Beautiful Bronx Gardens: Wave Hill


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A few months ago, I made a list of New York City Things that I hadn’t gotten around to doing yet. My Brooklyn Bridge walk was on that list. Also on the list was a visit to one of New York City’s historic mansions and gardens. I’ve been to several houses that are part of the Historic Hudson Valley Estates, but was always interested in visiting one of the estates within the boundaries of New York City. On our way back from visiting family in Connecticut one Sunday, I finally got to cross that item off the list. Well, sort of.

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We visited Wave Hill in the Rosedale section of the Bronx, which is actually a botanical garden and cultural center. But there’s a big house! An interesting one, too. It was rented out to a variety of cool folks, most notably Bashford Dean, half of whose very large collection of arms and armor eventually made their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his time at Wave Hill, he actually began a stone museum onto the mansion to house his collection, which was finished after his death. (He’s also the only person – so far! – to simultaneously hold positions at the American Museum of Natural History and the Met, which is pretty stinkin’ awesome.)

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Of course, when we went, the main house was just finishing up a two-year renovation, so we couldn’t see it. BUT, we wandered through an art exhibit at Glyndor Gallery, enjoyed a variety of greenhouses, and took in the gorgeous gardens in all their late Spring glory. It was a pretty perfect afternoon.

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Wave Hill is perched high above the Hudson, featuring sprawling grounds with a variety of landscaped areas to choose from. You can sit on the perfectly manicured lawn outside the main house, or traipse through leaves along a woodland trail. There is a picnic area, and when we were there I saw a few food trucks peddling their wares.

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All in all, although Wave Hill may not have technically quenched my thirst to wander through a New York City mansion, it was definitely worth a trip to the Bronx. And with free admission Saturdays from 9-12, it’s probably even worth splurging on a MetroNorth ticket to make your trip north a little faster. They are also open late on Wednesday evenings in the summer for sunset-gazing – I’m sure it’s beautiful with the view over the New Jersey Palisades. For more information, check out Wave Hill’s website. And if you make it up there, keep this warning sign in mind:

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Not creepy at all, Wave Hill. Nope.

The Tiniest Museum in NYC // Wandering the Lower East Side

This heat! I know. It sucks. After days of moving as little as possible in barely-air-conditioned rooms, I am itching to get out and wander a bit. Luckily, the heat is supposed to break on Sunday, and New Yorkers can take to the streets without fear of heat stroke once again.

A few weekends ago, E and I decided to stroll through some neighborhoods we don’t spend much time in: Chinatown and the Lower East Side. One of our stops was a teeny, tiny museum located in a freight elevator shaft in an alley in Tribeca. Sound fishy? It certainly felt a little fishy. But I am here to tell you that the museum is indeed real, and it’s pretty neat.

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It is usually open on weekends, but was unexpectedly closed the day we wandered through. (You can get updates on operating hours on the museum’s twitter feed.) Still, there is a window on the street that you can peer through, and a plaque posted on the building with a number you can call to access the audio guide. The collection is quirky, and the mundane objects are brought to life by the stories around them.

While you’re in the neighborhood, here are some other gems to check out:

Happy 58th Birthday, Disneyland!

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After a press preview on July 16, 1955, Disneyland opened to the public on July 17 – complete with insane traffic on the roads to the park, crowds that overwhelmed the park’s infrastructure, and marks from guests’ high heels in the still-soft asphalt. You can watch TV news coverage of the opening here.

I have only visited Disneyland once, in 1994, at the tender age of 9. I don’t remember much from the visit, but I know I was in awe of the facade for “it’s a small world” and I loved the queue for Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin

In lieu of a more detailed personal remembrance, allow me to share my favorite bit of current Disneyland trivia: feral cats! The park is home to a large population of feral cats who help keep the rodent population down at night, and spend most of the day out of sight. Of course, sometimes they still make an appearance, such as this little guy completely ruining the scale of Storybook Land Canal Boats.

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(Photo from Listverse)

So, happy birthday, Disneyland! Someday, I hope to get back out to the west coast to visit.

Memory and Tragedy: The Hartford Circus Fire

Last Saturday marked the 69th anniversary of the Hartford Circus Fire, one of the deadliest fires in the United States. My family is from the Hartford area, and my father was supposed to attend the circus that day. Luckily, he didn’t, and he grew up to be quite the circus enthusiast. Growing up, I heard stories about the fire, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized what an historic event it had been.

(image from HartfordHistory.net)

(image from HartfordHistory.net)

The day of the fire is also known as “the day the clowns cried.” Approximately 7000 people attended the circus on July 6, 1944, and 167-169 people died when the big top tent caught fire. Waterproofing with paraffin wax and kerosene or gasoline accelerated the destruction, and increased the deadliness of the blaze. Because a large number of tickets were given out – but not counted – in rural areas and to homeless people, no one is entirely sure how many people were in the audience, or how many died in the fire (More info here).

