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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Whalen Park - Activating the Subway's Leftovers

Hard-working neighborhood volunteers hosted the 2nd Annual Halloween Festival in Whalen Park in The Bronx on Saturday. Again this year, a small park that often seems to be little more than a lonely paved area with benches and some under-appreciated landscaped edges was transformed into a vibrant center of community life.

Seeing the park living up to its potential (see more photos at bottom), if only briefly, brought to mind how the quiet neighborhood corner at Perry Avenue and East 205th Street became a public park in the first place. Leftover property from the construction of the Concourse IND subway line sat vacant for many years. Ultimately, Robert Moses put it into use as a park, as he did with numerous similar locations throughout New York City.
When the Board of Transportation acquired parcels for subway construction, portions of those properties often were not needed permanently for any transportation purpose. In some cases, there were opportunities to sell some of the properties back off again and invest the proceeds back into the subway system. Many other locations were too awkwardly configured or were too encumbered by construction restrictions necessary to protect the adjoining tunnel or station structures. Generally, these properties sat vacant for decades. Even those with the potential for development saw little movement, given the lack of private construction during the Depression and into World War II.

In the Norwood neighborhood in The Bronx, the surplus property at Perry Avenue and East 205th Street, and became the site of Whalen Park and the Mosholu Library branch of the New York Public Library. Much of the property is directly above the last station on the D train. This end of the station is shallow, located just below street level. The portion of the property that allowed for feasible construction was utilized for the library.

[Mosholu groundbreaking, crowd... Digital ID: 1252879. New York Public Library

[Mosholu groundbreaking, crowd and stand.] (1952)
New York Public Library


The remainder of the property became the park. As the working-class neighborhood has struggled with social issues over the years, so too has this public space been challenged. The circumstances of its creation may have left it somewhat more vulnerable to these issues as well, since the location and configuration were dictated by the surplus status of the property, rather than plans to create a park. Nonetheless, providing the space for public use seems like it was preferable to the alternative, continuing to leave it vacant.

In recent years, the park has gradually taken on a little more life as community uses have balanced out the down-and-out sleeping on the benches. This seems to be due in part to better social services and the gradual passing on of some of the long-time "regulars." It also seems to be due to the gradual accumulation of new residents without longstanding negative images of the park. Some of the volunteers who did the hard work for the Halloween Festival have arrived in the past ten years. Likewise, new immigrant groups periodically use the space, like the young Latinas practicing for their Quincea├▒eras this afternoon.

As events like the Halloween Festival and other community use like Quincea├▒era practice have shown, with programming and perhaps some improved design, Whalen Park may have the potential to become a much better shared, civic space.

More Photos from the Halloween Festival:

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