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Pocket parks

Pocket parks -- also known as miniparks and vest-pocket parks -- are small patches of landscaped nature generally built on vacant building lots or scraps of city land that fall between the cracks of real estate interests.

Jacob Riis, the urban reformer, is credited with inventing the pocket-park concept in 1897, when he served as the secretary of a city committee on small parks. The committee issued a statement declaring that "any unused corner, triangle or vacant lot kept off the market by litigation or otherwise may serve this purpose well." Though turn-of-the-last-century New York was filled with spaces that fit the bill, Riis's idea went largely unrealized until after World War II, when bombed-out building sites in European cities provided opportunities to create small parks at less cost than reconstruction would have entailed.

Mr. Hoving may have seen parallels between New York's crumbling urban landscape and Europe's war-ravaged capitals when he started his micro-park effort in 1966. That year, he identified 378 vacant lots and 346 abandoned buildings in Bedford-Stuyvesant alone.

"Utopia would mean a park -- some large, some small -- every four or five blocks," he declared. These micro-oases could spring up in the middle of dense, socially fractious neighborhoods where, he believed, they had the potential to "create wider ripples of reform." One thousand new pocket parks would mean adding only 140 acres to the city's park acreage. Two hundred could be acquired and developed for less than 10 percent of his department's annual budget.

The first of Mr. Hoving's attempts at creating a compact sanctuary was Paley Park, which opened on 3 East 53rd Street in the spring of 1967. It was named for William Paley, the former chairman of CBS, who financed and oversaw the park's design on the site of the old Stork Club. (Tom Hoving also had a flair for stirring up support from big business for his projects.)

With its ivy-covered walls and 20-foot-high waterfall, Paley Park proved an enormous hit from the moment it opened. The Times labeled it "a corner of quiet delights." Early visitors waxed enthusiastic about the relief it provided from the din of the streets, and the "acoustic perfume" of the park's waterfall.

THOMAS HOVING, who died last week at 78, is best remembered for his 10 years as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; but in his 14-month tenure as New York City parks commissioner, a position he assumed in 1965, his legacy was no less significant.

Op-Ed Contributor
City of Earthy Delights
Published: December 13, 2009
In the era of micro-budgets, Thomas Hoving's dream of creating 1,000 mini-parks should be revisited.


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