Thursday, October 14, 2021

Boston's Urban Parks


Boston Public Gardens Foot Bridge

Boston is a beautiful and historic city, and there are plenty on walks that explore both of these aspects of the city. On a recent visit, I decided to spend some time exploring a few of Boston’s historic urban parks.

Boston Commons and Public Gardens


Parkman Grandstand

In the center of Boston’s downtown are two parks that harken back to the European cities that the its founders came from. The Boston Commons is the oldest city park in the United States. It was created in 1634 as a local grazing area for cows. In 1830, the cows were banned (along with Blacks and Native Americans) and the commons was turned into park. In addition to being a green island in Boston’s urban center, over the centuries it has been a gathering place for political rallies and demonstrations, and the site of many concerts.

Sailor on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Education, on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Across the street is the Boston Public Gardens. Originally a rope walk, an area where long strands of material were laid out and and then twisted into rope, this marshy area was filled in with rocks and soil from the removal of Mount Vernon, a hill in the Back Bay neighborhood. In 1839, it was designated a public park, however, a dispute between the cities of Boston and Roxbury delayed its development until the 1860’s.

The Pond in Boston's Public Gardens

The Boston Public Gardens is best known for three things. First are the swan boats on its beautiful pond. They carry visitors, giving them a 15 minute, water level tour of the park, powered by the strong legs of its drivers.

Second is the historic foot bridge over the pond. It was built as a suspension bridge in 1867, and then converted to a girder bridge in 1921.

Finally, are the park’s ducks, made famous in the book Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey.

From the Book Make Way for Ducklings

Ducks have special rights

Make way for Ducklings statue by Nancy Schön

The Back Bay Fens


The Back Bay Fens are part of Boston’s Emerald Chain, a series of parks that ring the city’s urban center. A fen is a peat accumulating, marshy area, usually filled with salt water. There is a large fen in Boston that runs along the Muddy River from Jamaica Plain to the Charles River. Its northern end, in the Back Bay neighborhood, was turned into a park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1910. The park offers miles of walking and biking paths along the river, along with a running track and football field.

A blue heron enjoying the Muddy River

Clemente Field

Most interesting, for me, is the 7.5 acres of the Victory Gardens. These five hundred allotments were started during world World War II, and they are still being used today. The lots are given to members of the Fenway Garden Society, which is open to any resident of Boston, for the nominal fee of $40/year.

Of course, the Back Bay Fens also have lent their name to the nearby Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.

Entering Fenway under the bleachers

Nuts and Bolts - Getting There:
Boston Commons and Public Gardens - Take the Red or the Green lines to the Park Street Station, or the Green line to the Boylston Station.

The Swan Boats operate between April and September and cost $4.50 Adults/ $3 children

Back Bay Fens - There are many places to enter the park. They T-stop closest to the Victory Gardens is Kanmore Square on the Green B,C, and D lines. Walk south along Brookline Ave., past Fenway Park. Turn left onto Boylston to the Fens. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

New York Dragon Boat Festival


Dragon Boats are a paddled, canoe style craft that have been used and raced in China for over two thousand years. They are festive and colorful. Race days in China are a celebration of competition and teamwork. The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York has become a yearly tradition here since its founding in 1990, and this year I attended with the goal of people watching and enjoying the races.

In China, dragons are thought to be the rulers of all forms of water, so the idea of the boat races was to honor them. Traditionally, the races take place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, which usually falls near the months of May and June, somewhat near the summer solstice. Both dragons and the sun are considered to be male in traditional Chinese mythology. They are thought to be at their most potent at this time of year. Thus, the tradition of dragon boat festivals as celebration near the summer solstice has a long history.
Attributed to Li Zhaodao Dragon-boat Race. Palace Museum, Beijing.

Dragon boats have teams of twenty; eighteen paddlers, a steerer, and a drummer to help keep the paddlers in rhythm. The race takes place over a course that can vary from 100m to 2000m depending on the venue. Traditional boats are made from teak, but today, most teams use fiberglass boats.

The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York is held each year in Flushing Meadows - Corona Park. The lake there is long enough for a 400 meter course. While the festival usually lasts a whole weekend, this year, due to COVID, it was shortened to one day, with two racing sessions, morning and afternoon. I arrived early, as the nine morning teams were setting up their tents and warming up for the races. There were two rounds of three races in the morning sessions. In the first round, three teams race in each heat. The second round heats are set up according the place finished in the first round (1st, 2nd or 3rd place teams races each other).

