This is a park with a pedigree.
It surely was kismet when a Rockefeller helped create a pocket-sized, jewel-box of a public park in Gotham back in 1971.
Creating a park in that era was an investment - a sign of hope for the future of a city that some thought wasn’t worth it -- even the American president in 1975 offered a kind of Bronx cheer to the citizens of New York City.
Today, NYC can truly be thought of as the “shining city on the hill” that other American presidents from Kennedy to Reagan emphasized when referring to America.
But we really are that city! Everyone who moves to New York City comes with a dream. To be the best. To feel that urban frisson and work with all kinds of people. And contribute to our shared community.
Recently, I was privileged to be part of a garden tour with our Metro Hort group - the “association of professional horticulturists in New York City and the the tri-state region.”
I so appreciate this working group of professionals - we meet at the Fifth Avenue/Central Park Armory in the winter for lectures and how-to’s and bonhomie - in order to increase our knowledge and skills, and in the warmer months, we tour outstanding gardens and parks, organized and led by the respected hort professional, Sabine Stetzenbach - who I had the honor to work with at The New York Botanical Garden
First up this season was the outstanding public garden: Greenacre Park.
I think I have it right that we were the first professionals to be invited and accorded a full tour by the Greenacre Foundation staff who manage, operate, and maintain this urban arcadia. Our Greenacre hosts were Joe Renaghan and Lois Cremmins.
I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I never visited this park previously. Don’t repeat my mistake. This is a must-see; trust me.
In an elevated, theatric sense of style, you enter this garden space by stepping up into it. You alight upon it. There is that sense of arrival -- leaving the street and - like crossing a threshold - entering another world. It’s indeed one of the more glamorous gardens I’ve seen - and I mean to compare it estate gardens, as well as parks and parts of botanic gardens.
In addition to the sheer delight taking in the trees, perennial plants, and that majestic 25-foot waterfall over granite that makes living in New York -- or any urban environment where one is delighted to discover so much dramatic nature and beauty - (just as in New York’s Central Park) - it’s important to note these urban oasis’ are a designed and built environment.
While I’m not entirely sure, I do think that many New Yorkers - and others - believe the parks - and for that matter - the botanical gardens - are preserved remnants or remains of what was once a more native landscape.
However, the truth is, all of our parks and gardens and public spaces have been professionally designed. With love.
Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
Given all the jewel-like references to Greenacre Park, it seems quite appropriate to learn this gem of a park had a woman steering its creation and design. A rich woman too.
Abby Rockefeller Mauzė - granddaughter of the industrialist John D. Rockefeller Sr. gifted the park to the people of New York in October of 1971. With love. And she dedicated the park to her brother Laurence and his associate Allston Boyer, for their help in getting the park created.
She directed the cobbling together of three lots via the Greenacre Foundation that continues to manage the park today. Gail O. Caulkins, the president of the Greenacre Foundation is Mauzė’s granddaughter.
As part of our tour of this “vest-pocket” garden park, the Metro Hort members sort of clung to the hosts and speakers like so many hens and chicks - clinging to the mother plant - to absorb the privileged news and inside, first-hand information and lore. (And to hear over the roar of the waterfall.)
Don’t you just adore garden history? It’s all so precious with its links to money, heritage, locale, and politics and personalities.
The story unfolded… In the 1970’s, there were lots of empty lots in New York City.
Hard to believe it now when there is so much over-construction - (more on that later.)
With a desire to create a public garden, Abby Rockefeller Mauzė established the Greenacre Foundation to fund and maintain a very special space: roughly 60-feet wide by 120-feet deep.
Greenacre describes the space as “slightly smaller than a tennis court.” We’ll take the tennis “love.”
See, good things do come in small packages…
So it’s all the more dismaying to later learn that this gift to the people of New York is being besmirched in that harm will come to the jewel box after developers steal the light.
