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You gotta have park: Queens greenery recognized in Manhattan exhibit

By Philip Newman

A 1906 view of Flushing Park featuring a horse and buggy and floor-length-gowned ladies at a 1914 Forest Park chrysanthemum festival are among the earliest in a photo collection on the parks of Queens over a century.

These views are part of an exhibit, “Queens Jewels: A History of Queens Parks,” with more than 70 photographs along with vintage postcards, artifacts and memorabilia shown by the Parks and Recreation Department.

One-hundred years ago, Queens had no actual parks but rather a number of town greens and squares with its largest green space then called Brooklyn Forest.

“Brooklyn Forest was what is now Forest Park,” said Jonathan Kuhn, curator of the exhibit. “It carried that name because at that point in history, the Brooklyn Parks Department maintain park areas of Queens as well as Brooklyn.”

Why has Queens been chosen for this exhibit?

“In the recent past, we have rendered parks exhibits on other boroughs,” said Kuhn, who is director of art and antiquities of the Parks Department. “And, for many reasons, we felt Queens’s time had come. Queens has 7,000 acres of park land, more than any borough except Staten Island, which has only slightly more. And a lot is happening in Queens, the city’s largest borough; the possible selection of Queens for the 2012 Olympics, the annual contention by the Mets for the National League title, the transformation of the borough into the most multinational place perhaps in the world. Queens is truly America.”

A post card, “On the Beach at Rockaway,” circa 1907-1915, is almost painting-like and the effect of the sky, the Atlantic and the bathers, their bodies nearly covered in what then was not considered overly modest attire, could evoke a poignant feeling for a long ago time in New York.

One of the earlier photos depicts the fruition of social reformers’ efforts to keep children from playing in the streets. The result was Ashmead park Playground in Jamaica, the first public playground in Queens, opened in 1914. The playground consisted of simple equipment, including teeter-totters, furnished by the Jamaica Women's Club.

Bathing suits have long reflected custom and historical periods and photos of a group 1934 male lifeguards at Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways are shown wearing two-piece swimsuits. In 1970, three young women surfers in the Rockaways pose in bikinis.

One of the more spectacular photos is of the dedication July 4, 1936 of Astoria Park pool with Hell Gate Bridge looming in the background. Parks officials said that before construction of the pool, youthful swimmers had long taken to the treacherous waters of Hell Gate, which links the East River with Long Island Sound.

The 330-foot-long Astoria pool, built partly with federal money, was described by Harry Hopkins of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration as “the finest in the world.”

Other photos show the cutting of trees because of a Chestnut blight in Forest Park, the transformation of Flushing Meadow into the largest park in Queens and site of two world’s fairs. Children, some with trousers rolled up, are shown taking refuge from summer heat at the Kissena Park wading pool in 1928.

The 1914 Chrysanthemum Festival in Forest Park was one of two flower shows that year and attracted 21,000 visitors.

A panoramic picture of a Flushing park area includes a streetcar, an automobile and a horse-drawn buggy illustrating evolving transportation modes.

Objects in the exhibit including a 1940 bronze sculpture bust of Walter Cunningham, a city comptroller for whom Cunningham Park is named, an official 1964-65 World’s Fair Souvenir Guide and entries from a children’s essay contest on the need for a playground in Richmond Hill.

Girl Scouts gathered around a campfire in Cunningham Park in 1943 are shown attending a six-week day camp. The registration fee: 50 cents for each two-week camping period. The scouts brought their own food,

The exhibition, sponsored by BP-Amoco, runs through Sept.5 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Arsenal, the Parks Department headquarters, at 64th Street and Fifth Avenue.

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