Saturday, July 5, 2014

Going a little mad in the Flatiron District

New York is in the midst of the Fourth of July long weekend.  Fortunately we're having a respite from the hot, muggy weather that characterised the early part of last week and instead, we've been blessed with the most beautiful clear days and warm sunshine.

After a lazy start to my Saturday, I wandered up the street to one of my favourite spots in the city, Madison Square Park.  I love this place at any time during the year, but especially in summer.  The boughs of the old trees spread right out over you, and the leaves protect you from the heat of the blazing sun overhead.  Sit on any of the wooden benches dotted around the Park and you can watch the world go by.  Best of all, when the Madison Square Park Conservancy says it's okay to do so, you can take a picnic blanket and lay out on the cool, green grass that they have so lovingly tended throughout the year.

In summertime, Madison Square Park teems with life - not just of the human variety, but well-fed pigeons and fluffy squirrels too.  Dogs also make the most of the fine weather - dashing to and fro in Jemmy's Dog Run, which includes a special section so smaller breeds can play safely.

In fact, play seemed to be the order of the day today.  Kids of all ages were squealing in the playground, named in honor of NYPD Officer Moira Ann Smith, who served with distinction in the Flatiron neighbourhood but was killed  on September 11, as she fought to save the lives of others.

On the other side of the Park, hungry adults waited patiently in the ever-present line at Shake Shack, the original and easily the most popular of the chain's stores.  The Madison Square Park Shake Shack opened in 2004 and is still a neighbourhood fixture.  I am too impatient to line up for their burgers and fries, but I have to say I was pretty tempted to join the queue today and splash out for some frozen custard or similar icy treat.

Madison Square Park has been providing New Yorkers with a Midtown refuge for generations.  The Park is named in honour of James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, and the principal author of the US Constitution.  You would scarcely believe it now, but the area upon which Madison Square Park was built used to be swampy hunting grounds.  It was later developed as a public marketplace and then the site of an early iteration of Madison Square Garden.  The area of Madison Square was always a fashionable spot to be, even when Manhattan's growing population ultimately forced the city's businesses and residents to spread out and move further uptown.

The Park was ultimately re-landscaped in the late 1800s by Ignatz Pilat, a former assistant to Frank Law Olmstead, the impressively-bearded fellow who developed Central Park.  

Pilat's design for the new Madison Square Park incorporated some of the statues that still feature there, including the rather grim-looking Roscoe Conkling, a politician who served in both US Congress and the Senate.  Conkling collapsed in the Park during the awful blizzard of 1888.  He had insisted on walking home from his Wall Street office, refusing to pay a cab driver the admittedly extortionate fee of $50 to ferry him home safely.  

There's also a statue of Chester A Arthur, the 21st President of the United States (which we all know from having seen "Die Hard: With a Vengeance").  Arthur was only the second US President in history - other than George Washington - to take the Presidential oath in New York City.  After a failed bid at re-nomination, Arthur returned to New York City to practice law and died here years later.

There's also a rather impressive statue of Civil War hero, Admiral David Farragut which overlooks a small plaza and fountain (currently being repaired).  Farragut had a very impressive military career and remained on active duty for life (one of only 7 US Naval Officers to achieve this distinction).  Farragut is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and this impressive sculpture was erected in the Park to celebrate his memory.

Continuing the wartime theme, there's also the Eternal Light Flagpole at the entrance of the Park, which commemorates the return of American soldiers in WW1.  The flagpole was dedicated in 1923, and was carefully restored in 2002.  There is a star-shaped lightbulb atop the flagpole which is illuminated each night, as a permanent reminder of the courage and sacrifice of the fallen and returned soldiers.

Amidst all this New York history, Madison Square Park also plays host to many modern events throughout the year, such as food and wine festivals, but also features bold art installations and public programs too.

Currently on display are three sculptures by American artist Rachel Feinstein.  Her exhibition is entitled Folly and the three large-scale works have been produced in a style that was popular in 18th & 19th Century architecture.  The large sculptures depict a house on a towering cliff; a hut; and a flying ship that is moored high in a tree.  The structures will remain in the Park until early September.

What I like the most about Madison Square Park is that the City really uses it.  Whether you're lining up for a burger and fries, or you're just kicking back with a coffee to appreciate the views of the Flatiron Building and the Empire State Building, Madison Square Park is a real refuge from the hustle-bustle of the city streets.  It's certainly one of the City's precious green spaces that I never tire of visiting.

As usual, this is just a small selection of the photos I took today (with my new digital camera - yay!).  You can view the whole album below: