In Praise of Prospect Park

Today is officially “It’s My Park Day.” But it isn’t mine, or yours; it’s not even ours. After all, we’re justing passing through this life, this borough. If we do our job, the park will long survive us.
This is a reminder that Prospect Park, indeed, all our urban parks, are combinations of the natural and the human, highly engineered: this hydrant is on Lookout Hill, by the Butterfly Meadow. I assume it is connected to whatever is left of the reservoir built inside Lookout to provide/control all the water in the park. Today, the water is hooked up to the city, and can be turned on/off with a tap.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux took all the lessons they learned in Central Park and made a better park here. It’s smaller, sure, but o so much sweeter. This is not to disparage Central, of course, which after all inspired the then-city of Brooklyn to come up with something better, but given my druthers, you bet I’d rather be here than there.

An interesting pair, Olmsted and Vaux, who sometimes bickered like a couple in a sitcom. Olmsted is the far more famous — some still give him all credit for CP and PP, but that has changed more recently.

Alas, poor Vaux! That’s pronounced like “fox,” by the way; he was English not French. While Olmsted wrote voluminously and his son and stepson carried on the family name as landscape architects, Vaux — whose collected papers in the NYPL barely fill a single box — was eclipsed. Publicity is all, as usual. And then there was the ambiguity of his death: one day in November 1895, Vaux took a walk and never came back. His body was found drowned in Gravesend Bay. Requiescat in pace.

A couple of my favorite things about PP: there used to be a camera obscura on Breeze Hill (it was demolished in the 1890s). The Peninsula meadow was home to a life-sized model of Mount Vernon in 1932, celebrating the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. Montgomery Cliff was buried in the Friends Cemetery, which is surrounded by the park and exists because it pre-dates the park.

Funniest thing I’ve ever heard in the park: I was in the woods south of the Lily Pools/Rose Garden with a group of urban foragers; the area, a cruising ground, was profusely littered with condom wrappers; a voice, faux-naive, said, “Boy, this sure is the safest forest I’ve ever been in.”
The Ambergill Falls. “Lost” for most of the 20th century after the hillside above had caved into it. (Do you remember those hard, barren hillsides?) Did you know the original plans for Prospect Park were destroyed somewhere in the mists of time; bad boy Robert Moses usually gets the negative credit for that. Reconstructions therefore had to be based on old photos, postcards, and other art work.

4 Responses to “In Praise of Prospect Park”

  1. 1 Paul Lamb May 16, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    To paraphrase Michael Pollan, a park is the intersection of nature and culture.

  2. 2 amarilla May 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Had never heard about that camera obscura – I’d like to know more about it. Do you think, in that day, the park was also the staging ground for various tableaux? Well, I suppose it still is at times!

    • 3 mthew May 17, 2010 at 3:51 pm

      I think it was on the north flank of Breeze Hill, overlooking the Lullwater. Of course, all the trees now give one no sense of its view.

  1. 1 Tweets that mention In Praise of Prospect Park « Backyard and Beyond -- Trackback on May 15, 2010 at 9:21 am

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