During the races, supporters and other on-lookers line the shores of the lake to cheer their favorites on., or to just enjoy the thrill of a competition.

Between the morning and afternoon sessions, the festival presents music and cultural performances. This year that included performances by the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, the Tony Chuy Lion Dancers. There were also food vendors and tents set up by many local social organizations.

The Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in New York is a wonderful way to spend a summer day in the park. You will enjoy good food, Chinese culture, and some exciting and colorful boat races. 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Governor's Island


There are many islands in New York’s harbor. Ellis Island and Liberty Island get most of the attention, but there is one more that is worth a visit - Governor’s Island.

The name,  Governor’s Island, dates back to 1698, when the British reserved the island for the exclusive use of colonial governors. In 1776, a fort was built on Governor’s Island, and it played a key role in providing support during Washington’s retreat from Brooklyn Heights. Immediately after the war, Governor’s Island was home to a hotel and racetrack, but in the 1790’s, as tensions with England were again growing, new fortifications were built. Fort Jay was constructed in 1795, originally out of wood, and then rebuilt in 1809 as a stone fort. At that time it was renamed Fort Columbus. A second structure, Castle Williams was also built. Together they helped protect New York’s harbor as well as the Hudson and East Rivers.

Fort Columbus - by Lowe, Jet Related names:Vincent, M, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Castle Williams

Castle Williams

After the war of 1812, Governor’s Island continued to serve as a military base. Both the U.S. Army and a separate New York Arsenal built barracks, officer’s quarters, and support buildings. Military structures continued to be built over time, especially between the World Wars. The island remained a military base until 1965, when it was turned over to the U.S. Coast Guard. Governor’s Island became the Coast Guards main base of operations in the New York area, with 4000 sailors and 1000 family members living on the island. 


Enlisted Sailor's Barracks

Officer's Quarters

South Battery

In 1995, the U.S. government closed the Coast Guard base on Governor’s Island. What followed was a years long struggle over what to do with it. On one side were real estate developers, along with NYC Mayor Rudy Giulianl and NY Governor Pataki. They wanted to make the island into a kind of resort space, with hotels and a casino. On the other side were conservationists, organizers for public parks, and President Clinton. They wanted to place the island into the public trust. On Jan. 19, 2001, President Clinton designated the two forts on Governor’s Island as a National Monument. This effectively prevented any major development from taking place. In 2003, the rest of the island was sold to the city “for a nominal fee” with the stipulation that permanent housing was banned from the island, that half of the land must be turned into parkland,  and that the island be used only for “educational, civic, and cultural purposes.”

Governor's Island in 1995

The restoration of buildings on Governor’s Island has been slow. Many of the old officer’s quarters have been renovated and rented to local NGOs who maintain offices there. There is a NYC public school on the island, The Harbor School, whose curriculum is built around environmentalism, marine biology and sailing. There are also several seasonal restaurants and bike rental shops to visit. 

The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council has opened a permanent, year round, art gallery on the island. For 2021, the exhibitions on display include Meg Webster’s Wave brings nature inside, using natural materials a vehicle through which to address our relationship to nature, inside and outside of the gallery, and The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE by Onyedika Chuke - Part of an ongoing project that mines connections between history, archive, knowledge production and power, this iteration is focused on the US carceral system - its starting point and evolution. Both are on display through Oct. 31, 2021.

The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE by Onyedika Chuke

The Forever Museum Archive_Circa 6000BCE by Onyedika Chuke

Meg Webster’s Wave

Meg Webster’s Wave

Meg Webster’s Wave

A visit to Governor’s Island today is a literal walk, or ride, in the park. Take the ferry from Southern tip of Manhattan. Visitors are encouraged to wander among the old military buildings on the northern end of the island. Or head to the parkland on the southern end. Or come across for one of the several music or art festivals the island hosts every year.

Nuts and Bolts:
Ferry service to Governor’s Island leaves from the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street (daily) and from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, near the intersection of Furman St. And Atlantic Ave., and Atlantic Basin in Red Hook, near the intersection of Pioneer Street and Conover Street on weekends. The ticket price is $3 for a roundtrip. You must reserve tickets in advance.