The Upper West Side’s other park
How Riverside Park emerged and expanded from the 19th century to the present
While everyone knows Central Park, the Upper West Side is also home to another park — Riverside Park — that has its own beauty and unique attractions.
The genesis of Riverside Park began when the Hudson River Railroad (the ancestor of today’s Amtrak line leading north to Albany, Buffalo and Toronto) was built in a cut through the woods near the Hudson River.
The railroad helped to spur the development of the Upper West Side, and Central Park Commissioner William Martin proposed in 1865 that a scenic drive (Riverside Drive) and a park be built between what is now the drive and the river, according to the Parks Department website.
Frederick Law Olmsted, co-designer of Central and Prospect Parks, was commissioned in 1873 to come up with a plan for the new park. Several landscape architects, including Samuel Parsons and Olmsted’s partner Calvert Vaux, also contributed to the design of Riverside Park.
The Drive soon became a favored residence of wealthy New Yorkers, and several monuments were placed along it, just inside the park. Among these were the Sailors and Soldiers Monument at West 89th Street, which commemorates the Union soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War; and Grant’s Tomb at 122nd Street, the final resting place of President Ulysses S. Grant. (Grant’s Tomb, of course, is the subject of the old joke, “Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb?”) More recently, the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial Plaza, at 83rd Street within the park, was dedicated in 1947.
In the 1930s, Riverside Park had deteriorated to the extent that it contained vast expanses of mud and dust. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses renovated the park between 1934 and 1937, adding 148 acres, according to the Parks Department. He also covered what was then the open cut for the New York Central Railroad’s freight line from the southern part of the park up to the 120s, building a promenade on top of it. Today Riverside Park is basically a three-level park that slopes down to the river’s edge: people can walk along the edge of the park, along the promenade within the park, or further down along the river.
As for the underground railroad tracks, Conrail, the freight successor to the New York Central, discontinued service down the West Side of Manhattan around 1980. For about 10 years afterwards, the tunnel became the dwelling place of the “Mole People,” a large colony of squatters. It also became known as the “Freedom Tunnel” in honor of graffiti artist Chris Pape, aka Freedom, whose large-scale works included recreations of Goya’s “Third of May” and Michelangelo’s “David.” Then in 1991, Amtrak began using the route as part of its “Empire Connection” to Albany and Buffalo, and the homeless colony was chased out. Still, the tunnel continues to attract graffiti artists and urban explorers. This past December, a group of walkers and I saw some inebriated Santas in town for “SantaCon” who were trying to walk on the tracks into the tunnel at its northern entrance, around 125th Street. After we shouted to them that high-speed trains used these tracks, they wisely walked on the side instead.
During the 1930s, Robert Moses also built the 79th Street Boat Basin, which was designed as a place where people could dock their boats during the summer, but over the years evolved into a year-round community. A New York Times article from 2008 quotes a longtime resident, Ed Bacon, as saying that residents have included “starting artists, Wall Street financiers, rock promoters, computer programmers United Nations employees and Dick DeBartolo [a senior Mad Magazine writer].” Over the years, there have been periodic complaints about conditions at some of the boats, and the Times article mentions that a move was underway either to upgrade or evict 19 boats that were found to be un-seaworthy. Overlooking the marina, a bit further inland, is a rotunda that houses the Boat Basin Café.
Starting in 2001 and continuing in stages, a new section stretching from 59th to 72nd streets called Riverside Park South has been added to the park. Its construction was the result of a deal that Donald Trump, who then owned the land, made with the city that allowed him to build several residential high-rises, according to the Riverside Park Conservancy. Riverside Park South includes a soccer field, three basketball courts and a public pier.
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