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A Walk in Sakura Park

Sakura Park, a small city park just north of W. 122nd Street between Riverside Drive and Claremont Avenue in Morningside Heights, derives its name from the Japanese word for “cherry blossom.” In 1909 the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York, as part of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, had planned to present 2,000 cherry trees to the city of New York, but the steamer carrying the trees was lost at sea. Three years later, a new shipment arrived, and on April 27, 1912 the city held a tree planting celebration in Sakura Park. Most of the cherry trees were planted in Riverside Park and in Central Park.

Sakura Park, south entrance in cherry blossom season

A contemporary observer, William Shepard Walsh, characterized New Yorker’s keen interest in the gift of these trees and the ceremony:

“New York has had many interesting and some famous trees but never before, until the arrival, in April 1912, of the 2500 cherry-trees presented to the city by the Emperor of Japan, has it had a gift equal to this in quantity or importance. Several of the trees were planted on Riverside Drive in the vicinity of Grant's Tomb, close to the little tree planted by Li Hung Chang.”

Sakura Park was one of the small parks developed by the city as a playground for children. 

The author is referring here to the Chinese viceroy of the late Qing dynasty, a friend of President Grant who presented a ginkgo tree to be planted at Grant’s tomb. A plaque commemorating the gift is located behind the monument.

Describing the ceremony, Walsh noted, “In the planting of the first batch of the trees, a patriotic tribute was paid to both countries. Three groups of thirteen each were set out near Grant's Tomb in honor of the thirteen original American commonwealths, and at the same time in recognition of the lucky number of Japan, incidentally reversing an Occidental tradition.” (Source: William Shepard Walsh, A Handy Book of Curious Information: Comprising Strange Happenings in the Life of Men and Animals, Odd Statistics, Extraordinary Phenomena, and Out of the Way Facts Concerning the Wonderlands of the Earth, J.B. Lippincott, 1913, pps. 203-204)

General Grant National Monument is located just to the west of Sakura Park.
 
The city had originally purchased the park land from John D. Rockefeller in 1896 to serve as an extension of Riverside Park. The park, known first as Claremont Park (acquiring the name Sakura Park at the time of the 1912 cherry tree ceremony), was one of several small parks developed by the city at this time. In 1897 the Small Parks Commission was established by the Department of Parks to secure children’s playground space amidst overcrowding and dangerous traffic conditions. By the 1910s several small parks opened around the city, including Seward Park, Corlears Hook, Tompkins Square, and Dewitt Clinton Playgrounds.

In addition to Grant’s Tomb, Sakura Park sits adjacent to Riverside Church (1930), a massive Gothic-style interdenominational church and an important center for activism and social justice. The park was redesigned in tandem with the building of the church, both at the direction of John D. Rockefeller, Jr..

Riverside Church and cherry blossoms in Sakura Park

The retaining wall on the east side of Sakura Park, built as part of the park’s redevelopment in 1932, was inspired by Kenilworth Abbey in England. An additional feature of the park worth noting is the monument to General Daniel Butterfield (1831-1901) erected in 1918. The general, a major-general and chief of staff of the Army of the Potomac, is famous as the composer of Taps. Artist Gutzon Borglum (1867 – 1941) sculpted the statue. Borglum is famous as the creator of Mount Rushmore.

Retaining wall on the east side of Sakura Park

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from April 23, 2017.

Directions to Sakura Park, Grant's Tomb, and Riverside Church: Take the 1 train to the 125th Street Station (an elevated station with an escalator). Walk south on Broadway to W. 122nd St. and then walk a block west.

NYC Parks: Sakura Park (website)

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