Before it Was Leif Ericson
In Brooklyn, the turn of the 20th century was an era of parkways, when city planners built combined drives and parklands that would lead scenically from Prospect Park to outlying areas of the borough (e.g. Eastern Parkway, Ocean Parkway). Once such network of parks was to be called the Bay Ridge Parkway, not to be confused with present-day 75th Street. It would splinter off from Fort Hamilton Parkway between 66th and 67th streets, then run west all the way to First Avenue (now Colonial Road), curve around the old Bliss estate (now Owl’s Head Park) to Shore Road, extending then at least as far as the armybase—if not all the way to Ocean Parkway and back up to Prospect Park.
The city acquired the future Leif Ericson land in 1895–97, and the first completed leg of the Bay Ridge Parkway project opened a few years later, between 66th and 67th streets, from First Avenue to Fourth Avenue, which in the early 20th century became the showplace of Bay Ridge; the majority of old Bay Ridge postcards you can buy on eBay are various views of this narrow strip of parkland, highlighting its winding paths down sloping hills, its broad central drive and the several stone bridges that crossed it (and, sometimes, the elevated train tracks at Third Avenue, torn down ca. 1940).
But a lack of investment and political will caused the ambitious unified parks project to break off into separate elements. Plans for Owl’s Head Park went through years of back and forth, with the city and the landowners, before it finally opened to the public in 1928; Shore Road park as we know it today did not open its first segment until 1941, though various improvements had been made throughout the preceding decades.
The rest of the Bay Ridge Parkway languished in the years leading up to the Depression. The segment between Fourth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway wasn’t properly laid out as a park; it existed on planning maps merely as “proposed.” A serpentine road (that no longer exists) ran through the city-owned property—dusty fields with occasional trees but no landscaping or proper grading, paving or paths, according to aerial photos from 1924. The parkway here was merely “sandwiched in between the unsightly Long Island Railroad ‘cut’ and Sixty-seventh street,” the Brooklyn Standard Union reported.
The area around Fort Hamilton Parkway “at the present time is anything but inviting,” the Eagle reported in 1898. “On one side stand the big gasometers of the old New Utrecht Gas Company. The surroundings are not thickly tenanted and there is positively no attractiveness in them.”
The Parkway land had once been home to an undesirable community called “Paddy’s Patch,” presumably because its inhabitants were largely Irish, living in poverty-stricken shanties, around which they played semiprofessional football and baseball. In the late 19th century, the Patch stretched from about 65th to 67th streets, Fifth or Sixth Avenue to Fort Hamilton Parkway, give or take. “Along the tracks of the old Sea Beach Railway [the present-day N train tracks, between the 59th Street and Eighth Avenue stations] is a scattering conglomeration of objectionable structures, with the Kings County Lighting Company’s gas tanks [at 65th Street and Ninth Avenue] serving as a fitting background to the whole unsightly aspect,” the Eagle reported in 1910, “all of which the city officials of old Brooklyn had for years striven to eradicate. In fact the Bay Ridge parkway was laid through that section, once known as ‘Paddy’s Patch,’ for that very reason, and years ago, when the city acquired the parkway land, a considerable portion of the objectionable shacks was torn down.”
There had once been notable landmarks in the general vicinity, as well. “There…was Weir’s greenhouses on [both sides] of 5th Ave. at 67th St.,” wrote local historian Robert Ryder in 1942, about the family of florists whose patriarch, James, was the one who suggested at a community meeting in 1853 that the area be renamed Bay Ridge. “About a block north of Weirs on the [west] side of 5th Ave. was Anton Weck’s grocery store…This is where Leif Eriksson Park is now. Later Weck’s moved to a store on 5th Ave. and 69th St…About a block east on the driveway of Eriksson Park was the old cemetery of the Methodist Church. When the driveway was made the remains were moved to a vault now on the church grounds at Ovington and 4th Aves. [the since demolished ‘Green Church’].”
The “proposed” parkway segments from Fourth Avenue to Fort Hamilton Parkway “have for a long time needed improvements and have been sadly neglected,” according to a petition from the fall of 1928, “and allowed to become an unsightly dumping ground for discarded automobiles, worn-out fences and wild growth of all kinds…although a part of the Shore rd. project, it has not progressed favorably with that part of the project west of 4th ave.”
“It has now become a question as to whether this area is to be a beautiful park or just a dump,” a local Norwegian clergyman said in 1928. “There is no spot in the entire city to compare with this parkway, and the Park Department should be empowered to give it the attention it deserves. A beautiful park here would not only benefit all the residents of this section but would be an asset to the entire city.”
The Dedication to the Norse Explorer
The rehabilitation of the forgotten segment of the Bay Ridge Parkway had begun in May 1925, when Mayor John F. Hylan and the city’s board of aldermen (a precursor to our modern city council) honored the large local Norwegian community by officially dedicating the park “Leiv Eiriksson Square,” after the Norse explorer who first sailed to the American continent ca. 1000 CE. About 35,000 people watched a parade down Fourth Avenue, from 46th Street, ending at a reviewing stand in the park, near Sixth Avenue. It took about an hour for the various Norwegian–American church groups, civic and fraternal organizations to pass, including marchers “in the Norwegian national costume, the white garbed nurses of the Norwegian Hospital [a precursor to Lutheran, in Sunset Park] and several men in costume to represent Leiv Eiriksson,” the New York Times reported.
Hylan took the front of the parade and was first to address the crowd. “It is an obligation as well as a pleasure to assist in the dedication,” he said. “So far as I have been able to ascertain there is no public monument in the parks of this city to the intrepid Norse adventurer….it was my belief that the time had come to pay some official tribute to the hardy race of Northmen who, without the firearms or the mariner’s compass of Columbus, of some 500 years later, fearlessly sailed the Atlantic and set up habitations upon lands which the Indians were in undisputed possession of.”
Despite the grand ceremony, “In the interim between 1925 and late 1933 the area remained practically in its original state,” the Eagle later reported. That is, with the dedication did not come investment, and the park continued to languish as a dumping ground. Locals began organizing as early as 1928 to effect a change, but by May 1931 the park’s condition was still bleak. “The square, according to members [of the Norse Republican Club],” the Eagle reported, “has become dilapidated and is a ‘disgrace’ to both the borough and the Norse race.” It was estimated that $400,000 [more than $6.5 million, adjusted for inflation] would be needed. By July, the Civic Council of Bay Ridge and other local groups had joined in, calling the “banks along the drive…unsightly and a ‘disgrace to the City of New York,’” the Eagle reported.
A Park Forms
A month later, city officials acted, appropriating the necessary $400,000. The winding drive would be eliminated, replaced by one-way streets on either side, as exist today. The money would be spent on grading, paving and widening, as well as plantings, turning the undeveloped banks alongside eight-tenths of a mile of S-curving road into proper rectilinear parkland. “When completed, Liev Eriksson Square will consist of five plots,” the Eagle reported.
The leading plot at 4th Ave. where both roads will meet Shore Road [Drive] will contain a monument to the man after whom the square has been named. The money for the Eriksson statue is being raised by the Lief Eriksson Memorial Association of which every leading Norwegian in Bay Ridge is a member.
“I don’t know how soon we will get the money,” said [acting park commissioner John J.] Sullivan today, “but work on the project will start almost as soon as the appropriation is granted.”…
In its present state Liev Eriksson Square is little less than an eyesore, civics charge. But work on its improvement has been held up because of the plans to change its contour and complexion.
The local Norwegians were very supportive of this development, though some old-timers weren’t pleased with the progress. “Liev Eriksson Square…has been graded where it shouldn’t be and hilly where it should be graded,” OLD TIMER wrote to the Eagle in October 1931, while also bemoaning that they’d taken “down the bank at Shore Road Drive and 4th Ave., where a number of nice trees made it shady for mothers and their babies on hot afternoons.” (Speaking of trees in 1931, the Eagle mentioned a notably odd tree on 66th Street, near Sixth Avenue, that appeared to be a single trunk but was actually seven, growing from one root. It was still remembered fondly as late as 1945.)
