On the periphery of the most congested city in the United States, there exists a woodland wonder.
As a portly old man, I give thanks to our wonderous Forest Park, which often rejuvenates and de-stresses me in the time of the Coronavirus.
It is an antidote to my egregious trips to the center of the Rancid Apple, Manhattan. Thanks to this seemingly out of place 500-acre woodland, I can recapture a part of my long-gone youth. With every walk down its main drive or whenever I transverse its woods or play catch at one of its many handball courts, I relive some of the most wonderful parts of my life. It is as much a part of me as my lungs or my guapita wife, the ever-comely Suzanne Hall.
Long Gone? Maybe Not
Forest Park reminds me of the long-ago ballgames. I recall endless happy hours passed at its various places, including woods, playgrounds and ponds.
Forest Park’s trails provide fast acting relief from the surrounding urban development madness; from nearby roads now often jammed with cars going nowhere fast. In a stroke of genius, cars were given the heave/ho from much of Forest Park Drive over twenty years ago.
Forest Park, with one boundary in Kew Gardens at Union Turnpike and another two and a half miles away in Woodhaven, near the Brooklyn border at Cypress Hills, has been a constant for me for so long. Most of my life has been lived in the communities of Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and, over the last three decades, in a part of a Kew Gardens apartment complex that is virtually and incongruously in the park. Our housing complex, Hampton Court, was the likely result of shady political zoning shenanigans generations ago in the 1930s. Here was a rare instance when the political venality endemic to this city had a good result. Hampton Court was virtually built in a park.
Let’s Head for the Park
For most of my years I have lived in communities close to Forest Park. In all of them, one of the happiest comments of youth was, “let’s go up to the park.”
That sentiment is no less sweet because I have stopped turning double plays or tracking fly balls at Victory Field or at some other ballyard in this magnificent place.
It is a park that preserves nature in the middle of one of the most congested places in the world.
Preserving nature was the partially redeemed promise of the Brooklyn officials who bought hundreds of acres of woodland and developed Forest Park in the 1890s. The park was opened in August 1895. However, the founders’ dreams were bigger than Forest Park.
A Long Gone but not Forgotten City that Built Forest Park
The City of Brooklyn, swallowed by New York City in what would come to be called by some “the crime of 1898,” projected the park as one park of a link. It was originally to be “a greenbelt extending eastward to Jamaica, Queens and westward to Park Slope, Brooklyn,” according to a New York Parks Department history.
But rapid development made the greenbelt impossible as land prices skyrocketed. Nevertheless, they were proud of Brooklyn’s Forest Park.
“This tract of ground is a fine piece of natural woodland, lying along Long Island ridge in one of its most picturesque spots,” wrote Brooklyn officials of Forest Park in 1896 in the Department of Parks of the City of Brooklyn report: “The contour is generally rolling. From the ridge the prospect is very fine, embracing views over Jamaica Bay to Atlantic Ocean.”
The heritage continues.
Walk on Forest Park Drive from Kew Gardens going across Woodhaven Blvd.—be careful crossing that roadway, which is virtually an autobahn—and continue on Forest Park Drive for about a half mile. Stay on the left. Get on one of the hills. Look down south. There is an incredible view of Jamaica Bay. These views relax one at any age.
Forest Park also has many other marvelous natural features.
“The Wisconsin glacier molded this land 20,000 years ago and left the Harbor Hill Moraine, a series of small hills known as knob and kettle terrain,” according to a small history of the Park by the New York City Parks Department history. “The woods were once inhabited by Lenape, Rockaway and Delaware Native Americans.”
Can You Hear Those Birds?
Forest Park is also a bird watchers’ paradise.
“In the spring, Forest Park is visited by as many as 100 species of migratory birds. Mid May mark the Warbler Wave,” writes Josephine A. Scalia of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department.
She also wrote that the park is “filled with songbirds.” I’ve also heard a few woodpeckers who are drawn to the park for the same reason most of us are: Wonderful trees.
Strack Pond, located in a valley in the Woodhaven part of the park near Woodhaven Blvd, is a remarkable place. Chipmunks are there in the spring. They are accompanied by squirrels, raccoons, and skunks. Turtles use the Strack Pond when the weather is warm, according to the Parks Department history.
Cicada song fills the area and surrounding neighborhoods. Toads also can be heard croaking in the evenings. In mid-summer, hatching butterflies begin to gravitate to the Joe Pye Weed, dogbane, milkweed, thistle, and other native plants.
A Colorful Place
The Parks Department also says that in the fall there is a plethora of colors. Varieties of trees drop their leaves. Several species of hawks pass through. They all like woods.
The park contains 165 acres of trees, including the largest continuous oak forest in Queens. Some trees are about a century and a half old. It is a haven for native plants and wildlife in the park’s large full-time bird population. Migratory birds pass through in the spring and fall.
Several trails are available for area residents and urban day hikers. Other facilities include playgrounds, a carousel, a running track at Victory Field, two dog runs, tennis courts, basketball courts, baseball fields, and a golf course.
Today, Forest Park “provides a 508 acres oasis for wildlife and offers a wide range of recreational activities,” wrote Elizabeth Lynch in the Queens Chronicle in 1995, the park’s centennial.
The Olmsted Influence
The park has many other unique features. Some were by design; others accidental. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, was indirectly involved in the park’s development. His firm worked on Forest Park, but the ailing Olmsted did little work on it, according to a biographer.
That was significant in how the park developed in the 1890s, according to Justin Martin.
“Frederick Law Olmsted,” Martin said, “would have been in full health decline during the pertinent years; his son, Frederick Law Olmsted. was running the firm.”
Its simplicity is another plus.
“The other distinction I made is that Forest Park is not very landscaped, as parks go,” added Martin. “It’s not full of design features a la Central or Prospect Park. Lots of it is simply woodland.”
“Never Heard of It. Where Is It?”
There’s another distinctive characteristic besides its lack of landscaping. Forest Park—unlike other major, often famous, New York City parks such as Central Park or Prospect Park—is little known. It is not only mainly woods; it is virtually the backwoods of the city.
Few tourists visit this part of New York because it is closer to Archie Bunker’s Glendale house than to the Empire State Building or Flushing Meadows park.
Consequently, since it has no worldwide reputation, Forest Park, isn’t overtaxed. Forest Park’s visitor numbers are relatively small. Forest Park, according to city numbers, has only about 900,000 visitors a year. Central Park and Prospect Park respectively have some 25 million and 10 million visitors annually.
So there’s plenty of room in Forest Park for old men to re-live boyhood dreams. There’s also plenty of room for new generations to dream.