An experienced urban explorer knows that when an object appears unusual, it has a long history behind its appearance. One such example is the wall behind the 86th Street Shop in Central Park. This is where the Parks Department fuels and repairs its vehicles.
The wall behind the shop’s parking lot is slightly inclined and runs straight between the shop building and the Central Park Precinct. This wall is a remnant of Central Park’s Lower Reservoir, which contained the city’s drinking water from 1842 to 1929.
Where it Was
In Egbert Ludovicus Viele’s famed map of Manhattan, the Receiving Reservoir occupies a space in the grid bounded roughly by 79th Street, Sixth Avenue, 86th Street, and Seventh Avenue. In 1842, the site was known as York Hill, site of a free black settlement that was displaced to make way for it. To its north, a vast swamp held the waters of Saw Kill’s northern branch. This swamp later became the Upper Reservoir of Central Park.
The residents moved to its western side, a short-lived neighborhood known as Seneca Village. By 1857, it too was forced out to make way for Central Park. Viele’s map omits Seneca Village as it had been condemned by the state at the time of the map’s publication.
Old and New
While most of Central Park’s natural streams still flow within the park and the Upper Reservoir is famous for its curvy shoreline, fountains, and running track, the Lower Reservoir is a distant memory. Its former surface reconstructed in the 1930s as the Great Lawn, an open field of baseball diamonds, with a small portion of the reservoir remaining as Turtle Pond.
The parking lot’s wall gives away its past when viewed up close. All of the city’s old reservoirs had sloping walls, designed to hold the weight of millions of gallons of water. The tops of the walls were thinner than on the bottom.
Such were the appearances of long-gone urban reservoirs such as Mount Prospect, Murray Hill, High Bridge, and Williambridge, among others. The stones of this retaining wall were locally sourced as upper Manhattan had plenty of hard schist quarried for use in mid-19th century architecture.
Soon after the reservoir’s decommissioning and draining, the country suffered the Great Depression and for a time, the stalled work site was occupied by a squatter community, perhaps one of the most iconic Hoovervilles on account of its location in a picturesque park framed by wealth.
Hooverville in the Reservoir
In 1930, a homeless encampment was set up on the dusty remnants of the reservoir. Although the police cleared up this settlement attempt, the shanties were quickly rebuilt and the builders were taken to court. In July 1931, a sympathetic judge suspended the sentences of 22 unemployed men ticketed for sleeping in Central Park , giving each man $2 out of his own pocket. In December of that year, six more men were arrested with the same charge dismissed in court.
The settlement received the public’s admiration for resourcefulness alongside derision for its apparent disregard for the law. By April 1933, work on the reservoir’s demolition resumed and the park’s most famous homeless encampment was cleared.
Throughout its history, the city’s Parks Department has had a close connection to the issues of homelessness and unemployment. On one hand, the agency struggles to this day in clearing parks of overnight guests. On the other hand it also operates the WEP- Work Experience Program, later renamed the POP- Parks Opportunity Program that gives job opportunities at the agency for welfare recipients.
From atop the reservoir retaining wall, one sees a flat terrain of baseball fields that is the Great Lawn. When it is not used for sports, it serves as an outdoor concert venue, such as the New York Philharmonic‘s popular (and free) summer concerts in the park.
At the Southern end of the Reservoir
The one corner of the reservoir where the natural terrain was left undisturbed is Vista Rock, atop which stands the Belvedere Castle.
Prior to the creation of Central Park, the 130-foot hill was topped by a fire observation tower. During the reservoir’s construction, this hill was left untouched, intruding slightly into the otherwise perfect rectangle of the reservoir. In 1867, Calvert Vaux designed the hybrid Gothic-Moorish castle as an architectural folly, one that serves as visual landmark rather than as an actual fort or dwelling. Topped with a flag, Belvedere Castle lined up with The Mall further south in the park, a landmark designed to draw the park’s visitors towards its center.
Every landmark in Central Park has its literary defender. Just as E. B. White wielded his pen to preserve The Ramble, author Anna Quindlen used her July 17, 1980 op-ed in The New York Times to defend Belvedere Castle from further decay. “It looms above the landscape like the cover drawing on a gothic novel, a true castle in the air.” The castle reopened to the public on May 1, 1983 as the Henry Luce Nature Observatory, teaching visitors about the plants and animals that live in Central Park.
Between 1930 and 1934, Central Park experienced the greatest alteration to its landscape since its creation as the Lower Reservoir was drained and replaced with the Great Lawn. The draining was conducted from the northern to the southern ends, with the last remaining portion of the reservoir preserved at Belvedere Lake.
Unlike Sheep Meadow and North Meadow, the Great Lawn would not remain a grassy oval. The installation of six baseball diamonds in the 1950s followed by three decades of public concerts resulted in pollution for the pond. Dust settled on its bottom and algae bloomed on its surface. The pond appeared as an oversized puddle, unable to reflect the crumbling castle looming above it. Following the 1983 restoration and reopening of Belvedere Castle, the pond was renamed after the turtles that were introduced to it and marshes were planted along its northern side to shield the water from the dust of the Great Lawn.
On a warm day, the turtles can be easily seen from the pier on the pond’s eastern side.
In the News:
DNAinfo reports on the new Parks Department Wildlife Unit
DNAinfo also reports on volunteers planting 10,000 trees at Jamaica Bay
NY1 News takes a look at a new documentary on the Staten Island Greenbelt
NY1 News reports on the whimsical wildlife inspired redesign of Bowne Park
Daily News reports on a cesspool company’s guilty plea to dumping in Gowanus Canal.
Meet the Author:
I will be discussing the hidden waterways of northeastern Queens at Douglaston-Little Neck Library on Thursday, November 10, 2016 6 p. m. For more details, call 718-225-0414.