Between 1930 and 1932, “the 21 acres that comprise Leif Ericson Park…were transformed into parklands through the efforts of emergency relief men,” the Eagle reported, referring to men put to work by the state during the Depression, which had begun in October 1929. Approximately 260,000 cubic feet of soil was excavated and used for landfill for Shore Road Park, as well as Bensonhurst Park. More than 100 young maples were transplanted from a nursery in Marine Park, a “miniature forest” near Avenue U and E. 38th Street.
By September 1932, the proposed layout had been formalized. “Between 4th and 5th Aves.,” the Eagle reported, “there will be provided a large grassed area about 175 by 465 feet, where field hockey and other field sports may be played.”
The balance of this block will be devoted to a children’s playground, fully equipped with slides, swings, handball courts and other activities.
Between 5th and 6th Aves. the area is to be given over to mothers and small children. For this a wading pool about 40 by 60 feet has been proposed, with sand boxes, pergolas, benches and long beautiful stretches of grass plots and shade trees.
The next block…will be given over to a formal park treatment and become the beauty spot of the development, lying opposite the Norwegian Evangelical Free Church [now First Evangelical Free Church]. A well-regulated lawn, with flower beds, grassy expanses, trees, broad walks, radiating from a circular central motive, which may be used for a memorial fountain or statue, is furnished with an ample number of the Park Department’s latest type of ornately designed concrete benches.
Ample provision for a Western innovation of the popular sport, tennis, has prompted the designers to apply the adjoining area between 7th and 8th Aves. to devotees of this active game by providing 10 “asphalt” courts. Such courts [as opposed to clay-?] allow patrons to play year-round tennis. As the courts are always dry, they can be maintained at much lower cost and are always in first-class condition…
Between 8th and 9th Aves., the Park Department plan provides for another play area, with equipment of swings, slides, basketball, bars, handball and a play director’s office, rain shelter and toilet building, dividing the boys’ section from the girls’ section. A rim of trees and benches border this area on the street fronts.
At the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance the plan again reverts to formal planting areas, walks, trees, benches and cool, refreshing grass plots.
The parks department secretary said, “such investments in open air, healthy recreation, sunshine, beautiful gardens, green grass and trees will more than repay the cost many times over in healthier and more honorable manhood, increased interests in the real beauties of nature and a corresponding decrease in crime recurrence.”
The layout of Leif Ericson Park today is very close to this 86-year-old original vision, with some changes as demanded by changing tastes—there’s no more space, for example, specifically for field hockey.
As construction of the new park continued, issues about the surrounding community began to arise. Locals fought hard in 1932 against a local car dealer building a garage on his property, along Fifth Avenue between 65th and 66th streets, even sending inspectors to investigate the business, because “the garage would be [too] close by the public square laid out in honor of Leif Ericsson, which had been beautified.” But they were overturned by the city. Today, there is still an automobile showroom here.
The following year, the segment of the park between Fourth and Fifth avenues was suggested for a new high school that the community needed and was fighting for; the site’s main proponent said Bay Ridge already had enough parks, and anyway, the Board of Ed could trade a parcel it owned on Eighth Avenue to parks—what’s now known as “The Dustbowl,” at 65th Street. He proposed the school could be called Lief Eriksen High School. The proposal resurfaced in 1937.
This site was eventually rejected; its proximity to Bay Ridge High School (now Telecommunications) seems to me less than ideal for those students living farther away. An alternative site—the grounds of the old Crescent Athletic Club—was chosen instead, in 1938. Plans for Fort Hamilton High School were drawn up in 1939, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia laid the cornerstone in 1940, and the school welcomed its first class in 1941.
Construction on the park continued, unimpeded by high schools or garages, and the first leg was finally ready to open in the fall of 1934. (Also about to open at this time was Dreier Offerman Park, in Bath Beach, now Calvert Vaux Park.) “The two blocks [east] of 4th Ave. will be used as play areas for the older boys and girls,” the Eagle reported in August, offering a few more details in the block-by-block breakdown it’d reported two years earlier. “These playgrounds will be surrounded by a high wire fence and plantings of Oriental plant trees and shrubs. A comfort station will be built inside of the playgrounds for the use of children.”
The block from 6th Ave. to 7th Ave. has been reserved for a formal park and will contain attractive walks, benches and drinking fountains. The plantings in this formal area will include Oriental Planes, hardy shrubs and grass. A flagpole will be placed at both the 6th and the 7th Ave. entrances.
The next block, from 7th to 8th Ave. will contain ten tennis courts. A loggia of Colonial design and built of brick, with limestone trim, is to be erected for the convenience of spectators attending tennis matches.
Ample provision is being made for the smaller children in the playground extending from 8th to 9th Ave., around which there is to be a planted border flanked by a wire fence. This area will equipped with swings, seesaws, jungle gyms and other play apparatus and will have a wading pool, entrance to which can only be gained by first passing through a chlorinated foot bath.
This play area will be separated from the remaining area, which is to developed into a formal park, by a Colonial structure to be built of brick and limestone, resembling the letter “H” in plan and having two loggias, one of which will open on the playground and the other on the park. It will contain comfort conveniences for boys and girls with entrances from within the playground. Similar and separate facilities will be provided for the general public with entrances from the park proper.
The block [east] of the Colonial loggia, located on what was formerly known as 9th Ave. and extending to Fort Hamilton Parkway, is to be a formal park. A flagpole also is to be erected at the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance.
Mayor LaGuardia, with Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Borough President Raymond Ingersoll and others planned to dedicate the newly opened park on Columbus Day, 1934, one of a series of celebrations throughout the city. (“Police officials prepared to put down any counter celebrations by anti-Fascist groups,” the Eagle reported, “which threatened to stage a few demonstrations of their own” in Manhattan and the Bronx. Mussolini had been in power since 1922.)
On Friday, October 12, “the Mayor cut the ribbon that sent hundreds of children into this new haven of recreation,” the Eagle reported. The old “barren tract” had finally been converted into proper parkland—at least the section from Fourth to Sixth avenues.
Mayor LaGuardia in handing the park over to the public, thanked Commissioner Moses for his service to the city in doing a work that has been needed for many years. He also begged the citizens of Bay Ridge to use the park as a playground for their children and so reduce the number of accidents on the city’s streets.
“After the Mayor’s dedicatory speech,” the Eagle reported later, “the gathering stood bare headed while the American flag was raised on the staff in the center of the field.” This was the 40th playground opened in New York City that year, thanks to federal investment during the Depression. The ceremony closed with dances by several groups of school girls from playgrounds throughout Brooklyn.
Opening the park on Columbus Day had “considerable humor,” some thought, honoring one “discoverer” of America with a park named for the “original discoverer.” But the Norwegian consul general saw it as “a symbol of co-operation among Italians, Norwegians and other nationalities settled in this country.
“On Columbus Day,” he added, “all Americans join hands in continued co-operation, good will and sportsmanship.”
With scaled-down fanfare, the section from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Eighth Avenue opened in January 1935. “Despite strong, cold winds that made standing and speaking in the opening an arduous task, more than 250 persons yesterday attended the Park Department ceremonies,” the Eagle reported.
The following month, the stylized sign that still marks the entrance at Fort Hamilton Parkway was put in place. “The post itself, in red, blue and brown, will recapture the flavor of Scandinavian–Romanesque architecture,” the Times reported, “while above the sign will be a sheet-iron silhouette of a Viking ship.” It was one of many “artistic markers” to be placed at city parks that spring.
One issue with the sign, and the park in general, was how to spell the name. The parks department preferred Liev Eiriksson, but the official city directory spelled it Leiv Eriksson. Back in 1925, the park had been dubbed “Leiv Eiriksson Square,” as opposed to “Leif Eiriksson Park.” “I would not question the spelling,” Mayor Hylan had said then, “although it has undergone some weird changes since the days of my school books.”
