wish so much to meet … will gather and I’ll have a grand time as a tour guide … Not a bad plan. Thanks for your kind words … by the way the comment about “a reader asked about quiet places” was in ansswer to your comment last week 🙂

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  15. As a child, I loved playing on our front porch or that of my friend a neighborhood girl. We’d play Scrabble or Monopoly or others but those were our favorites. Since our brothers hung out in the park, we didn’t want to be there.

    Very interesting post.

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    • Casey … the time for adventure is not restricted to running to places and often those games we play are the forerunner and the fodder for our quiet days of writing. Thanks for much for the visit. I am also reminded of the amazing photographs you take these days from another front porch. Truly beautiful 🙂

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  16. I haven’t thought about this cemetery in years, not since i was studying theatre history and the Brooklyn Theatre fire was a topic. A terrible tragedy. Have to make a reconnaissance on my next trip.

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  17. Love the photos Florence and the post!
    Would I visit a famous cemetery? You bet! I love cemeteries. There’s just so much history to be discovered, and well, I do love history!

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    • Green-Wood is a popular cemetery for many history buffs, and students … also many people love to do tracings on the stones and they have tours as well. Great that you share my love of this type of intriguing place 🙂

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  18. Pat

    Hello

    I see that you have used quite a few of my Green-Wood cemetery photos from my blog http://millefiorifavoriti.blogspot.com I would appreciate if you ask permission before using my photos in the future, as I require a link back source under each photo to give me the proper credit for my photography. I would appreciate your doing this on this post if you’d like to keep my photos up. Thank you!

    Green-Wood is a wonderful place to visit. I encourage your readers to visit and perhaps take the inexpensive trolley ride tour. See their web site for further information.

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  19. Thanks for sharing your city. You make it sound so much more inviting than I ever imagined. As a west-coaster who has never been to NYC I had a mental picture of nothing but concrete, asphalt, granite, marble and bricks. I had no idea there were so many parks in the city providing places of green respite. Thanks to your blog I’m more likely to want to explore NYC if I ever have the opportunity.
    Tori McRae

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    • Forgive the dealy, Tori … I was out of commission for an entire week. I am equally curious about the west coast and sure there is more to places like LA than smog 🙂 We hide lots of great natural wonders in the five boroughs and this is only one of them.

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  20. In my previous comment I couldn’t think of any answer to your question, especially the 2nd part. After posting an event came to mind. When I was a young teenager my parents took my 2 siblings and I to the cemetery where my grandfather was buried. While my parents were busy placing flowers and remembering my brother and I were busy chasing my sister with a frog I had found near a gravestone. Not very respectful of the dead, but oh, so much fun listening to her shreek as she tried to get away from the tiny harmless frog.
    I love cemeteries, especially the very old ones. I visited two pioneer cemeteries last summer — one in Savannah, GA and the other on St. Simons Island, GA — taking pictures instead of tracings.
    Tori McRae

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    • Ah, I only know St. Simons Island from a famous mystery writer. Can you guess who he was?

      Cemeteries are a great place for historic research and yes, for great tracings 🙂 Thanks again for the visit, Tori.

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