Park Escapes

by Anne Schwartz, August 2002

Just an inch of rain fell last month. The stock market tanked. Tax revenues are down and the budget is reeling. Power outages threaten. People can't bear to throw out their formerly recyclable glass and plastic.

At least there are still the parks.

For New Yorkers enduring the summer in the city -- by choice or not -- the parks are truly essential. They are both refuge and entertainment. Of course, the parks have had their share of bad news, too, with six percent less funding next year for maintenance and programs, and warnings of an additional reduction of 7.5 percent. This further shrinks a budget that was never restored from the last fiscal downturn. More funding cuts could deprive us of safe, clean and green parks just when we need them the most.

But for now, the parks still offer dozens of ways to escape the city's oppressive heat, noise, and smells without venturing on the Long Island Expressway. They also provide some of the best summer fun in town -- mostly for free. Here is just a sample of some of the things you can do in the dog days and nights of August.

Go fishing in the Harlem Meer, the lake at the northeast end of Central Park. Bamboo poles are available at the nearby Dana Discovery Center. (Fishing is also permitted at several other water bodies in the park.) Or take a history, design or ecology tour of the park run by the Central Park Conservancy.

Bring your children to a Forest Fairytales storytelling hour at High Rock Park in Staten Island on four days in August (718-667-7475). The City Parks Foundation also sponsors the Summer Fun recreation program for children at a number of parks and playgrounds (212-360-8290 for locations), as well as free tennis classes for kids.

You can almost imagine yourself in the country when you walk through the newly restored ravine in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The ravine is open from 1 to 5 p.m. on weekends, with guided tours at 3 p.m. And at the park's new Audubon Center you can learn to bird watch on weekend mornings, or glide through the park's waterways in a canopied electric boat.

Learn about the outdoors -- even at night -- at one of the city's ten nature centers, run by the Urban Park Rangers. You don't have to leave the five boroughs to go hiking, birding, canoeing, or stargazing.

For serious cooling, there are the city's 14 beaches and 53 outdoor pools -- all free (for now, at least). Some pools have early morning and evening lap hours for adults.

Too hot to cook dinner? Can't bear returning to your stifling apartment after a day at work? Bring a blanket, invite some friends, and have a picnic in the park.

Stay for the entertainment. Something is going on at a park almost every night of the week. Movies are screened on Mondays in Bryant Park in Manhattan. Wednesdays at Union Square until August 21, there are readings from children's books from 5 to 6, and dance performances from 6 to 7. Learn ballroom dancing outdoors on Thursdays from 6 to 6:45 at the plaza of the Dana Nature Discovery Center in Central Park, and then dance to live music from 7 to 8:30. Or go to RockNRollerblade, a roller disco party with free skate rentals, a disc jockey, and roller dance performances, from 6:30 to 9:30 at a different park each Thursday in August. Jazzmobile's summer concert series brings jazz performers to Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem from 6 to 9 p.m. on Fridays. Bring a blanket and picnic and listen to music Sundays at 4 to 6 at the Harlem Meer Performance Festival in Central Park. And on several nights of the week at Forest Park in Queens, there is theater, dance, or music.

For more information on park events and facilities, check the web sites of: the Parks department, Central Park Conservancy, Bryant Park, the Staten Island Greenbelt Conservancy, and Prospect Park Alliance.

There are also events at the Hudson River Park and the various locations of Gateway National Recreation Area.