In July 1934, “The city directory spelled it Leiv Eriksson Square, an official preparing the announcement said it should be Leif Erickson, a dictionary yielded Leif Ericson, from the Brooklyn offices of the department Leif Erikson, an engineer thought the last name was Ericsson, while the Royal Norwegian Consulate General consulted Washington and reported that the correct spelling was Leiv Eiriksson,” the Times reported. In August, a letter to the editor explained “the name appears under innumerable spellings,” including Leifr Eiriksson, but that the official American form was now Leif Ericsson.
Today, the parks department officially calls it Leif Ericson Park, with the old stylized sign at Fort Hamilton Parkway, reinstalled in 1999 after being found in storage, now bearing the updated spelling. The name had changed officially in 1966, thanks to a bill by the local councilmember, Angelo Arculeo. “The change was made at the request of many local Scandinavian organizations and reflects the Anglicization of the former name,” the Home Reporter reported.
Incidentally, this post was unusually difficult to research, compared to histories of other parks I’ve written; in every database I looked, I needed to search not only for Leif Ericson but also Leiv Ericson, Lief Ericson and Liev Ericson; then all four variations of the first name with Ericsson, Erikson, Eriksson, Erickson, Eirikson, Eiriksson, and so on (Erikksen?!), each spelling turning up new, essential pieces of the historical puzzle as newspaper reporters and their editors seemed to follow their hearts rather than a style guide.
However it was spelled, the Norwegians were happy that “this great discoverer and adventurer…is receiving official recognition,” the Eagle reported, but then they got greedy, suggesting that Leif Ericson could also lend his name to other local attractions, such as Shore Road—not even just the park but the very road itself. This plan, however, met plenty of opposition. “No; absolutely, no!” said the head of the Bay Ridge Chamber of Commerce. (Eventually the Belt Parkway, between Exits 2 and 9, was renamed “Leif Ericson Drive,” so the Norwegians did pretty well.)
“There are about 30,000 Norwegians in Bay Ridge,” wrote “TAXPAYER” to the Eagle in 1932.
Out of a population of more than 300,000 [?] they represent about 10 percent of the total. In view of that they deserve consideration, which in part was given them when Mayor Hylan and the Board of Aldermen renamed a part of Shore Road Park for their hero. Now, instead of giving new names to any other spot, why would it not be better if all the people of Bay Ridge get together and help them build a monument to that intrepid sailor who crossed the Atlantic. Erect it at the intersection of Shore Road Drive and 4th Ave., where every one can see it. That is where it belongs.
“Almost every community in the world has some monument erected in its public squares,” wrote another letter writer to the Eagle in 1932. “There are none at all in Bay Ridge.” The writer argued if the city named the park after Leif, they should also erect a statue of him there.
A monument was erected here, though it wasn’t unveiled until July 1939—and it wasn’t a statue. Instead, it’s a rune stone. “Rune stones,” according to an inscription on the monument, “were erected in honor of Viking heroes.” The monument still stands, east of Fourth Avenue, in the point of the triangle, where Shore Road Drive splits off north and south to join 66th and 67th streets. “It is a monument of rough granite, 10 feet high and 51 inches by 15 inches at the base and 33 inches at the top,” the Eagle reported in 1941.
On it is a bronze plaque in relief, 22 inches by 30 inches, showing the figure of Leiv Eiriksson standing at the prow of a viking ship. The inscription reads: “Leiv Eiriksson Discovered America in the Year 1,000.”
The plaque is the work of August Werner, artist and musician, former Brooklynite.
“For several years following erection of the stone,” the Eagle reported in 1952, “which incidentally was cut in the Pitbalddo Stone Works in Bay Ridge, there was an iron fence around the monument. Eventually it was removed following protest of Bay Ridge residents who claimed that no one could get near enough to read the inscriptions.”
Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha of Norway were present for the dedication in 1939, the culmination of their ten-week visit to America, to visit the World’s Fair and tour the country. A five-year-old girl presented the princess with roses while a parks department band (!) played patriotic American and Norwegian songs. Many Norwegian–American organizations formed an honor guard around the grandstand, displaying their banners.
“More than 2,500 Norwegian–Americans of South Brooklyn and Bay Ridge filled the green slopes and lawns of the park to give the royal couple a rousing ovation and then bid them bon voyage as they left to board the liner Stavangerfjord at the foot of 58th St.,” the Eagle reported. Mayor LaGuardia, Borough President Ingersoll and several other local officials were also present.
“I believe, your Royal Highness, that the best illustration that could be given you of the makeup of our democracy is that an American city’s Mayor by the name of LaGuardia accepts a monument dedicated to Leif Ericson,” the mayor said, getting laughs from the crowd. “It is a pleasant assignment to receive for the City of New York from citizens who are of Norwegian birth or extraction this monument dedicated to one of your outstanding heroes. It is also a pleasure and an honor to stand here and receive this monument not only as the Mayor of New York City but as a son of Columbus who greets a son of the Vikings.”
“The only difference between the United States and Norway is in many ways only one of size,” Prince Olav said. “I am glad that here in Brooklyn, where there are so many of our people and where so many come and go there will be a monument to honor Leif Ericson. It will be a symbol of the close kinship of ideals of government and the friendship that binds these two great democracies.”
The prince and princess had arrived in May, and on their way to visit the Norwegian Children’s home at 84th and Fourteenth had passed Leif Ericson Park. “Thousands of children, getting a half-holiday from the neighborhood schools for the occasion, lined the way to cheer the royal party,” the Times reported. The couple visited several local Norwegian institutions before returning to the park, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, where a local judge gave a welcome speech in front of 6,000 people—including “most conspicuous…a ring of…young children in native Norwegian dress.”
“New York to the average Norwegian means Brooklyn—he never thinks of Manhattan or any other spot in the city, Crown Prince Olav smilingly told the crowds of his kinsmen in Leif Eriksson Park,” the Eagle reported. “The reason, of course, is because so many Norwegians have settled in Brooklyn and letters received in the old country from their relatives and friends in the new country are always postmarked Brooklyn.”
Bay Ridge at this time had the third largest Norwegian community in the world—after Oslo and Bergen.
A Missing Statue
A 1981 novel by Bay Ridge-native novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, Crystal Vision, obeys an odd structural gimmick: set in a Bay Ridge candy store full of local loitering bullshitters, each of the 78 stories revolves around an image inspired by a Tarot-card illustration in the Rider–Waite deck. Chapter 39, “Leif Eriksson’s Memorial,” evokes the Knight of Cups by recounting a surely apocryphal tale in which the local Norwegians get “the idea…to take the [Rune] stone down and move it somewhere else they have a lot of Norwegians, Minnesota or someplace….”
This rich guy, a Norwegian–American…gets the idea to put up a statue of Leif Eriksson holding a sword. He figures it’s more artistic. O.K. They get some sculptor to make the statue. They put it up where the stone used to be and unveil it…
So here’s the statue, Richie says. Leif Eriksson on a horse. The sculptor has him all decked out in armor like a knight. He’s got a winged helmet on, the visor is up. Goddamned if his face doesn’t look just like George Raft. Yeah! In his right hand he’s carrying a sword sticking straight up in the air. The Norwegians are not too goddam happy and thrilled, since this guy, believe me, doesn’t look much like a Viking. He looks like some bust-out gambler in an iron suit….
Time goes by, a few months, maybe a year, Richie says. Then, one morning…people start gathering in Triangle Park [what Sorrentino calls the location of the Rune stone]…they take a look at the statue. Somebody’s broken the sword off—actually, sawed it off—and cemented a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon into old Leif’s hand. The Norwegians go absolutely apeshit. Insult! Insult! they yell and scream. They throw lutefiske around at each other, they try to shield their daughters’ eyes from the sight….
So they take the whole statue down, Richie says, and sell it to some guy in Coney Island for a come-on for an attraction on Surf Avenue. They get the stone back from Minnesota and set it up again.
