By Madeleine Thompson
From the top of the Washington Square Arch, a visitor might be treated to sprawling views of Greenwich Village, Soho and the East Village. It’s hard to know for sure, however, since access to the top of the arch has been closed to everyone except the occasional Parks Department employee. But the City Council’s parks and recreation committee held a hearing last week to try to change that, and to ask that more off-limits places be opened to the public.
The committee identified eight historic sites that they would like to see made accessible. Three are in Manhattan: in addition to the Washington Square Arch, the list includes the Old Croton Aqueduct Gatehouse on West 119th Street and the 89th Streets Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument. Other sites throughout the city are the Fort Greene Park Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch at Grand Army Plaza, the New York State Pavilion in Queens, Hart Island and North Brother Island.
Council Member Mark Levine, in whose district the Old Croton Aqueduct sits, pressed the Parks Department to explain why the sites had to remain closed. “At a time when city park usage is surging … we have many assets in our park system that are untapped and underused,” he said. “Each of these sites is utterly unique in the world. Investing in expanding access would yield incredible benefits.”
The Parks Department’s director of government relations, Matt Drury, testified that visitor safety, structural stability, ventilation control, Americans with Disabilities Act standards and building codes were all issues that factored into the closure of these sites. In particular, Drury said the Washington Square Arch, which was dedicated to President George Washington in 1895, has a fragile roof and was not built to accommodate foot traffic inside. However, he added that the “widest audience possible should enjoy [the parks’] benefits.”
As the city’s first water supply system, the Old Croton Aqueduct stretches 41 miles from Westchester through the Bronx and into Manhattan. Near Columbia University on West 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a gatehouse for the aqueduct sits blocked off on a small rectangular plot. According to the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, the tunnels were used to supply the city with water from 1842 to 1955, when it became “insufficient due to the spiraling population growth to which it contributed.”
Thirty blocks south, at West 89th Street in Riverside Park, the Sailors and Soldiers Monument stands tall at 100 feet. It was completed in 1902 after being designed by brothers Charles W. and Arthur A. Stoughton, who won a Greek antiquity-inspired public design competition. The Parks Department website states that, despite more than a million dollars worth of repairs that were made to the monument in 1960, it still “awaits funding to repair loosened joints, chipped stone, and the damage generally wrought by time if not vandalism.”
Parks representatives seemed open to the idea of supervised public visits to these sites, especially since some of them have occasionally hosted tours in the past, but it seems there is work to be done before anyone discovers their secrets. Levine said that opening these places could bring in tourism revenue, but emphasized that money is only one reason to consider greater access. “I wouldn’t measure these experiences purely by the number of visitors.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org