Riverside Park: Uninviting or Idyllic? A Redesign Airs Old Disputes
For admirers of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at 89th Street and Riverside Drive, the grand old days seem to be coming back. The Memorial Day ceremonies at the 105-year-old monument, which had petered out by the 1990s, have been revived. And Gale Brewer, the City Council member who represents the area, has committed $650,000 in city money to a redesign of the potholed asphalt plaza south of the monument, with its three Civil War-era cannons.
But the redesign has also reopened some old issues.
On a visit to the monument last Monday, Michael Levine, the president of the West 89th Street Block Association, carried a plastic bag full of old postcards showing the plaza as it looked from 1902 until 1937, when Robert Moses, then the city parks commissioner, redesigned it. Much more of the plaza was covered with grass then, and the cannons sat on a grassy bed.
Mr. Levine’s group wants the city to return the plaza to its older, grassier design, which mimicked a harbor battery. “The cannons were a major part of the design,” he said.
The local preservation group Landmark West agrees and, in a letter to the Parks Department last month, called the plaza’s current incarnation “a hard, barren, unwelcoming space that no more resembles a park than the surface of the moon.”
The department’s redesign, however, would leave the grass within its current boundaries, while adding ground cover and benches, and clearing long-blocked views to the river. “The reality of kids trying to get to the cannons is that the foot traffic would trample all the grass, so you’d be left with either dust or mud,” said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner.
Besides, he said, the grass would make it hard to roll wheelchairs and strollers up to the cannons. “Providing physical access to the cannons is important to the plan,” he said. “Every small town in New England has a cannon you can go up and play with, and there’s not many cannons like that in New York.”
The city’s plan is supported by the Riverside Park Fund, a nonprofit group that finances projects in the park, and by Community Board 7, which voted to approve it on Jan. 2.
“It would seem like, ‘How can you be against motherhood and grass?’ But that’s not what this is about,” said George Chall, a World War II veteran who is chairman of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Association, a group that helps organize the Memorial Day ceremonies and presses for renovation of the monument.
Mr. Chall said he disagreed with “proponents for the restoration of some idyllic original image” and added, “If you look at the early photos, you’ll see it’s not that inviting.”