A statue of Ericson, in fact, was supposed to be installed in the park on May 23, 1971, according to an article in the New York Times from earlier that year—11.5 feet tall and made of bronze. “The statue, which will cost between $45,000 and $50,000, was commissioned three months ago by F. M. Skaar, a Norwegian‐American sea man and chairman of the Leif Ericson Statue Committee of Brooklyn, Inc., a civic group formed to raise funds for the statue,” the Times reported.
Mr. Skaar, who will invite Crown Prince Harald of Norway and other Scandinavian dignitaries to the dedication, gave the commission to the firm of Rochette & Parzini, 218 East 25th Street, which gave the creative work to the sculptor Arnold Bergier….
Mr. Bergier’s first step was to draw a pencil sketch of the statue, which was then molded into a miniature clay model, or maquette, as it is called. Most sculptors usually follow this with an inter mediate model about 2 or 3 feet high, but Mr. Bergier finds he works best by immediately modeling a full scale figure.
The next step, now in process, is to make a plaster cast mold of the statue, under the direction of Fred Romagnoli, a partner in Rochette & Parzini. It will then be sent for bronzing at the Roman Bronze Company in Corona, Queens.
When completed—in about four months—the statue with its 5‐foot granite base will stand 16½ feet high.
The Home Reporter ran a very similar article around the same time. However, this statue does not exist in the park today—and I have no idea what happened to it.
A Controversial Log Cabin
The most controversial structure ever erected in Leif Ericson Park was a log cabin, right in the middle of the east side of Fourth Avenue. It started to go up in late 1933 and by January 1934 had aroused the attention of local civics, who didn’t know what its purpose was. It turned out the two-story frame building was to house a concession stand, which locals adamantly opposed. A local realtor “pointed out that the…structure…is located directly opposite the starting point of Shore Road [Drive],” the Eagle reported. “He asserted that the building would not mar the scenic beauty of not only Shore Road but also the Lief Ericksen parklands.”
“Furthermore,” [he] declared, “no effort was made by the Park Department to discuss the matter with residents of the area surrounding the park and Shore Road. It seems to me that where a commercial establishment is to be erected, in such cases, that the officials would first attempt to find out what the residents really want on public lands.”
The log cabin became an emblem of political corruption. It was alleged that city materials had been used in its construction, as well as men put to work by the Civil Works Administration (a New Deal program)—that it had cost $30,000 to build [$563,000, adjusted for inflation] but would be rented out for $10 a month [$187.75, adjusted for inflation]. The concessionaire was said to be a “favorite” of a local political boss, with the approval of the outgoing commissioner of Brooklyn parks, James Browne.
However, the log cabin controversy emerged just weeks before Robert Moses, that titan of 20th-century urban planning, would take over as the first commissioner of the unified city parks department. Moses had no patience for silly buildings; by October he had pulled it down. “Moses revealed that he planned to have 66th and 67th Sts. widened and linked with a short roadway to run in the center of Lief Eriksen Park, directly opposite the entrance to Shore Road [Drive],” the Eagle reported in June 1934. “Moses’ plan calls for the elimination of the building housing a concession…This would make possible the construction of a roadway in the center of the parklands connecting 4th Ave. with 66th and 67th St. by curved roadways”—the V-shaped road that still exists. The concessionaire planned to fight Moses in court, but apparently lost—or Moses didn’t care which way a court would rule.
Almost catty corner from the log cabin, on the west side of Fourth Avenue at 66th Street, was a Rex Cole showroom that today is the site of Total Kitchen Outfitters. “In the 1930’s, Rex Cole owned a network of astonishing showrooms. But they have long vanished,” the New York Times reported. “By World War I [Cole] had his own lamp manufacturing company. He was soon associated with General Electric, and in the mid 1920s the company chose him to promote its new line of white enamel Monitor Top refrigerators, which had the motor, compressor and condenser in a drumlike container on the top of the cabinet.”
Construction between 65th and 66th streets of the Bay Ridge Towers in the 1960s and 70s fudged the borders between the park, the railway cut and those huge apartment complexes; the Rex Cole building would have been just outside of the boundaries of the park when it was built, probably in the late ’20s, though now it appears to be within it.
To understand the ways people used Leif Ericson Park in its early days, it’s informative to look at the accidents that were reported there. Most involved children suffering playground injuries. Shortly after LaGuardia dedicated the park in 1934, two girls, ages 10 and 3, were hurt when they fell off a slide, the older suffering scalp contusions and the younger injury to her forearm. In 1937, a 3-year-old boy “stepped in a concrete fence post hole and couldn’t get his foot out,” the Eagle reported. Police responded, smashing at the concrete for 15 minutes to get him loose, keeping the kid quiet by buying him an ice cream cone. When he was freed, police gave him a nickel for his patience—which he used to buy another ice cream cone. “Raymond Thoren…still can’t understand why his sisters…made such a fuss with so much free ice cream around,” the Eagle added. In July 1940, a 12-year-old boy fell off a swing “and suffered contusions of the face and right eye,” the Eagle reported. A girl, also 12, fractured her left elbow when she fell off a seesaw.
But the accidents could be much more serious. In October 1940, 15-year-old Robert Dunn, of 7815 Third Avenue, died in Leif Ericson while watching a softball game. A bat slipped out of the hands of 25-year-old John Rorke and hit Dunn, fracturing his neck. Rorke was cleared of guilt by police, who ruled the incident an accident.
The following year, a 31-year-old trying to make a “shoestring catch” in a baseball game (catching a fly ball down by your feet) “suffered contusions of the left hand,” which required treatment at Norwegian Hospital, the Eagle reported. Later in 1941, a 2-year-old was hit by a swing, suffering lacerations to his forehead. A few weeks earlier, a 6-year-old had also been hit by a swing—that time in the eye.
The most widely reported incident in Leif Ericson in that era occurred on July 25, 1946, when a thin, brown-haired, four-foot-nine, approximately 10-year-old boy in a white T-shirt, shorts and sneakers entered the park at Third Avenue and 67th Street. There, a 10-month-old German Shepherd, brought to the U.S. from Europe by a 25-year-old Navy vet, “went wild in the park and bit three persons,” the New York Times reported—the owner, a 35-year-old friend of his and the boy, on the leg. The latter ran up to a policeman. “I’ve been bitten,” he told him. “What shall I do?”
“Wait till I come back.”
The cop caught the dog—and shot it. But when he returned to where he’d left the boy, the boy was gone.
The cop had shot the dog in its brain, so scientists were unable to determine by the usual method whether it was rabid. Instead, brain matter had to be injected into three laboratory mice, and then scientists had to wait fourteen to thirty days to determine whether the dog had rabies. The bitten men were treated for rabies as a precautionary measure (a full treatment required twenty-one shots!), but the boy couldn’t be found. “You may die today from rabies,” the health commissioner said. “Come into the department for treatment.”
Police followed leads, interviewing more than 140 families in two apartment houses, looking for the boy but only hitting dead ends. It was eventually determined that the dog probably did not have rabies, and the boy was not in danger.
Politics, Parades and a Preacher
The park was also the site of various celebrations. A Christmas tree was regularly posted in the park during the 1930s and ’40s—and at least as late as 1966. In 1939, the park hosted a Fourth of July celebration for children not on vacation; in 1940, a “New Orleans Mardi Gras” dance; in 1943, a dance with a “top band,” sponsored by ConEd.
The area was used for a reviewing stand by the Bay Ridge Americanism Parade, a local iteration of a nationwide movement in the 1920s and ’30s encouraging “patriotic” celebrations to counter socialist May Day festivities. (Bay Ridge’s first Americanism Parade was in 1937, the last probably ca. 1949.) In 1967, the park hosted a “Victory in Vietnam” rally, organized by local John Birchers and other, similar organizations to counteract antiwar demonstrations. “Only a handful of spectators mingled in an audience made up of approximately 100 members of a dozen organizations,” the Home Reporter reported. (Within months, one of the demonstration’s cochairmen, George J. Garvis, an alleged Nazi sympathizer, was arrested for planting dynamite outside a bookstore in Union Square; his colleagues and supporters said it was entrapment—a “frame up.”) In 1977, four years after the Supreme Court had decided Roe v. Wade, OLPH parishioners and clergy marched in a pro-life parade to Leif Ericson, in celebration of the eighth-annual “God Day.”
