Carl Shurz Park is a hidden gem on the East Side, thanks to a devoted gardener and an army of volunteers
Upper East Side Carl Schurz Park’s 15 acres stretch along the East River above the FDR Drive from 84th to 90th Streets and inland to East End Avenue. Unless you live in the neighborhood, you have to make a special trip to go there, which makes it feel almost like a private park.
“One of the many things that are special about Carl Schurz Park,” says its executive director, David Williams, “includes its scale. It is designed pitch perfect for its location and the community that enjoys it. Unlike many other New York City parks it is not a pathway to another part of town. When you are in Carl Schurz Park you are basically there just to be in this park. There are nooks and crannies, special spots you can think are yours and yours alone.”
Named for Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz in 1910, the park was built at the edge of what was then the solidly German-American community of Yorkville. Filled with shrubbery and trees, it has winding, shady paths, dramatic rock outcroppings, basketball courts, a large playground for children and a striking waterfront view from its promenade of the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, the Triborough Bridge and Randall’s and Wards islands. Gracie Mansion, the 18th century house that serves as the mayor’s official residence, sits on a hill on its northern edge. Flowers are almost always in bloom — lilacs, honeysuckle, daffodils, hollyhocks, iris and many other varieties.
It wasn’t always so beautiful. Williams points out recent improvements that the Conservancy helped initiate, like the well-situated gardens throughout the park, several of which were once ill-kept, and abandoned sandboxes along the Finley Walk (overlooking the river). Managed in partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Conservancy navigates a vast number of suggestions from the staff and volunteers. “We are blessed with generous donors and creative volunteers whose support and dedication to the Conservancy and their community park are legendary. Being absolutely certain that we can do what we say we will do in and for the park is a mantra. And when you look at where we have come, and how lustrous this city jewel is, I think we’ve been able to get the job done.”
The landscape is maintained by City Parks gardener John Tweddle and an army of volunteers. Since 2001, he has been looking after the park, getting mulch and compost, weeding, pruning, edging, watering, buying plants, tools, and delegating tasks to the volunteers, each of whom is assigned to one of the park’s 20 zones or beds. He earned his experience tending state parks, golf courses and the Bronx and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. A park aficionado, he walks across Central Park every morning from his home on the West Side and often finds time to wander in Riverside Park. He usually starts work around 8 a.m. and often stays until 8 p.m. “I could never tell you what I like best about the job because I love all of it,” he says. “I stay late because once I’m working on a project and I’m really getting into it, I might as well finish. I’m not going to go out at night after a day in the park.”
Dianne Olenick, the volunteer in charge of the zones, shows equal commitment. Refusing the title Zone Director, she calls herself instead “the noodge.” A neighborhood resident, she organizes the tasks and collects requests and complaints to pass on to Tweddle. Some of her volunteers work 70 hours a month and others six or seven. “Each gardener is independent,” she says. “We leave everything to their imaginations and creativity.”
She has many good things to say about the park. “What’s lovely about it is that it’s everybody’s park,” she adds. “When we’re gardening, people stop to talk and say things like a plant reminded them of a plant their grandparents had in their garden. Visitors seems to be very relaxed and happy. Every day is different there, so sweet at sun up and sun down. Spring is my favorite because there are so many irises. I love it when they burst into bloom.”
Recently, Tweddle decided the island of shrubs near the big dog run (there’s a run for small dogs as well) was too dense so he cleared it out so people could more easily use the area. Although they can stretch out on two large lawns in the central part of the park and on the hillside lawn near Gracie Mansion, he wants to give a greater feeling of space and more visibility in other sections as well. “I want everyone to see a lot of green,” he says. Winter, the longest season, poses the biggest challenge. “I try to make it more interesting,” he says. Recently, he was able to plant more evergreen trees, and has been pleased to see the camellias blooming late in the fall.
He especially loves the end of the day. “The quiet times, at dusk,” he says. “The public becomes more mellow then, too.”
For more on the park
You can find out what’s in bloom at carlschurzparknyc.etapwss.com /index.php/blooming, a well curated sampling of the plants at any season.
All year long, the park hosts special events including film screenings, concerts, children’s series, the Gracie Square Art Show (September 27 & 28), Halloween Howl, a dog costume event, and holiday tree lighting in December. To find out what’s going on: carlschurzparknyc.etapwss.com/index.php/events
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