Tag Archives: History

Something happened today. Something out of the ordinary.

I was taking my group on the walking tour of the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island. We went into the “hospice room,” which was many peoples’ last stop at the hospital. As usual, the spaces at Ellis had been magical, evocative, spooky, and above all historical. There is a room where someone once swore they caught the fragrance of lavender. Another person, it is reported, heard children’s faint laughter down a corridor. In one space, the nurses’ quarters, a rainbow likes to appear on one wall no matter the weather, rain or shine. I’ve seen it many times but have never been able to capture it in a picture.

I always like to ask people when we get to the hospice room to take a moment to reflect on all the people that had come through the hospital wanting to come to America, making sacrifices we cannot imagine to come to America, and ultimately not making it here. 

(Or, as has been pointed out to me, only making to one of the New York area cemeteries.)

Blue, by the way, was considered a calming color, and so many of the sick ward walls at Ellis were painted blue.

People on my tours take that moment to reflect, then we move on to another space. After today’s tour a woman caught up with me to tell me something. She said that on her ghost-buster phone app, as we stood in the hospice and took that moment of silence, some words popped up on her screen: “we are everywhere.” That had never happened before, she said.

Phone app– latter-day Ouija Board. Okay, easy to say. Nonsense? When you are there, in the moment, it feels like anything but. Chills.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow. Anything is possible.

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Trees are winter poems

and, like written poetry, sometimes you must talk yourself into reading them. Lyndhurst, the estate near where I live, makes it easier, because its 67 park-like acres offer an arboricultural bounty. Forget the house –a gothic revival castle designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis, when romanticism reigned. (Where was Frank Lloyd Wright when we needed him?)

The place is known best as the familial headquarters of rapacious banker Jay Gould in the Gilded Age, and his daughter Helen added a bowling alley and immense greenhouse, the skeleton of which remains. Carriage roads with precisely wrought stone gutters.

The Old Croton Aqueduct cuts across the landscape, which might have been somewhat annoying to the residents of the mansion in the nineteenth century. But it was progress, and the pre-Gould-era occupants were civic minded. New York City must have pure water!

You can still follow the trail’s path up a rise.

In fact, that’s the only place you’re supposed to go off season, for some reason.

I have other plans. I have resolved to break more rules in 2020 and I think I won’t wait to set my intent.

Andrew Wyeth has an oft-quoted line: “I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.”

Lyndhurst in winter is all bones. A stand of oak on closer inspection reveals itself to include a burr oak (you can call it a bur oak if you want to be ridiculous.) They have the mossiest, shaggiest caps of all acorns, a look that surely serves some dendrological purpose, like keeping from being eaten.

Look closely and see that there has been some living creature here.

I know an arborist who likes these oaks for “the deep lobes and lustrous green of the leaves.” Only visible in the imagination now, of course. “The very large acorns can be the size of golf balls, which gives this oak its Latin name…  Quercus macrocarpa is a slow grower that can become quite large in maturity. Better suited for parks than street trees due to its size and the size of the acorns.“ Exactly! Here at Lyndhurst it can really spread out.

Wyeth also said: “I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it… I always want to see the third dimension of something… I want to come alive with the object.”

Live bones. A slightly scary concept but one that I like. The magnolia looks like it’s already ready for a warmer season.

Wait a bit. Enjoy your dormancy. You can explode later.

An arboretum in all but name, Lyndhurst has a number of mammoth beech trees that is so large as to be almost unfair to the rest of the world’s estates. I know that Newport has its share also. The Preservation Society of Newport County has even established a beech tree nursery “to ensure the future of the iconic landscapes of the Newport Mansions.”

Magnificent is a word undeniably coined to describe European beeches.

Weeping bones. Easier for any arborist to ID some specimens after leaf-out than now, but a beech can’t fool you.

Strong emotion on display with statuary scattered about the grounds, which I suspect no one but myself has examined closely for some time.

Some of these carvings gave off a strong whiff of an earlier era, when sexuality had to be expressed clandestinely. It was only proper to reveal oneself in all Nature’s glory if you were a nymph of some kind.