A group of women had kicked off an “auto parade” at Leif Ericson, in 1934, to support the election to congress of Republican Sigurd J. Arnesen, the publisher of the Norwegian-language newspaper Nordisk Tidende. (As far as I can tell, he lost.) In 1942, the Girl Scouts marched from Leif Ericson to Bay Ridge High School (not a far walk) to reaffirm their support for the organization’s mission. In 1962, the American Legion kicked off its Veterans Day parade from the park.
In 1952, 2,400 Norwegian–Americans marched in the one of the first local Norwegian Day Parades, starting on 44th Street, traveling a zig-zag course that ended at a reviewing stand in Leif Ericson, at 66th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues—a tradition that continues today (though now the parade arrives at Leif Ericson from Bay Ridge, in the opposite direction). By 1956, the number of marchers had multiplied to 15,000, with another 100,000 spectators.
In 1957, Rev. Billy Graham attended the parade on his first trip to Brooklyn and preached to 40,000 people in Leif Ericson—more than double the crowd Graham had attracted the week before, at Madison Square Garden.
“During World War II (1939-1945) the U.S. Army occupied [Leif Ericson Park,] and Parks rehabilitated the site after it was evacuated in May 1945,” according to the parks department’s history. There’s no mention of this in the newspaper record—though mentions of the park are relatively few from 1942 to 1945—which suggests to me that the occupation wasn’t total or particularly invasive. (In contrast, the Navy occupied Shore Road during WWI, causing much ado. But maybe that was just because residents along Shore Road were wealthier and more powerful than those along Leif Ericson Park!)
By February 1950, locals complained the park had gone to seed. “We never see a foot patrolman around here,” a woman who lived on 66th between Sixth and Seventh told the Eagle. “All Summer long, young vagrants roamed at will through the park, washing their feet in drinking fountains, breaking windows and continuously annoying passers-by and residents.”
“Two months ago they set fire to a number of benches and their actions really became intolerable. We got up several petitions demanding better protection and sent them to the police. But nothing happened.
“Street lights in the area are pretty miserable. The vagrants often break some of the bulbs with rocks—and several days will elapse before they are repaired. In the meantime, of course, there is no light at all at these particular points.
“I have a 17-year-old daughter and even though it hurts me to be strict, I’ve refused to let her go out alone at night.
“It’s a funny thing, though. Policemen are almost alien to this neighborhood, but you should pass by any Saturday or Sunday morning during the Summer when the passing traffic is heavy with people on their way to the country.
Then you’ll find radio cars and motorcycle cops galore waiting at almost every corner along the parkway. I’m not defending drivers who violate traffic laws, but why do the police waylay weekend vacationers during the spring, summer and early Fall, then virtually disappear from the community the rest of the year?”
The reporter asked the housewife if the paper could use her name, and she snapped no. “A neighbor of mine recently complained to the police about kids breaking her window. The kids saw her talking to the cops—and BANG, a few days later, the windows were broken again. That’s why I’ll tell you about our problems. But no name. Besides, why should my name be important? You could talk to hundreds of people just along this parkway and get the same story.”
A year later, M. Arnum, in a letter to the Eagle, decried conditions in the park. “Today took my two babies for a stroll in Leif Erickson Park,” Arnum wrote. “What a place to take babies!”
Tons of flying newspapers, dry dirt, ashes and contaminated debris blown by the wind everywhere. Where green grass should be allowed to grow and set roots at this time of year, gangs of ballplayers sent clouds of dirt on high, reminding one of the sandstorms in the dustbowls.
…Broken plans and limbs never taken proper care of. Fences fallen down all over. And the grass trampled to dust by destructive squanderers…This particular square is the most neglected by the Department of Parks.
A Highway Interruption
Perhaps the greatest vandalism to Leif Ericson took place in the 1960s. In 1963, “Lief Eiriksson Park was so badly broken up that the 17th of May ceremonies had to be moved to McKinley Park,” Ernest C. Mann wrote in a letter to the Home Reporter. Robert Moses had decided in the late 1950s that he would build the necessary approach to his new Narrows-spanning bridge along Seventh Avenue, breaking off from the Gowanus Expressway around 65th Street and traveling all the way to 101st Street, creating about two miles of expressway dug into the middle of a residential neighborhood, requiring the demolition of hundreds of buildings and the displacement of thousands of families.
This new highway also cut through Leif Ericson Park, right in the middle of my favorite section, the Parade Ground, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, the only spot free of playgrounds, left open to the kind of park Moses never liked: just benches, trees and rambling paths. Moses’s highway eliminated approximately two acres of this section (as the bridge itself also destroyed the armybase’s parade ground), forever severing Leif Ericson in twain.
Moses, as he had on Shore Road, damaged a park to accommodate cars—a park he’d helped to create!
Good and Bad in the 60s and 70s
Many good things happened to the park in the later half of the 20th century. In 1963, new tennis courts were installed (though they weren’t large enough to be bubbled over for winter use). In 1965, the first Midsummer Festival was held in the park, a tradition that continued for several years; in winter 1974, wading pools were filled and frozen over, to be used for ice skating. In 1979, Charlie’s Angels filmed a scene there.
But not all the news was good. In 1963, stickballers were banned. 1965, a 47-year-old woman fell into a topless manhole while walking her dog near the Third Avenue entrance; she found the top at the bottom of the shaft.
“Leiv Eiriksson Park…is one of the poorest examples of a park that I could think of,” a eighth grader wrote to the Home Reporter in 1967. “In this park, there is space provided for three full basketball courts, two baskets for each court. There are only two baskets standing now and they aren’t on the same court! The bathrooms aren’t exactly in the best of condition either. They smell as if they haven’t been washed in about ten years!”
Keeping Leif Ericson “usable and safe” was a “mammoth task” for the parks department, the Home Reporter reported in 1970. To keep it usable, the department had the help of the community. This was the era of Block Associations, forming to do the work the city couldn’t or wouldn’t do, and one such example was the 67th Street Block Association, which organized a huge cleanup of Leif Ericson in September 1970. Seventy-five people collected 100 bags of trash and debris in about three hours. “We hope that our clean-up will make people think before they litter,” the association president told the Home Reporter.
The Block Association has been attempting to reason with some bands of youths which frequent the park at night and who are believed to be responsible for broken park benches and other forms of vandalism in the park area. Local residents pointed out a huge retaining wall which was ripped up by local vandals.
The Block Association members expressed their desire for new benches, new lights, and other facilities for the park area. With the watchful eye of an active block association, vandalism is expected to be minimized.
Broken tiles in the walks in the park were collected and stored for possible repair. Block Association members cited the park as a nighttime hazard due to vandalism. Most of the lights in the park have been knocked out and many people fear going into the park at night.
To keep Leif Ericson safe, one simple method was lighting—“security lighting” was first installed there in 1965—but there could also be such a thing as too much light. The ballfield between Seventh and Eighth avenues (the old Dust Bowl, which had been brought under the “Leif Ericson” umbrella because of its proximity) had floodlights for night games, which in August 1972 were being turned on and left on at all hours—even 3am, costing the city $22 a day [more than $130, adjusted for inflation]. “You have a senior citizen doing without his little electric fan to save a watt while those floodlights are burning at a rate of 48,000 watts an hour,” fireman and community-board member Tom McDonald, after whom a triangle park on Fort Hamilton Parkway was later named, told the Home Reporter. “It’s ridiculous.” (This was just a year before the OPEC Oil Embargo kickstarted the 1973 American energy crisis.)
The lights were controlled by switches that anyone could use; they were in an unlocked building behind locked fences, but parks had given out keys to the gates to baseball-team managers “and now, nobody knows how many others keys have been made and who has them to the park gate.” The paper called these light switchers “vandals,” surely stretching the definition of the word.
