I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was a city boy, living in an apartment building sixteen stories tall. Many people have asked me if I missed not having a back yard. They believed that growing up in NYC meant that I only had concrete playgrounds and streets. There is some truth to that. I spent a lot of time in playgrounds, and had countless football and punch-ball games on the sidewalk, but the truth is I also had a huge backyard – Riverside Park.
Riverside Park stretches from 72nd street to 158th street along the Hudson River in Manhattan. Its history is an early example of a city taking back waterfront space that had been cut off for decades by the New York Central Railroad’s Hudson Valley line. The rail line was built in 1846 to connect New York City and Albany NY. The rail line sits at the bottom of a cliff along the river. During the 1860’s a plan was developed to create a park at the top of the cliff, and this part of Riverside drive was built between 1875 and 1910, from 72nd street to 125th street. Originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, this part of the park was built by Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons. In the early 1900’s the park was extended to 155th street with its iconic viaduct (used in the filming of many movies and tv shows.)
Construction of Riverside Park - 1937 from http://kermitproject.org/newde...epark/riverside.html
In 1937 Robert Moses, known as the “Master Builder of New York,” built the Henry Hudson Parkway. Following the coast of Manhattan from 72nd street north and then into the Bronx, building this highway gave Moses the ability to expand the park down the cliff side almost all the way to the river. The construction included covering the rail line with park land and expanding the park itself to the edge of the highway. This expansion gave space for two large promenades over the rail tunnel and ball fields along the riverfront.
Over the years Riverside Drive became a place for the city to erect monuments, the biggest being Grant’s Tomb at riverside Drive and 120th street. Built in 1897, twelve years after his death, this National Monument is the final resting place of Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent Grant. Between Grant’s Tomb and 97th street there are seven other memorials including the Memorial to an Amiable Child, and the Fireman’s Memorial.
This was my backyard. We were a group of four to eight boys from our block, and Sunday morning was our time. Playing baseball in the summer and football in the fall, sledding whenever there was enough snow, I loved coming down to Riverside. It represented freedom. We would get together and head down to the park, no parents involved. It was a place where we could test our limits as we grew up. We were usually on “the second level” over the train tracks. The big fields were for organized sports, little league and Pop Warner football. We played pick-up games. Touch football, with a “designated quarterback” or baseball with a “designated pitcher” if we had an odd number of kids. Sometimes other kids would join us, we always had room for more, and it was always a fun game.
Today Riverside Park has been restored and upgraded. The football field is AstroTurf. There are public restrooms. The playgrounds on the upper level have all been redesigned with new play areas and climbing activities. There is a dog run. The 79th street boat basin has a restaurant. There is another restaurant at 105th street - Ellington in the Park, with seating both on the promenade and along the different sports fields at the parks lowest level. Riverside Park is a place where New Yorkers can enjoy a walk by the river, with views of New Jersey and the start of the Palisades. It is a place where kids come to play, and people come to run, most importantly it is still the back yard to a new generation of children on the Upper West Side.