We’re still squeamish about some things even going on 2020, like depicting the litter of scat all around the Lyndhurst estate – deer, of course, and goose, and – this. First to identify it (dog, bear?) gets a mention in these pages.

I don’t know the intended meaning of this image. I’m sure it had one when carved. Bacchus wiping the wine from his face?

But it reminds me of one of my very favorite poems, written by William Butler Yeats in 1892 (the Gould epoch at Lyndhurst, though it’s hard to believe he ever read it). This poem is a douzaine, meaning a 12-liner, and in it Yeats wears his heart on his sleeve for wild woman – Irish republican revolutionary and suffragist –Maud Gonne. She knew how to break rules and she knew how to break hearts. One good way is to find a poet to make you immortal. Wish I knew her.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

That’s what that little guy hiding his face in the statuary says to me, out in the beautiful dormant cold.

I took a burr acorn cap with me when I left. To quote Jay Gould: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.”

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Even at seven a.m.

you could tell something was going on. The tiny park across the street on the Grand Concourse had been miraculously covered in clean mulch overnight, its tree pits and the ground all around and under the benches dark brown and shredded, all new.

The sign announcing the name of the park, the Bergen Triangle, is almost as large as the park itself.

Two Parks employees wielded leaf blowers to chase away stray shreds. Then blue tents marked NYPD went up along one side. A cop brought over a metal barricade to divert traffic from the Concourse side road. Cars parked inconveniently found themselves towed.

Sanitation vehicles, street sweepers, began to circle the triangle – three, four times. Someone wanted this area to be spic and span.

This park is usually distinguished not by cleanliness but by its canopy.

People settle in there to talk, play music, sometimes rap with a  speaker, and feed the pigeons – hence the thick coating of bird droppings on the sidewalk, something hard to avoid as I’m walking up the avenue to the work site. Some of the park sitters are lunatics, but most sit calmly enjoying the shade, which is what much of the Concourse lacks.

Recent studies have revealed the immense importance of shade on both health and mood.  When urban areas lack tree canopy people suffer.

I smelled a visit from a dignitary in all this tarting up activity. The Governor? the Mayor? Lady Gaga? I figured the action would be coming from the direction of the 94thPrecinct stationhouse a block away on 181 Street.

The Bergen Triangle originated when New York City acquired the land “for street purposes by condemnation” according to the web site of New York City Parks and Recreation. After Anthony Avenue was completed, the Department of Highways and Transportation turned the leftover lands to Parks in 1932. Parks created the bluestone-curbed, cement sidewalked, turn-of-the-century-style benches with shrubbery and pin oaks. These are the type of benches that Robert Moses favored.

Note: there are a few pin oaks still but honey locusts dominate as always in this neighborhood (the kind mercifully without thorns).

The park’s name came from William “Billy” C. Bergen (1862-1925), a one-time policeman known as the “millionaire cop” because he made a fortune developing empty lots in the Bronx at the beginning of the 20th century after starting a career as a beat cop. Walking his beat, Bergen couldn’t help  but notice large land lots as yet undisturbed by the new subway lines just coming through. When the Third Avenue El and the Jerome Avenue El opened, bringing people and industry, Bergen bought and sold with gusto, eventually becoming a developer and builder and finally a mover and shaker in Democratic politics. A small number of his houses still stand in the Bronx.

Millionaire Cop

Bergen Triangle is bounded by Anthony Avenue (the aforementioned street with the empty land — hard to imagine now), Grand Concourse and East 181 St.

Sirens start to sound. Is it starting? No, that’s just an ambulance wailing as usual.

Friendly cops congregate all around the park.

A temporary bandstand appears, hammered together by Parks workers.

At 4:00, “National Night Out Against Crime” will start – in over seventy locations!—with the purpose of improving police-community relations. One officer tells me the Mayor will indeed “stop by.” Stop by? “Alright, he’ll speak.” There are to be barbecue, face painting, musical acts. And, probably thinking there is clean mulch in the Bergen Triangle every day, the Mayor.

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