2014-02-14 / Columnists

Go Parks!

Come On A Magical “History” Tour With Us!
By Geoff Martin


Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx will be featured in Sunday, February 16th's “New York and the American Revolution” tour. Photo by Daniel Avila. Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx will be featured in Sunday, February 16th's “New York and the American Revolution” tour. Photo by Daniel Avila. Well, we may not have the Beatles, but we do have hundreds of years of American history to tell you all about as you stroll with us through one of our beautiful New York City parks. Almost every week, NYC Parks' Urban Park Rangers offer free history tours citywide.

Part of my mission as an Urban Park Ranger is to re-connect New Yorkers to their history and all those people who might be forgotten. We try to make history tangible, intriguing, and inviting to everyone.

When I get ready for a Native American program, I aim to offer a glimpse of this city over 400 years ago, when trails and forests preempted skyscrapers and interstates.

When we take visitors on a tour of a site interpreting 18th century New York, we try to paint a picture of Revolutionary War valor in the Battle of Long Island. When we describe monuments of forgotten people and their stories, people often comment that they’ve never really noticed them until that day.


The Battery at Fort Totten Park in Queens. Photos by Daniel Avila. The Battery at Fort Totten Park in Queens. Photos by Daniel Avila. What’s really compelling is how much history is hidden in plain sight, just around the corner or within a short bus or train ride.

My first command was at Fort Totten in Northeast Queens, where, around 1861, the US Army piled blocks of unfinished granite, weighing thousands of pounds, into a formidable fortress under the supervision of General Joseph G. Totten, head of the Army Corps of Engineers. Relatively unnoticed for over a century and a half, Fort Totten served as a center for army engineering and research until World War II. It was then transferred to Parks as part of the Federal Lands to Parks Program.

Behind the fort are abandoned bunkers and tunnels carved into the hillside that beckon adventurous New Yorkers to explore the secrets looming in their silent, dark depths. One still wonders if there are more of them waiting to be discovered.

Sometimes we forget just how old New York City really is, and that it’s one of the oldest cities in the nation. And New York really is a city that is constantly reforming and modernizing. It was a trading and cultural crossroad in 1650, a strategic port in the Revolutionary War, a center of industry in the Industrial Age, and an architectural pioneer in the Twentieth Century. Many of us scarcely realize how many historical events have shaped the city, and how much these events have steered the course of events in our nation’s history.

Why not trod on or off the beaten path to learn a little more about why that giant steel globe ended up in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, or find out how a ragged troop of Revolutionary War soldiers helped save the war? Consider it a guilty pleasure or your own little secret in a city filled with them?


Historic overview of the World's Fair, July 30, 1964. Photo courtesy NYC Parks. Historic overview of the World's Fair, July 30, 1964. Photo courtesy NYC Parks. On Sunday, February 16th, it's "New York and the American Revolution" in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx at 1 p.m. (meet at the Van Cortlandt Nature Center on Broadway and West 246th Street).

Sunday, February 23rd, please join us in Isham Park in upper Manhattan at 1 p.m. (Isham Street and Seaman Avenue) for "Native Americans in New York."

On Saturday, March 1st, it's “Historic New York: The World's Fair/Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens at 1 p.m. (meet at the Unisphere). And on Sunday, March 9th, we're meeting at Pelham Bay Nature Center (Bruckner Boulevard and Wilkinson Avenue) in the Bronx at 1 p.m. for "Historic New York: Estates of Pelham Bay."

For more information on upcoming history tours, go to www.nyc.gov/parks and put Urban Park Ranger Tours in search.

Go Park! Go history!

Geoff Martin is an Urban Park Ranger for NYC Parks.

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