The look of the park, designed by Sasaki -- Sasaki, Dawson, DeMay Associates with Masao Kinoshita as lead designer and Hideo Sasaki and Tom Wirth - has remained true to the original design. It’s a classic, cultural landscape.
We learned, too, that Mr. Sasaki is still alive and visits the park. He made a surprise spring appearance and contributed to the spring pruning!
The park is comprised of three levels:
- The rear wall at the lowest level is punctuated by the 25-foot waterfall
- The central area, paved with russet brick and layered with tree canopy and seating
- A raised terrace along the west wall with a trellis roof of weathered steel beams and transparent acrylic vaults. There are heating elements there, built into the trellis roof.
These sturdy yet delicate trees provide the much-needed and enjoyed “dappled shade” that visitors embrace and the designer planned for.
We learned these trees are living in giant container pots under the hardscape!
It’s a very unique design, described Lois Cremmins, Executive Director, Greenacre Foundation. “There are large pots beneath us, each with its own irrigation system.”
More magic beneath our feet.
Accessorizing the interior design of the park are mid-century Knoll tables and chairs.
Park goers can arrange them to create their own conversation pods and reading nooks.
We were told that visitors also come to practice yoga, propose marriage, and all kinds of connections.
I asked what the funniest things were that happened in the park -- after all, it is New York City. “There was the time a woman tried to wash her hair in the waterfall pool; and the lady in the winter of ‘72 who dove in the water in her dress -- only to be outdone by the woman who stripped naked to dive in… Ah, the theater of a public park…
We were told that from a construction standpoint, the park is unique because it was built from the “inside out.”
There was a crane on 51st Street that dropped in the granite back wall for the waterfall first, with three pumps. We were told it’s an imperative to keep those pumps in tip-top working order because it would be very cost prohibitive to replace the pumps.
Next, the blocks went in. The stone is gorgeous and dramatic too; a kind of stone art on the walls.
Trickles of water collect from the base of the highly textured ashlar masonry of the east wall and feed into the runnel.
On the west side, the higher terrace, is covered by trellising and acrylic domes, to provide a protected overlook down into the garden.
It’s a lovely perch to view the lower level of the park. And it shows what good garden design can do in spite of the size.
The designers created a sense of movement within the distinct “garden rooms” and offer elevation and movement with the different levels.
It’s a very transporting experience - a delight for the senses.
There’s no doubt the crowning glory of the space is the Greenacre Park waterfall.
The roar of the falling water is a kind of “white noise,” designed to block out ambient urban noise.
The Foundation is testing LED lighting for the waterfall now to replace the previous ones corroded five years ago. The Fisher Marantz lighting designers will complete the work by November. All the evening lighting is managed with a timer.
Here I am with Greenacre Park manager, Joe Renaghan. When I asked him what he did with the Park and he told me he was the manager I looked skeptical, saying I’d never met a park manager who worked in a suit. Without skipping a beat he told me, “I work for the Rockefellers.” So there you go. Gotta love a gentleman urban farmer / gardener!
There is Boston Ivy clinging to the walls.
There are ilex shrubs as part of the evergreen plant portfolio. There are other low-light shrubs, including azaleas, rhododendron, andromeda - Pieris Japonica , Japanese Maple, Star Magnolia, to name a few. “We see what plants do well, “ added Cremmins. I especially enjoyed the crape myrtle, the Japanese umbrella pine and mock orange.
Sabine and her team from Town & Gardens are tasked with selecting the annual plant palette in the bowl and upright containers. They change out the plants two times a season, refurbishing the soil, pinching, pruning and providing plant love.
The colors and the textures just pop!
While the T&G team does the heavy hort work, Charlie Weston is the resident park maintenance guru for the park and has been there since the park opened! Talk about committed passion for a garden…
Can You See Me Now?
Greenacre has organized a “Fight for Light” campaign backed by the Municipal Art Society; New Yorkers for Parks; Gale A. Brewer, the Manhattan borough president; and City Councilman Daniel R. Garodnick, whose district includes the park.
