Opening Statement on An Examination of Parks Department Properties Currently Inaccessible to the Public



DECEMBER 1, 2016



Good Afternoon, I am Mark Levine, Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Parks & Recreation.  I want to welcome you to our hearing on increasing access to sites within the parks system that are now partially or fully closed to the public.

At a time when City parks usage is surging, and New Yorkers’ appetite for discovery and exploration is as great as ever, we have many assets in our park system which are untapped and underused.

Soaring monuments to heroes of long-ago wars.  Engineering marvels from centuries past. Uninhabited Islands featuring picturesque ruins and untamed nature.  New York City’s park system is home to all this and more.  

Whether underground, in the sky, or out on the water, these sites offer unparalleled opportunities for New Yorkers to connect to our history, to learn about the origins of our infrastructure, and to simply see our city from an amazing new perspective--literally and figuratively. 

North Brother Island, Hart Island, Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Washington Square Arch, Grand Army Plaza arch, Old Croton Aqueduct,High Bridge Water Tower, 119th Street Gatehouse, New York State Pavilion.

Each of these spectacular sites offers something unexpected or inspiring or thought-provoking. Most of all each is utterly unique in the world.

And these sites all have something else in common: they are each partially or completely off limits to the public.

To change that--to allow New Yorkers a chance to see and touch these marvelous sites up close--is in many cases complicated and in every case will require significant resources. But investing in expanding access would yield incredible benefits to New Yorkers and visitors alike, offering countless opportunities for education and inspiration, and even providing a potential economic boom from tourism.

So let’s take a look at these ten jewels of our parks system:

First up is North Brother Island, New York’s own Lost City, a 20-acre island off the South Bronx that beginning in the late 19th Century served as a quarantine facility for infectious diseases patients  including, most famously,Typhoid Mary. The North Brother complex eventually grew to over 30 buildings, including a tuberculosis hospital, dormitories, church, and more.  By the 1960s this city-in-miniature was abandoned, leaving nature to reclaim the island for its own.  Today North Brother is a spellbinding mix of history, natural beauty, and wild habitat. It’s off limits to the public, but a plan for limited, highly curated access could balance the need for preservation with the huge educational and inspirational potential of the site.

In the Long Island Sound between the Bronx and Queens lies the 120-acre Hart Island, which since the 18th Century has served as a quarantine site, a home for troubled adolescents, and a cold war missile base. It has also served for the past century and a half--through to today--as New York City’s public cemetery.  There are now an estimated 1 million bodies buried on the island--the indigent, homeless, AIDS patients, and others among our city’s most marginalized.

In a Dickensian twist, Hart Island is managed not by the Parks Department by the City’s Department of Corrections, which uses inmates from Rikers to do the work of ongoing burials.  This means that for security reasons the island is off limits to the public.  A bill sponsored by Councilmember Liz Crowley would transfer control of the island to the Parks Department.  This would open the way to public access, allowing those with loved ones buried on the island to freely pay their respects, and giving the public a chance to visit the partially ruined 18th Century buildings, the old missile silos, a little-known monument to world peace, and 120 acres of natural beauty with commanding views of the Long Island Sound in every direction.

Back on the mainland, New York City’s parks system is also home to many spectacular memorials, including the stately Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park, which commemorates Union Army soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War. The interior of the monument is a stunning 90-foot high rotunda with intricately carved marble and mosaics. But it has sadly been decades since the public has been allowed inside.  Much-needed renovations would allow New Yorkers to again experience this wonderful monument at its best--outside and inside.

Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park is home to the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, which was dedicated in 1908 and consists of a 100-foot-wide granite staircase and a central Doric column 149 feet in height. It marks the site of a crypt for more than 11,500 men and women who died from starvation and disease while being held captive aboard British ships during the American Revolution.

The interior stairs lead up to the top of the monument, where visitors can enjoy stunning views of the New York City skyline.  But despite a short-lived attempt at renovation of the stairs in the early 2000s, the Prison Ship Martyrs column remains closed to the public today.

The Washington Square Arch was built in 1892 to honor the centennial of the first president’s inauguration in Washington Square Park.  Today it’s one of the city’s best known landmarks--but only from the outside.  The public virtually never has access to the interior of the arch, which features a 102-step spiral staircase leading to a vaulted attic space with ceiling tiling by Guastavino, the same artisan whose work adorns ceilings at Grand Central Terminal.

No less grand is the Arch at Grand Army Plaza, officially known as the Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch, which was constructed in 1889 as a tribute to the Union army.  The top of the 80-foot-high structure was first opened as an observation platform, though the public today rarely gets to climb the 116 stairs to the top of the arch to enjoy beautiful views of Prospect Park and the surrounding areas of Brooklyn.

New York City’s long-lost infrastructure also offers incredible opportunities for discovery.  The Old Croton Aqueduct, built between 1837 and 1842, served as the City's first water supply system and was one of the world’s first great modern aqueducts, running 41 miles from Westchester through the Bronx into Manhattan. Portions of the underground system remain remarkably intact, including a long stretch running from Washington Heights through West Harlem.  To allow public tours of this underground engineering marvel would give young people and adults alike an adventure back in time.

The Old Croton water system also includes many above-ground structures which themselves are architectural jewels, most notably the High Bridge Water Tower in Highbridge Park, which was built in 1872 and soars 200 feet in the air.  The octagonally shaped tower has been intermittently open to the public since it ceased to be used for water system purposes in 1949, but the tower is now closed pending repair work.

Another currently off-limits above ground aqueduct feature is the 119th Street Gatehouse, the stunning interior of which is closed to the public.  A strong community coalition has emerged to advocate for opening the gatehouse for tours and and artistic and cultural events.

Finally, there is one of the most dramatic and iconic structures in our city, the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The Pavilion was designed for the 1964 New York World's Fair by architects Philip Johnson and Lev Zetlin. A major engineering breakthrough in its day, it featured what was then the largest suspension cable roof in the world. The structure has significantly deteriorated over the years, and today is only open to the public one weekend per year.  A recent design competition identified a number of exciting potential uses of the site, including as a concert venue, open air market, or indoor park.

Increasing access at each of the ten historic locations we’ve profiled here will require significant investment. But the City’s current outstanding debt is almost $13B below its statutory limit, and relative to the scale of the overall capital budget the costs of these projects amount to little more than a rounding error.

Opening up public access is an investment that will yield manifold dividends: a reconnection of New Yorkers to their history, added incentives for tourists to spend their dollars here, inspiration for future engineers to dream up the marvels of tomorrow, and the opportunity for countless New Yorkers of all ages to simply say “wow!”.

I look forward to hearing the testimony of the Parks Department and advocates on this exciting topic.

I would now like to call up the Parks Department to testify.

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