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A Quiet Morning Spot in the West Village

It's easy to walk straight by James J. Walker Park in the West Village. On the west side fronting Hudson St., a large city ball field commands attention. On the east, the Tony Dapolito Recreational Center and the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library take up much of the real estate on 7th Avenue between Clarkson Street and Leroy Street. One the north side, this special block of Leroy Street is renamed St. Luke's Place, an elegant row of townhouses, nearly all with a celebrity past. One of the oddest of the most elegant homes, only odd because of the runaway greenery overwhelming the entrance, once belonged to the Jazz Age Mayor of New York, the young and handsome playboy reformer, Jimmy Walker, or "Beau James," for whom the park is named. Walking casually along St. Luke's Place, the tendency is to look at the pretty townhouse row and not at the gates to the park across the street.


Even a casual glance through the park's tall grated iron fence toward the benches in the shady seating area of the park does not reveal anything out of the ordinary there, though in many ways, the ordinariness of this park, with its pastiche of styles from the past, functions as its chief virtue. With the arrival of summer, the large parks like Washington Square Park are overwhelmed with visitors, so a bench in Walker Park seems right for locals in need of gathering thoughts before work or as an uneventful place to stop and sip coffee.


Sitting for a time in Walker Park and observing its details, however, begins to reveal that there's more than a few benches here. On the north side of the seating area, near a locked gate that opens to a small garden, full of blooming hydrangeas in the summer, sits a marble sarcophagus, graying peacefully in the shade, dedicated to three fallen firemen. A look at the NYC Parks & Rec website explains that the land here was once used by Trinity Church as a burial ground during the 19th century. In 1895 the Park department acquired the property, changed its name to Hudson Park, and hired the esteemed firm of Carrère and Hastings (New York Public Library, Henry Clay Frick House, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre) to design a new layout. In addition to a lagoon and a sunken garden, they installed a perimeter walkway, perfect for the perambulations of New York's flaneurs at the end of the century.


The history of the park does not reveal itself solely in observation, but the presence of colorful handmade tiles of animals does have that 1970s look. Furthermore, the same park website page explains that the park has been redesigned several times in the 20th century - in 1935, 1946, 1972, and in 1996, the latest apparently spearheaded by a PR campaign of neighborhood children. The current design incorporates the animal tiles from the 1970s as well as the horse-head hitching posts outside the playground area.

A good neighborhood playground in the Village should always have a bocce court, a symbol of the area's Italian heritage, and while the court in Walker Park looks a little worn, its raised wooden boards and painted finish give it a certain vintage style. Behind the court, the tall fence in the baseball park features an abstract design in primary colors as well as the giant letter "W" shaped into its construction.


The images in the post give the false impression that Walker Park is a little empty on a weekday morning, but in fact, several people were there when I visited on two occasions this past week. Like me, they seemed to be relishing their quiet moments and privacy in this tucked-away park, and I felt no reason to steal their souls.



James J. Walker Park
boundaries of Hudson, Leroy, Clark Streets, and 7th Avenue.
NYC Parks & Rec page: http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/M038/

For more on St. Luke's Place, please see this page on WOTBA.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple made with various camera apps for the iPhone.





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