Let’s take a taste of the great New York City melting pot at Van Cortlandt Park, where on a typical weekend people from all around the world come together to play. A crown jewel of The Bronx park system covering 1,146 acres at the end of the 1 train, the park is home to the country’s first public golf course, the oldest house in the Bronx, and the borough’s largest freshwater lake. Immigrants drawn to the world’s beacon of freedom play soccer and cricket on the Parade Ground where troops trained from The Revolution to World War 1.
Rich in History
The rich history precedes Frederick Van Cortlandt who built The Bronx’s oldest house in 1748 on land that his grandfather purchased from other Colonialists. Both Generals Washington and Howe used the house as a wartime headquarters as they battled each other in The Revolutionary War.
Trying to remain neutral in the war, Augustus Van Cortlandt hid the city records in his family’s burial vault before turning them over to the victorious Patriots after the war.
In 1876, Frederick Law Olmsted fell in love with the Van Cortlandt estate when he was surveying The Bronx to map out the streets we drive today. He compared it to his recently created Central Park and urged city officials to purchase it as a park.
That finally happened in 1888 and the house is now a museum with genuine period furnishings and adorned with the original Dutch orange and blue, today’s official colors of The Bronx. History buffs should take one of the excellent tours.
Let the Games Begin
The country’s first public golf course opened in 1895 and four years later the “Johnny Appleseed of Golf”, Tom Bendelow, expanded it to 18 holes. It was popular enough to open the second Mosholu Golf Course in 1914.
Other areas of the park saw a network of roads and hiking trails connecting picnic areas, a Shakespeare Garden, and bison from The Bronx Zoo roaming the Parade Ground. The cross-country running trail where so many of us competed in high school opened in 1914. You can follow the tortoise and hare signposts through the trails today.
New York City’s most powerful official of all-time, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, used his jurisdiction over Van Cortlandt Park to realize his dreams of the west side highway connecting with the Deegan Expressway and other parkways. Beginning in 1934, he spent decades cutting through the park with various roads leading to the toll bridges that made him so powerful. He left the park in six pieces traversed by three highways.
To compensate, the people of the northwest Bronx got paved bike trails, lighting and playgrounds. The world class Riverdale Stables opened in 1934 and thrives today. Baseball, soccer and cricket fields came in 1938. The Olympic sized swimming pool was built over a marsh in 1970.
Warriors Come Out to Play
By then, New York City’s fiscal profligacy and the weak national economy were affecting the park. The pool was cracking under its weak foundation and other converted marshlands were damaging the environment. Dead fish washed up on the banks of the lake where boats couldn’t get through the algae.
Homeless encampments grew in the woods and gang warfare played out on the Parade Ground at night. The Warriors movie didn’t seem far-fetched to anyone growing up then. Running through the woods with hundreds of high school competitors was something none of us would do alone.
The Parade Ground remained popular for cricket and soccer, and the New York Philharmonic began a tradition of concerts in the park that continue on June 13. Committees and plans formed to help save the park. Fish were restocked in the lake, and Perrier donated some exercise equipment.
And then New York City’s renaissance came.
Committees and plans to save the park were bolstered by a vibrant economy. A 1985 study recommended ecological restoration, which is part of the current “Van Cortlandt Park Master Plan 2034.” Critical forest and rural landscapes will be restored and Tibbetts Brook is to be diverted.
The golf course and historic clubhouse were renovated in 2016 and a skate park and toddler playground opened in 2020. New paths, bridges, playgrounds, courts and comfort stations are under way as part of the Master Plan.
Silver and Gold
Such a rich resource makes for an attractive place to live. True to its melting pot characteristics, the neighborhoods surrounding Van Cortlandt Park comprise the broadest demographics imaginable. Households of all races, nationalities, and incomes reside within a short walk to everything it offers. Lower income households live in the neighborhoods to the south with rising rents to the east along Mosholu Parkway.
Woodlawn borders on the northeast, a middle class neighborhood supporting mostly Silver class properties. Apartments line the Bronx River with single and small multifamily houses populating the hill up to the park, some enjoying yards and driveways.
Van Cortlandt Park serves as an extended campus for Manhattan College bordering Broadway on the west. Gaelic Park Stadium just outside the southwest corner, is once again the Jaspers’ home field.
West of campus, Fieldston represents the goldest of Bronx neighborhoods with 5 bedroom houses on half acre lots shaded by towering trees.
Further west are the magnificent mansions of Riverdale overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. Here you find multi-million dollar houses with spectacular views scattered among plenty of more modest homes and apartment living too. Bike and walking trails along the Henry Hudson Parkway lead into Van Cortlandt Park.
Commercial assets like offices and warehouses along E 233rd Street take advantage of the Moses highway system and excellent mass transit. Some retail establishments on Broadway have been around since the old days, surviving on consistent clientele from the subway and Manhattan College. The most common commercial assets around the park are apartment buildings housing a wide assortment of income levels. New housing developments are adding to the denser areas south of the park.
Everything You Want
Multigenerational Bronxites living in their grandparents neighborhoods, new New Yorkers looking to melt into America, and all types of people gather regularly in Van Cortlandt Park to play any game known on earth.
The woods are safe again for exploring. You can look for Bronx Stonehenge along the Putnam Trail where huge blocks of various stone types were weather tested for durability before being used to build Grand Central Terminal. The only concern about exploring up the hill to the Van Cortlandt family vault is the poison ivy. You can spend several full days in the park and hardly notice the three highways cutting through it. But no camping is allowed.
With summer upon us, coming posts will feature the other jewels in the crown of Bronx parks. Pelham Bay Park is larger, and The Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Garden are more spectacular. All are among the fabulous resources that draw people from around the globe to call The Bronx their home.
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