The lighting problem at Eighth Avenue persisted. “A Parks Department maintenance crew used a sledge-hammer to smash in the bolt on the blockhouse door to seal the box off from the vandals who have caused the lights to glare in the daytime, throughout the night and at other times when games are not being played,” the Home Reporter reported in November 1973. “Several days later padlocks were installed but the vandals broke these, turning the lights on again.” A timer system was supposed to be installed to fix this problem, while the police promised extra surveillance of the park.
But various lighting issues in this area would persist—until 2007!
Parks often attract users of chemical substances. In 1932, a headline in Home Talk declared, “Drunkards Infesting Owl’s Head Park at Night,” just a few years after it had opened to the public. In September 1942, an auxiliary police officer at 67th and Seventh Avenue found 48-year-old Leonia Hihin trying to climb a flagpole in Leif Ericson Park. The officer pulled him down from five feet up, and in the process Hihin ripped the officer’s uniform. Hihin was brought to night court. “You look so high now that it would not make much difference if you were atop a flagpole,” the judge said. Hihin was sentenced “to 30 days in the workhouse,” the Eagle reported, “police records showing that he had been previously convicted of intoxication and disorderly conduct nine times since 1935.”
In the 1960s, Leif Ericson became a hangout for drug users. In 1966, police began a crackdown on loiterers in parks, arresting two on the charge in Leif Ericson. In 1964, local newspaper columnist and editor Chuck Otey picked up a glue sniffer near the park on Third Avenue and with him chased the car of a man the sniffer accused of having stabbed someone in the park (though Otey couldn’t confirm if that were true). More glue sniffers were nabbed in 1966. In 1970, nine people, most between 17 and 20 years old, were arrested—two for possession, one with “52 barbiturates with intent to sell them,” the Home Reporter reported, another with “6 pills and 3 marijuana cigarettes.” The rest were charged with loitering for the purpose of using drugs.
On March 1, 1970, Susanne Healy was found in Leif Ericson, on the southeast corner of 67th and Sixth, a short distance from the park fence, dead from a drug overdose—probably barbiturates, possibly heroin. Her parents had last seen her Saturday night, as she left the family home at 547 45th Street, likely to go to a party, where drinks and pills were consumed. Her body was found at 9:30pm on Sunday, almost certainly dumped there after she had died somewhere else.
“The body was already rigid when [the person who found it] arrived at the scene and…it was ‘very much exposed’ to anyone passing by,” the Home Reporter reported.
“It seems strange,” the young man said. “That place is very busy. Anyone walking in the park should have seen it.”
[He] added that the girls limbs were already so stiff that both arms were suspended in the air…The girl’s nostrils also were stuffed with cotton, which…was spotted with blood. Police officers familiar with similar cases claim this is a practice employed to stop hemorraging [sic] caused by severe overdoses of narcotics. The unavoidable question…is: Who inserted the cotton?
…“We think there was definitely foul play,” Mrs. Healy conjectured. Her husband nodded his head in silent agreement.
The Healys’ fears are fired by the memory of a severe beating their daughter received at the hands of alleged narcotics pushers about six months ago.
…Mrs. Healy told how for months Susanne had been attempting to shake her problem of drug use, but was haunted constantly by pill pushers. “We’ve thought about moving out of the neighborhood,” she added. “Only last week Susanne told me: ‘I’ve got to move away from here—this week, or I’ll be dead.’”
It doesn’t seem the papers ever figured out what had happened to her.
Leif Ericson witnessed more violence. In 1970, 18-year-old Steven Bergman was assaulted by a group of unknown youths in the severed parade ground, left with a gash on his scalp near the gash in the neighborhood that Moses had cut. In 1975, two brothers held up six young people near Third Avenue and 67th Street; they were caught. Two cops had just left their shift and were headed home when a kid ran into the street, hollering for help. The cops ran into the park and saw William Connor “pointing a gun at a band of youths,” the Home Reporter reported. “Connor fled, hurling the gun as he ran, but he was overtaken and the weapon recovered.”
“The gun was loaded and cocked,” one of the arresting officers said. “If that guy so much as stumbled, one of those kids would have been dead.”
In 1981, around 67th and Third, Anthony Martello, who lived at 327 80th Street, stopped a 41-year-old woman, on her way home to Sunset Park, and demanded money. When the woman refused, he dragged her into the park there, beat her face and body, and raped her. A witness saw Martello pulling the woman into the park and ran to get police from the precinct, who showed up in time to catch Martello but not to stop his sexual assault. He was believed to be the man wanted for exposing himself to female joggers along paths in Shore Road Park, who had also flashed a knife at one woman and punched another in the shoulder.
But perhaps the worst story of violence in Leif Ericson was the story of Victor Morton, a 16-year-old “discovered lying in a pool of blood in the middle of Lief Ericson Park near Fourth Ave. and 67th St. at about 6 a.m. [in July 1983] by a passerby,” the Home Reporter reported.
Authorities said the youth was found with his head bashed in and his face distorted almost beyond recognition. ‘He was really whacked,’ said Detective Alex Sabo, of the 68th Precinct, who is investigating the homicide. ‘He was hit maybe 12 times on the body and head. I had a hard time recognizing him. That’s how hard he was hit.’
…Authorities stated the six-foot, 180-lb. Morton apparently was attacked by one or more assailants and clubbed to death with a square, wooden object. Police said the victim’s skull was crushed from the force of the blows. “He had marks on his back, chest and arms,” Sabo added. “He was hit from every direction.”
Morton was a troubled kid who’d been arrested many times, for robbery and burglary. Before he died, he’d been released from Riker’s to attend rehab; when he left rehab, he returned to Bay Ridge, where he’d die. He’d told police he lived at 6823 Ridge Boulevard, but months ago, friends said, he’d started sleeping in Leif Ericson. “The last person [to see him] saw him at Third and 67th,” a detective told the paper, “going into the park.”
Safety Through Destruction
While some money was invested in the park in the early 1980s, during the height of crime, vandalism and drug use, often the community advocated for demolition to remove structures that attracted undesirables. For example, in 1981, the tennis courts on Seventh Avenue were rehabilitated, but a local neighborhood group asked that new benches be eliminated from the plans, because of problems observed since the early 1970s. “The benches in the past have served as a hangout for youths and undesirables,” according to a letter to the local community board from Leiv Eiriksson Neighborhood Development. “Underage drinkers and drug users would occupy these benches to all hours of the night, creating an ominous atmosphere for the women and the elderly of our community to walk. The area around these benches is also used as a public lavatory for these people.”
The presence of the benches serves to deteriorate the park at an accelerated rate. Youths destroy lights to tap them for electricity for their radios, cut holes in the fences around the benches to facilitate their entrance and exit, break large amounts of glass in the playing area, making the facility unusable.
In the fall of 1984, the old parade ground was rehabilitated, including the placement of “vandal-resistant” wood-and-steel benches, replacing the “old type” of “cement based slot benches,”which had been broken, according to community board documents.
Comfort stations caused the most problems. In 1980, it was suggested that one, at Seventh Avenue, be torn down because it was hazardous, too expensive to replace, not necessary and, of course, “continually used as a gathering point for mischievous youth who are a constant source of problems and annoyance to the area residents,” according to a letter from the community board.
In the early 1980s, the community board often advocated for demolition as a last resort, preferring renovations first, but Michael Long—then a councilmember “at-large,” representing the entire borough (a position long ago eliminated), now the longtime head of the state conservative party—and certain constituents wanted them gone. In May 1982, Long advocated for the demolition of a comfort station between Seventh and Eighth avenues. “In these unsafe times, a park house is no longer used for the convenience of the patrons but now used as an invitation for vandals to congregate and ultimately destroy the facilities once again,” he wrote. “Until our neighborhoods are safe again, it would be an unnecessary waste of money to rebuild the park house.”
A new comfort station wouldn’t be built again, as far as I can tell, until 2010, between Eighth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway.
