One of the first things I noticed about NYC is that, despite having streets that live up to their reputation of being dirtier – no, grungier – than those of DC, the city is serious about its parks. Central Park is only the beginning. There are parks and corner square green spaces all over the city. And, even better, a diverse and varied population that utilizes them.
Here are four NYC park options to take you beyond Central Park.
1) Thompson Square Park
Located on the edges of the East Village, Thompson Square Park draws a varied population that mirrors the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood. Once a space largely supported by drug dealers and the homeless, the park hasn’t so much shifted demographics in the last decade as it has expanded to incorporate new ones. From my people-watching stakeout, I observed: a 10-year park veteran (probably) in sole-less shoes pushing a shopping cart of garbage bags and empty cans; a young mother in high heels pushing a designer baby stroller; a group of senior citizens pushing a friends in wheelchairs; and a punk concert.
Favorite thing about the park: The dog park.
The open-run dog park – divided into two sections: one for big dogs and one for little ones – was the perfect place for me to get my weekly dose of cuteness. It was also a fascinating place to observe the quirks of rich and coddled pooches (and their owners) as they tested the boundaries of shared space. The bench of onlookers took sides during an argument between the owner of a bulldog and the owner of a miniature poodle. The bulldog, who had allegedly sat on the miniature’s face, was accused of bullying. “Get your fat dog on a leash and under control!” someone shouted. “That rat doesn’t belong on this side, he’ll get eaten alive!” someone else countered. The miniature’s owner scooped the shaking dog under her armpit and stormed off. The bulldog won that round.
2) Seward Park
Situated on the grounds of what used to be a jail, Seward Park was the first permanent, municipally-built playground in the United States. Initially constructed in 1897, the Lower East Side park has since undergone multiple transformations and renovations. The current playground on site was crowded during my Tuesday morning visit, drawing kids and care-takers largely from the nearby Chinatown neighborhoods.
Favorite thing about the park: The sense of community space.
Many of the activities I observed during my morning of people-watching in the park seemed to be group ones, including a Chinese pop music aerobic dance class (practiced by a group of well-dressed and high-heeled women). Many of the people in the park knew each other, chatting on benches or collectively watching groups of kids on the swing sets. It seems fitting that the country’s first playground still embodies the ideal of what a park should be: a public space for community interaction.
3) Columbus Park
New York City is, to me, a city of constant flux. My brother, who moved to Manhattan two years ago, has since lived in double that number of apartments. Subleases, short-term contracts, and a young demographic on the move create an atmosphere of transiency.
NYC is also a city of historical and generational transiency, rooted in the groups of immigrants who arrived together, settled together, and lived together, but who, by the next generation or two, dispersed to make way for the next influx of newcomers.
The area around Columbus Park, for example, used to be one of the worst slums in the city. Initially built on a swamp that filled with water and became rank, the area that played a large role in Jacob Riis’ policy-changing book “How The Other Half Lives” has been a German Jewish neighborhood, then an Irish one, then an Italian one. Chinatown now largely subsumes the streets.
Columbus Park was the most lively park I visited, with outdoor card games, Chinese opera performances, Tai Chi classes, and most of Chinatown’s elderly population. I was struck again with the distinct impression of a living and breathing community space.
Favorite thing about the park: Live music on a Sunday afternoon.
4) The High Line
Spanning across nearly 22 city blocks, the High Line is one of NYC’s newest parks, and one of the most creative transformations of space that I’ve ever seen. Located on top of an old elevated railroad that used to transport freight and spew smog and toxins, that space is now a green garden and public art space.
Favorite thing about the park: Raspberry and basil popsicles from People’s Pops.