Riverside Park is a scenic waterfront public park on the Upper West Side of the borough of Manhattan in New York City, operated and maintained by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The park consists of a narrow four-mile (6 km) strip of land between the Hudson River and the gently curving rise-and-fall of Riverside Drive. When the park was first laid out, access to the river was blocked by the right-of-way of the New York Central Railroad West Side Line; later it was covered over with an esplanade lined with honey-locusts. Riverside Park also contains part of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway which encircles Manhattan’s waterfronts, with car-free bike routes.
The 191 acres (0.77 km2) of land which form the original area of the Park (from 72nd – 125th Street) were undeveloped prior to construction of the Hudson River Railroad, built in 1846 to connect New York City to Albany. The first proposal to convert the riverside precipice into a park was contained in a pamphlet written by William R. Martin, a parks commissioner, in 1865. In 1866, a bill introduced into the Legislature by commissioner Andrew Green was approved, the first segment of park was acquired through condemnation in 1872, and construction began. The conceptual plan for a new park and road was drawn by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of the nearby Central Park. Subsequently, a series of designers set out to devise the new landscape, incorporating Olmsted’s idea of a park with a tree-lined drive curving around the valleys and rock outcroppings and overlooking the river. From 1875 to 1910, architects and horticulturalists such as Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons laid out the stretch of park between 72nd and 125th Streets according to the English gardening ideal, creating the appearance that the Park was an extension of the Hudson River Valley. Primary construction was completed in about 1910.
In the 1930s, Robert Moses completed the “Westside Improvement Project” to transform the park, which had become a haven for squatters. Moses’s project added new landfill west of the tracks, covered the New York Central rail line, and constructed the Henry Hudson Parkway. The park and the parkway were done so skillfully that the public is generally unaware that the Freedom Tunnel rail tunnel now used by Amtrak is underneath. The project, which cost more than $100 million in the 1930s, was twice as big as the Hoover Dam project. Moses’ biographer Robert Caro envisaged Moses surveying the area before his project, finding:
“a wasteland six miles (10 km) long, stretching from where he stood all the way north to 181st street…The ‘park’ was nothing but a vast low-lying mass of dirt and mud. Unpainted, rusting, jagged wire fences along the tracks barred the city from its waterfront…The engines that pulled trains along the tracks burned coal or oil; from their smokestacks a dense black smog rose toward the apartment houses, coating windowsills with grit…[a stench] seemed to hang over Riverside Drive endlessly after each passage of a train carrying south to the slaughterhouses in downtown Manhattan carload after carload of cattle and pigs.”
Notable monuments and statues in the park include the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument at 72nd Street (Penelope Jencks, sculptor), the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 89th Street, the Joan of Arc statue at 93rd Street (Anna Hyatt Huntington, sculptor; John V. Van Pelt, architect), and Grant’s Tomb, New York’s version of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. The numerous recreational facilities include tennis, volleyball and basketball courts; soccer fields, and a skate park that opened in the summer of 1995 at 108th St. There is a marina at 79th Street and also a kayak launch at 148th St. Before the park existed, Edgar Allan Poe liked to sit on rocky “Mount Tom” at 83rd Street. Riverside Park almost received a children’s playground designed by the great poets of Modernist style, the architect Louis Kahn and the sculptor/architect Isamu Noguchi, working in collaboration. Despite their redesigning this playground five times between 1961 and 1966, neighborhood resistance triumphed, and the project was canceled by the new administration of Mayor John Lindsay. Riverside Park also almost received a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A granite plaque was set in the paving at the end of the Promenade near 84th St. on October 19, 1947. It reads:
“This is the site for the American memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Battle April–May 1943 and to the six million Jews of Europe martyred in the cause of human liberty.”
The Amiable Child Monument on the slope north of Grant’s Tomb commemorates the long-ago death of a beloved child, a small boy who died in what was then an area of country homes near New York City. One side of the monument reads: “Erected to the Memory of an Amiable Child, St. Claire Pollock, Died 15 July 1797 in the Fifth Year of His Age.” The monument is composed of a granite urn on a granite pedestal inside a wrought iron fence. The monument, originally erected by George Pollock, who was either the boy’s father or his uncle, has been replaced twice due to deterioration. The monument is thought to be the only single-person private grave on city-owned land in New York City.
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