The original “Bay Ridge Parkway” project was envisioned as an uninterrupted park-drive from Shore Road to Fort Hamilton Parkway; in practice, it only made it from Shore Road to Fourth Avenue, and when Leif Ericson Park was dedicated decades later, it officially occupied only the unfinished remainder of the parkway plan: east of Fourth Avenue, to Fort Hamilton Parkway. This might have been complicated enough, but it became much more so just a few years later, around 1939, when construction began on the Gowanus Expressway and its connection to Robert Moses’s Belt Parkway, at Shore Road. The new highway used the old parkway infrastructure; the old drives became exits and entrances.
The project eliminated the section of park between Ridge Boulevard and Colonial Road and isolated the sections between Ridge and Fourth Avenue, which used to connect to Owl’s Head and Shore Road parks. Counterintuitively, these remaining sections are usually not officially considered part of Leif Ericson, although they are contiguous—they’re part of Shore Road Park, as Shore Road technically ends at Fourth Avenue, after curving around Owl’s Head Park and heading east, having become “Shore Road Drive.” It’s complicated!
However, many people in the community recognize these lost segments of Shore Road as the western end of Leif Ericson, including newspaper reporters and editors, especially in second half of the 20th century, as seen above, in which crimes on Third Avenue and 67th Street were reported as happening in Leif Ericson Park.
Jurisdictional matters were confused at the city level, as well. The transportation department became responsible for the cleanup of the old parkway sections, but didn’t accept it, believing parks was responsible. By October 1981 these sections had become a “no man’s land,” according to the Home Reporter. They became “an overgrown dumping ground and a hangout for both youths and vagrants since services were in effect ‘suspended’ about four months ago.
Grass on the park areas is infrequently cut, and as a result is usually overgrown in addition to being a dumping ground. The Parks Dept only recently agreed (“as a favor”) to empty trash containers once a week in the area…Trash containers, which are not chained, have been stolen from the area. The deterioration of the area has led to an increase in the number of derelicts in the park, as well as a jump in teenage drinking. “Broken bottles, garbage spread around, often deliberately knocked out of pails and burned, vandalized benches—this is now a regular sight in our neighborhood,” read [a] letter [by local residents] to Police Commissioner Robert McGuire. “As everybody knows, dirty and neglected places invite vandalism and crime.”
“The real big problem—the real cause of this—is that there is nobody in the city government who will do anything on a regular basis,” Glodowski said. “There is no regular maintenance in that little park, and that’s a shame. The whole situation is bringing the area down. This is not a bad area yet, and there is no reason for it to become one.”
Starting in 1993, the western side of the Third–Fourth Avenue section was used “as a construction site…while they repaired the overpass at 4th Avenue and 65th Street,” according to a letter from the 67th Street Block Association; it also served as a detour for Third Avenue. “The park used to have a vast assortment of trees, including at least 20 Crabapple trees (4 or 5 remain), 3 giant poplars, Dutch Elm, oak, etc., etc. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a tree planted in the park in the past 70 years.”
In April 2000, the department of transportation began restoring it. “New walk path pavers are being installed from the 3rd Avenue entrance, through the park, up to the TCUs,” the 67th Street Block Association wrote in a different letter. “Approximately forty trees are being planted, 2 lampposts are being installed and 2 roadway electrical box units are being installed.”
But it hit a snag at the east end. The High School of Telecommunications, née Bay Ridge High School, underwent modernizing renovations in 1998, which required the temporary acquisition of new space for classrooms. The school came to an agreement with the parks department to install two “temporary classroom units,” or TCUs—basically trailers—in Leif Ericson, at the northwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 67th Street (provided they did not include toilets, “to minimize the level of destruction to the park caused by excavation for sewer and water connections,” according to a letter from the parks department). They were supposed to last a year, after which the board of ed would restore the parkland, but construction at Telecommunications dragged on to July 2002. “We do expect that the TCUs will be removed in July 2002,” the board of ed wrote in a letter, but the trailers remained in place until 2008, though long unused by the high school, in what appears to have been bureaucratic inaction—the School Construction Authority wasn’t sure where it could relocate the TCUs, so it didn’t.
When the TCUs were finally removed in 2008, the parks department had a boneheaded idea: putting in a volleyball court. The community board voted it down, though, requesting instead by a unanimous vote—after alternative plans, including the volleyball courts, had been narrowly defeated—that the parks department restore the “rolling parkland,” as the Bay Ridge Courier put it, close to its original design. Even though, “before the trailers were placed there,” the Home Reporter reported in 2008, “that section of Leif Ericson Park had only grass and a handful of benches.”
The parks department said it had just been trying to offer more “recreational opportunities.” But Jim O’Dea, a member of CB10 and the president of the 67th Street Block Association who spearheaded the volleyball-resistance, said all of Leif Ericson offered recreational opportunities. “This is the only part of the park for passive recreation,” he told the Courier.
This once-disputed section of park is now maintained by the parks department, and even features an official “Leif Ericson Park” sign near the entrance at Fourth Avenue and 67th Street, by where the temporary classrooms once sat.
The section between Third Avenue and Ridge Boulevard, however, has received no attention in decades; in part, surely in part because no one owns houses that run right alongside it. The ruins of a grand staircase built more than 100 years ago still persists, overgrown with weeds, while a grassy trail of cracked cobblestones connects the two avenues. This highway-adjacent greenspace has become a dumping ground; on a recent visit in June, I spotted at least half a dozen air conditioners. This could be a beautiful piece of parkland that retains some of its historical grandeur while also modernizing its features, like the piece it abuts between Third and Fourth avenues. But that won’t happen until residents convince local officials, from the community board to local representatives, that its restoration should be a priority.
Hockey Tears the Neighborhood Apart
The most controversial parks matter of the era was a proposed hockey rink—a latter-day log-cabin concession stand/proto volleyball court. As early as 1972, residents near a playground used for hockey at 52nd Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway complained about the traffic and noise the game brought. The contention spread down Fort Hamilton Parkway to Bay Ridge within a few years. The idea for a roller hockey rink was as old as 1974, first requested by the local Office of Neighborhood Government (Mayor Lindsay’s precursor to the modern community board). But the budget crisis of 1974 cut off funding for all capital projects; it wasn’t until 1979 that state and federal money became available again, and that year the parks department presented a plan for it to the relatively new community board, which held public hearings. (It was the first project for the board’s newly created Youth Activities Committee, now known as Youth Services, Education and Libraries.) The rink would be built near Eighth Avenue, at a cost of $100,000 [about $360,000, adjusted for inflation].
The board hearing was contentious. Various members of the board spoke in favor of the plan, as did officials from the 68th Precinct Youth Council, which planned to “establish a roller hockey program,” the Home Reporter reported. But at least 50 protesters also appeared—“neighbors who fear a youth problem in the area.” Representatives of other local hockey leagues asked instead that the money be used to fix up existing facilities, but the board chairman pointed out the money wouldn’t be moved around for other uses.
Louis Volpe, a resident near the park, said that “if this rink is built, it too will deteriorate just like other facilities built at great expense.” To the loud cheering of his supporters, Volpe stated that “we’re not opposed to facilities for youngsters. It’s just that this is the wrong expenditure at the wrong time.”
Nevertheless, the board voted, 19–10, to approve the construction of the rink in March 1979.
The matter was far from settled, however—the vote set off months of acrimony. At first, the community board defended its vote; the chairman told the Home Reporter that the district office had receive 25 calls since the vote, only a fifth of which were against. (Later, an opponent practically accused the chairman of lying, as the man had organized his side into inundating the office with calls against the rink.)
A woman who’d lived on 67th Street for 17 years explained the objections of her and her neighbors.
“We live across the street from this park,” she said, “and there’s always been a problem with youths here, with drugs, vandalism and garbage. We’re not against teen-agers, but we don’t want this rink here. There are senior citizens living here, and they won’t be able to sleep or rest.”
…[She] said a group of frustrated and angry neighbors had met outside a resident’s home near the park on Sunday to launch plans for a protest.