Why? Because the simple reason is there is too much high-rise building approved that will produce so much shadow that the park will lose light.
Light for people; light for plants; light for life.
I read that as part of the Greenacre Park’s dedication by the City Parks Commissioner, August Heckscher said, the Greenacre “... places no burden on the city, which makes no demands, which asks of us only that we cherish it.”
Why don’t we cherish it now? I can only speculate. Greed comes to mind…
Here is my kinda garden rant:
Look, horticulturists and garden lovers understand that change is a matter of course.
Nature and time change things. We get that. And so just like that, neighborhoods change too.
But there needs to be an element to managing a sustainable change. Let’s not wholesale sell our neighborhoods away to building and real estate and the promise of profits for a few.
Let’s be realistic. Don’t you think there should be shared “sacrifice” so to speak? We can’t allow the few to be “Takers.”
And make no mistake, if the continued construction of these huge buildings continues, there is a quality of life that will be taken -- taken away forever from the people who live and work in the neighborhoods.
There is some cosmic comedy at play that is traces the thoughtless “Takers” in real estate development and city government and the “dark side” because of their ability to permanently create dark spaces in our life.
Don’t let this happen.
To continue to use the metaphorical - I hope that we can effectively combat the forces of darkness to preserve the light -- and the beauty of our gardens and parks.
Don’t get me wrong - I adore “Shadow Art.” So much so that I have a Pinterest board devoted to the interplay of light and shadow. But that s a natural, ephemeral, moment of beauty.
What we’re being subjected to in the case of Greenacre Park is the permanent “shading” of the space - as in “pulling the shade” and “lights out.”
Let there be Light
There isn’t a living soul who isn’t charmed by the romance and beauty of this garden park. Tourists, locals - residents and office workers.
So why smite those who only asked us to “cherish the space.” Why indeed? Again, all signs point to selfish greed.
Building bigger and higher. For what? Half the time people don’t permanently live in these structures.
Paley Park has lost light as you can see in the photos below. I adore Paley Park - I ate breakfast and lunch there for so many years… It was a gift everyday to find a spot and soak in the ambience of water, oxygen, people and light.
I deplore the deliberate, calculated destruction of its environment just as I do that of Greenacre Park.
Think of this destruction of our parks as similar to that of the Amazon rainforest or the wholesale change in habitat in Africa or our seas.
Environmental destruction is a kind of creep. It catches us all unawares.
Next thing you know there is the man-made horrors of the Dust Bowl or the famine in Africa due to clearing of the trees…
We need to get mad - get angry enough to change this creep from occurring.
Nothing gets between a New Yorker and our parks. Remember when Bette Midler organized protests against the Giuliani administration to prevent them taking away community gardens? The running joke was that Rudy could bust the mafia but he couldn’t break the gardeners’ will. He bowed to the green enthusiasts. Bette created the New York Restoration Project that continues to honor art and beauty in our city.
If these gigantic buildings are allowed to continue - it has truly giant ramifications - not just for Greenacre Park but for other parks, for community gardens, for our quality of life.
Rezoning should be an issue that we all have a voice in. We need the power to control the element of light in our lives.
What to do?
Care enough to make a difference for Greenacre - and other parks.
- Like and follow Greenacre on social media - @greenacreparkny
- Join their mailing list to receive alerts.
- Text GREENACRE to 22828 to get started.
- Go to www.FightForLight.nyc and send emails to Mayor Bill de Blasio urging him and his administration to preserve the sunlight
- Commend Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilman Daniel Garodnick for their support of the Fight for Light
Think of this like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. If we stop clapping - or caring -- the light. Goes. Out.
I tell my own garden clients and often say at speaking engagements I’m privileged to talk at - that healthy plants need three things: water, sun, and love.
Can you show the love?
The Greenacre garden / park is open from the first week week in April to early winter.
You can get to the Park via public transportation: take the 4,6 and get off at the 51st Street station or the E, M to the 53rd Street station.