Crotona Park

by

03/14/2021

Neighborhood: East Bronx, West Bronx

Blanche, my mother, was past thirty, an old maid by the standards of the mid-twentieth century. She finally picked herself up and hauled herself off to a lefty resort in the Catskills, the kind of place where people were more likely to play Twenty Questions than tennis. There she met my father, Harold, who was apparently quite good at playing Twenty Questions. His mother had died when he was four, and his father died the year that Harold was discharged from the Army.

Harold went back to his job at the Post Office. He had dropped out of City College before the war and was now finishing his degree at night. His classes were filled with ex-GIs who worked during the day and fell asleep during their night classes.

Up in the Catskills, Blanche was quite taken with Harold’s fount of knowledge. He was smart in that neuroatypical way that used to be called Asperger syndrome. He could tell you what day of the week the Battle of Hastings was fought. In case you are wondering, Google says it happened on a Saturday.

Harold lived with his stepmother in the East Bronx, near the zoo. Blanche was living with her parents in the West Bronx, two blocks off the Grand Concourse. In the Bronx, west was generally better than east. The two of them got a ride together back to the city. When they pulled up in front of Blanche’s apartment house, my father was intimidated. The building had an elevator, and the windows in my mother’s apartment faced the street. That was a very big deal back in those days. Although Blanche had left Marxism behind, she still harbored anti-materialistic tendencies. So someone who could wallop his adversaries at Twenty Questions was, to her, more impressive than someone whose windows faced front.

As a child, I spent a lot of time looking through my family’s photo albums. I’d see Blanche and Harold, before they had kids, wandering around in an enchanted forest. These wanderings turn out to have taken place in Crotona Park. Since everyone is now dead there’s no one to ask, but I have the impression that my parents would have “sleepovers” in the park on hot summer nights, complete with pre-marital sex.

I remember Crotona Park, although I had never set foot in it. I grew up in Soundview, a crummy neighborhood in the Southeast Bronx. When my family finally got a car (a decade-old Nash) in the sixties, we would drive westward to visit my maternal grandparents, the ones whose windows faced front. And we would pass the park, which looked like the biggest dump I could imagine.    

Crotona Park was named after the Greek Colony of Crotone, known for its Olympic athletes. And though the Bronx is now the poorest borough, it is still the greenest, with the highest percentage of acreage devoted to parkland. It is also the only borough actually attached to the mainland. The four other boroughs are basically former swamps.

Despite Ogden Nash’s 1931 declaration of “the Bronx, no thonx” (which he ultimately apologized for), at that time the Bronx attracted residents from parts of the city  that had poor air quality. Several nonagenarians I know left their homes in Queens and Brooklyn in the 1930s and moved up to the West Bronx. I sometimes think of my borough of origin as the Adirondacks of New York City. Historically, the Bronx had a long-standing tradition of curative air. In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe moved to bucolic Fordham in hopes that the country air might heal his wife’s tuberculosis. She lasted another three years. 

My mother was born in 1916, in the Garden State. How New Jersey still has the chutzpah to call itself the Garden State is beyond me.  She lived in Newark, in the back of her family’s grocery store in a Polish neighborhood. Her parents spoke both Yiddish and Polish, but not much English. They relocated to the Lower East Side and then to the Bronx where they opened some kind of deli/bar establishment. Their new home was near Crotona Park. 

My mother told her stories over and over again. One of her favorites was about her first excursion into the Park. She described the experience as magical and claimed that she had never seen a plant before she moved to the Bronx. Years later, she studied botany at Hunter College. 

During her adolescence, her family moved up to Allerton Avenue, which was populated primarily by Italian immigrants, many of who grew rose bushes in their front yards. And just in time for Blanche, the New York City Board of Education built Evander Childs High School on Gun Hill Road.  

My mother loved attending Evander Childs because it was surrounded by green fields with flowerbeds and verdant shrubbery. And even though she now lived quite a hike away from Crotona Park, she always went back. It was well maintained with a swimming pool, bathhouse and boathouse, along with baseball fields, playgrounds, tennis courts and lots of toilets. Much of this was done under the aegis of Robert Moses, who became the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 1934. He poured a lot of money into the renovation. Yes, the same Robert Moses who, later on, ripped through a huge swath of the South Bronx, providing us with the destructive and much-hated Cross Bronx Expressway. It ran straight through the park, cutting off the northern portion. 

By the 1950s, Crotona Park had become the setting for several high-profile crimes, as gangs were becoming active in the surrounding neighborhoods. Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the Bronx lost more than 97% of their buildings to fire and abandonment. The Parks Department faced financial shortfalls, and Crotona Park was considered a dangerous area. A serial rapist frequented the park, and muggings, shootouts, fires and stabbings were reported into the early 1990s. 

In 1996, the Friends of Crotona Park was established in an attempt to achieve revitalization. I wondered if the place still looked like a dump. 

There’s only one way to find out. I will report back.

*******************************************************************

So here’s the story. Perhaps the month of the winter solstice is not the best time to judge a park. The weather was crummy; the sky was leaking slush. I saw only one other person walking in the 127 acres that cover the park. It did not seem architecturally remarkable, except for the Crotona Play Center, built in 1936. But the Park’s size, topography and wooded areas did enough to swell my heart.  I could imagine my mother transcendent, transformed by the scope and lush greenery of her surroundings, pretending she was romping in the Forest of Arden.

Crotona reminded me of the park I visit every morning. Fort Tryon Park is a bit down on its heels. Linden Terrace is buckled and cracked, a trip hazard if there ever was one. But it has such heart-stopping views of the Palisades and the 19th Century monastery across the Hudson River and the medieval architecture of the Cloisters, I can easily pretend that I am in Tuscany. 

Parks mean different things at different times. As a child, our only playground was over on Soundview Avenue, a fifteen-minute walk from our house.  But it had swings, so it was worth the schlep. When I finally became a resident of Manhattan at the age of twenty-five, the fact that I could run around Central Park’s Great Lawn every morning made me feel that I had truly conquered this town. And this year when I recovered from Covid at the end of March and came out of quarantine, the first place I headed for was Fort Tryon Park. It was April Fool’s Day. The daffodils were already in bloom and the magnolia buds were starting to open. I could easily understand my mother’s botanical fixation.  

Throughout the past nine months, I’ve clung to my neighborhood. But every morning, if the wind chill factor isn’t too brutal, I have headed north into my own enchanted forest.  By the time I return home, I am absolutely beaming. Sometimes a park is just a park and sometimes it is much, much more.

***

Marissa Piesman recently retired after practicing law for forty years. She is also the author of The Yuppie Handbook and the Nina Fischman mystery series.

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§ One Response to “Crotona Park”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    Such a lovely piece! It struck some chords with me, made me think about my relationship to parks over the years I lived in the city. I hadn’t realized it but there was always a park in my life; sometimes it was a park of convenience, like the playground at Mercer & Bleecker, where i took my son after daycare when he was a toddler. sometimes it was a park that i just fell madly in love with, as happened much later on when I discovered you could take one bus all the way from 6th ave & 35th to Wave Hill, in the Bronx. wonderful memories; thank you!

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