The circus came back to Hartford in the 1970s and visited throughout my childhood, but never again performed under a tent. Hartford has changed a lot in the 70 years since the fire. The space where the tent was set up is in the North End of the city, an area that was predominantly Irish and Jewish at the time of the fire. Since then, the construction of Interstate 84 cut this neighborhood off from downtown Hartford, and manufacturing jobs have been lost. A housing project was built on the site, but has since been torn down. The neighborhood is now home to a large West Indian/Caribbean community, many recent immigrants. This demographic change raises questions about space and memory — if the population that was affected by a tragedy such as the Hartford Circus Fire no longer lives in the area, who will remember and commemorate the events?

In 2005, the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial was erected on the site where the circus set up on July 6, 1944. Interpretive plaques tell of the events of the day, and a circular plaque and benches mark the location of the tent’s center pole. Along what was the perimeter of the tent – where many people survived by slicing open the canvas side walls to escape the heat and flames – are flowering dogwoods. It is a lovely memorial, and a quiet and reflective place.

After I graduated college, I did a stint with AmeriCorps as a literacy tutor in an elementary school in Hartford. Some of my coworkers were working in the Fred D. Wish School, which sits in front of the fire site and the current memorial. One weekend afternoon, I drove over to the school to check out the memorial. It was deserted. In fact, the whole neighborhood felt empty, despite the large number of houses and apartment buildings there. Based on that experience and the fact that many people I know in the area know little to nothing of the fire, let alone the memorial, I have to assume that the memorial is little used. The site feels too somber to use as a park (as opposed to places like Battery Park in lower Manhattan, which is chock full of memorials but used primarily as a park), but if the community around it doesn’t feel a connection to the events that are being memorialized, it’s unlikely that the memorial will find an audience. And maybe that’s okay.

It is important to note that the push for (and establishment of) a memorial to the Hartford Circus Fire took place about 60 years after the fire itself. The show that Thursday afternoon during World War II was attended mostly by women and children. Many of those kids bore the physical and emotional scars from the day for the rest of their lives. In 2004, for example, survivor Dorothy Carvey attended her first circus performance since the fire, at the age of 86. Her son, who also escaped at age 3, was already in his 60s. We tend to memorialize things as they fade from our collective memories. In the case of the Hartford Circus Fire, enough time had passed that survivors were passing away from old age, and the neighborhood had changed dramatically. It makes sense that a formal memorial would be erected at that time.

The question, though, is if it will attract visitors and help keep the memory of the event present, or if it will exist only in the background of people’s lives, as a space that is sacrosanct but not personally revered.

In any case, stories about circus fire ghosts persist at the school in front of the site. It may be hard to hold people’s attention with historical facts, but with ghosts? You can really capture the public’s imagination.

If you’d like to see some video footage from the fire:

The Hartford Public Library has also begun a scrapbooking project using people’s memories of the fire.

An Overdue Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened 130 years ago, it was a technological marvel – the longest suspension bridge in the world! – and people didn’t know if they could trust it. A few days after the bridge opened in May 1883, a rumor that the structure would collapse caused a stampede that killed 12 people. P.T. Barnum, ever the master showman, saw an opportunity to promote his circus, and renewed an offer –  already once turned down – to stage a spectacle on the bridge. This time, with the recent deaths and persistent mistrust of the bridge at top of mind, officials allowed him to. The following May, he marched 21 elephants, including that gentle giant, Jumbo the fucking elephant, across the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Look, I go to a lot of zoos, and that is one seriously huge elephant.
(Image from the collection of the Barnum Museum)

Obviously the Bridge is still standing, so we felt it safe to join the throngs crossing it by foot one beautiful spring day a month or so ago. Somehow, despite living here for the past few years, visiting the city many times before living here, and having worked in lower Manhattan several times each, neither of us had ever walked across the bridge. It was time to make like Jumbo the elephant.

A walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is just over a mile long, with a pedestrian walkway and bike lanes suspended above the car traffic. The views are lovely – the soaring towers of lower Manhattan on one side, Brooklyn looming straight ahead, and my favorite harbor bridge, the Manhattan Bridge (it’s true!), off to one side.

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Attached to many surfaces were Love Locks, or padlocks that couples attach to bridges while making a wish for everlasting love, and then throwing the key into the river. This is another reason not to eat anything anyone catches in New York City’s rivers: it probably has a key in its belly from one of these clowns.

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When we made it over to Brooklyn, we waited in line for half an hour to eat Grimaldi’s pizza (I hate waiting in line for things, but I will admit that this was absolutely worth the wait! There was a pizza-shaped hole in my heart, and Grimaldi’s filled it.) and then wandered into Brooklyn Bridge Park, where E and our friend D played catch on a tiny patch of unoccupied lawn.

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We wandered through Smorgasburg in the Tobacco Warehouse, and then headed back to the subway. This was, in all honesty, probably one of the most lamely touristy excursions we’ve ever made in the city (and I hope I’ve made it clear that I love doing touristy shit), but I admit it was fun. It’s always good to get a new perspective on your city, and a slow journey across a very large bridge is a really excellent way to do so.

I still feel like we maintained a bit of our insider cred, though. We stayed on the downtown 6 train after its last stop at the Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall station and looped on through the abandoned City Hall subway station to show our friend D. And the lights were on. So, I mean, that must count for something, no?