The parks department said construction could begin within the month and be done by the fall. So opponents accelerated their organizing, taking the fight to Republican councilmember Angelo Arculeo, who agreed to deliver petitions to the proper parties, set up a meeting between the board and the rink opponents and ask the mayor to meet with residents. The local Republican Club attracted 150 locals to a meeting on the issue, and the general theme was that hockey rinks already existed in the area, and money was needed to repair Leif Ericson.
“Any youngster who wants to come play hockey is welcome to come to us,” said a volunteer for the Parkville Youth Organization, whose hockey rink was just blocks away from the proposed one. “We don’t need a second rink. We need the park cleaned up.”
A representative of a local softball league, Ed Selesky (wait, my para in second-grade at PS 185?!) told the Home Reporter that “some of the fields currently used by this league are in such poor conditions that they are hazardous to use.”
Under mounting pressure from Arculeo and park-adjacent residents, the board met again in April, and a member introduced a motion to reconsider the project; it passed, 15–14. A vote to reapprove the rink was then shot down, and a third vote to kill it passed, and the board then agreed to consider alternative sites for the rink, such as Owl’s Head, Shore Road or McKinley Park. Supporters were disappointed, and an editorial in the Home Reporter encouraged both sides to be reasonable: in selecting a new site, “the Board should make very sure that residents will welcome such a facility before the Board officially acts again to approve another site,” the paper wrote. “For their part, residents who are faced with the construction of such a sports facility in their neighborhood should consider the assets of such a program, and not rush to judgement out of fear.”
Still, the issue persisted. At a May meeting, a member of the Community Board pointed out the previous month’s vote had violated parliamentary procedure, and thus the board voted unanimously to reverse it. Things got ugly. A resident of 67th Street accused one board member of a conflict of interest, provoking an irate response. A shouting match followed; the chairman shut the meeting down early and left the meeting as Arculeo “stood in the center of an angry crowd of residents, promising them that ‘this rink will not be constructed as long as I have any influence,’” the Home Reporter reported.
The chairman later said he shut down the meeting because “our people were actually spat upon, and threatened. That’s disgusting. That’s no way to act.” He added: “This Board represents 125,000 people, not just the residents who live across the street from the rink.”
At the June meeting, the board voted again to kill the rink proposal, though both sides remained bitter. One rink supporter, in a letter, wrote critically of the “rowdies and ruffians” who “terrorized” the community board “into surrender.”
“Adult delinquency is at its worst. What an example for our children. The good guys, who wanted little children to play in a park, lost. The black hats won.
“Who says evil never triumphs?”
A possible alternative site was later suggested: in Shore Road Park, adjacent to the tennis courts near the southern end of the park. Local residents immediately objected, and today that part of Shore Road remains undeveloped, and Bay Ridge remains without a hockey rink.
Arculeo lost his next election, in 1981, to Sal Albanese.
Repairs and Redestruction
Even without investment in new infrastructure, such as a hockey rink, Leif Ericson’s fortunes turned. “Missing fences, benches and playground equipment will be repaired and replaced, and the existing ball fields resurfaced,” the Home Reporter reported in 1980, part of a $750,000 investment [roughly $2.3 million, adjusted for inflation] in local parks.
The comfort station between 5th & 6th avenues is going to be upgraded, and the light pole in front moved to prevent children from climbing it and destroying the park house roof, which has been a problem in the past. [The vice-chairwoman of the community board] has also looked over and approved Park Department plans to convert ten courts in Leif Ericson to “all-weather courts” by resurfacing them.
A study was approved to look at the rest of Leif Ericson to see what repairs were needed, and it was hoped they could be done by 1981.
Some work was done, but it was nothing compared to the flurry of activity at the turn of the millennium, when many sections of the park were redone. “In the late 1990s, then New York City Parks Commissioner [Henry] Stern decided that any park with an ethnic name should have an ethnic design,” preservationist Victoria Hofmo once reported. “Hence, Leif Erikson Park…was earmarked for renovation on the Fort Hamilton side.” The popular troll statue was installed near Fort Hamilton Parkway; the old stylized sign, which had been in storage for decades, was put back in 1999.
In 2000, work began on the Chris Hoban Ballfields, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. “This project will remove existing asphalt and replace it with…new grass ballfields,” according to internal documents from the parks department. “The design will provide new backstops, water fountains, fences, gates…benches, trees and irrigation system.” A sprinkler play area, with seating for adults, was proposed in 1998, near Eighth Avenue, as well as a volleyball court; the Fifth Avenue basketball courts, now Valhalla Courts, were rehabbed around the same time. So was the playground on the east side of Fifth Avenue.
In 2006, the parks department said it would issue an RFP for the operation and management of a proposed farmer’s market, in Leif Ericson at Fort Hamilton Parkway. But I don’t remember this ever happening.
The old problem with the lights at Eighth Avenue persisted into the 21st century. In 2003, the Home Reporter reported on 67th Street residents asking for them to be turned off at night, to prevent kids from playing basketball as late as 2am. “There’s drugs, alcohol, you name it,” one resident told the parks department in 2007. “They break the playground and yell profanities, and there’s no time on it. It’s been like that years and years.” The floodlights were finally removed from the park, and replaced with standard park lights, as part of an almost $2 million renovation in 2007.
The central focus of that work was twofold. First, to move the basketball courts on the 67th Street side to the 66th Street, to get them away from the park’s residential side to face its more industrial side. Second, to replace what since 1995 had been called The Saturn Playground, after the nearby car dealership that had donated money for its construction. Ground was broken on the new playground, which looks like a Viking Ship, in May 2007. “We lobbied for years and years just to get what we are getting now,” said Fran Vella–Marrone, among other things a cofounder of the McKinley–Leif Ericson Park Alliance. “The park hadn’t gotten anything for about 50 years till we started lobbying.”
The last big Leif Ericson story was also in 2007, when a tornado touched down in Bay Ridge, tearing northeastward before sputtering out in Sunset Park with a final burst of destruction. One place along its path was Leif Ericson Park, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, through which it passed like Robert Moses, destroying more than a third of the trees. The tornado prompted “Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to say the park ‘looked like it was the site of a World War II artillery battle,’” the Daily News reported.
“There was just nothing left.”
Most of the parks in Bay Ridge were proposed in the early 20th century but didn’t really come to fruition until decades later, moved forward by Robert Moses, the master builder of New York who, among many other titles, was parks commissioner from 1934 to 1960. With Owl’s Head and Shore Road, he took neglected open spaces and turned them into proper parks—at least what he thought of as parks. Nowhere in Bay Ridge is his influence more keenly felt than Leif Ericson, which he created almost from a blank slate.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Central and Prospect parks were built (and Shore Road Park originally planned), designers such as the influential Frederick Law Olmsted conceived of parks as green spaces meant for getting lost in—as passive spaces. But Moses rejected this Victorian approach, preferring active spaces, such as playgrounds, and each segment of Leif Ericson under this philosophy was dedicated to its own activity: tennis, basketball, baseball, playgrounds, etc. (as well as some greenspace too, though it would at least have some function, as a parade ground, and Moses would eventually destroy it to build a highway!).
In contrast, the old “Bay Ridge Parkway” segments that survive, from Fourth to Ridge Boulevard, are dedicated primarily to sitting, walking and wandering. (The stretch from Fourth to Third includes, for example, exercise stations, but they do not dominate it.)
Such a design gives Leif Ericson purpose, servicing many children and local residents. But it also strips the park of identity, making it not a park people visit but a series of spaces they interact with, for specific uses. Many stretches of Leif Ericson even have individual names, such as Valhalla Courts, the basketball courts on Fifth Avenue, or the Chris Hoban ballfield, named in memoriam of the police officer killed on duty in 1988. Though Leif Ericson is one long chain of parks, it exists as a series of small parks that, by nature of their history, merely happen to be contiguous.
Recently, I walked Leif Ericson, from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Ridge Boulevard, but I did not get the sense this was something people often do.
Why would they?
Special thanks to Community Board 10 and district manager Josephine Beckmann, who provided access to a cache of recent-historical documents and news clippings.