This story appeared in the Newsday on September 16, 2001.
Thanks "Hanc" for graciously granting us permission to reprint it.
PARKS: A Different Place
Being disjointed and diverse is part of Cunningham Park's charm
By John Hanc
Maybe it's the lack of a distinct geographic feature - no pond, no reservoir, no carousel or former World's Fair landmark.
Maybe it's the indignity of having been cut in half by the Clearview Expressway, and further divided by Union Turnpike and Francis Lewis Boulevard, making the place seem like a hodgepodge of disconnected parcels.
Or maybe it's just the name:
Whatever the reason, this is a big park with a little bit of an identity crisis. On the face of it, Cunningham should be high up in the pantheon of Queens public spaces, due to its size (358 acres, the fourth-largest park in the borough) and its extensive facilities. But most borough residents, if they've heard of Cunningham at all, probably couldn't place it on a map. "Cunningham Park is much less well known than it should be," says New York City Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern. "It could be the name, which doesn't give any hint of what it's about."
Even the park's original name, back in the 1920s - Hillside - was misleading. Although two-thirds - about 241 acres - of it is wooded, there are no major hills here, and Hillside Avenue is far from the center of the park. The current and even more obscure name is in memory of W. Arthur Cunningham, a comptroller during the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. No question that Cunningham had a distinguished background: A Fordham Law School graduate, he put aside his legal career to serve his country during World War I. He joined the 69th New York Regiment (immortalized, at least for that generation, as the "Fighting 69th") and fought in France, rising to the rank of major. In 1933, he was elected city comptroller on LaGuardia's ticket. But in May 1934, Cunningham died suddenly of a heart attack while horseback riding on Long Island. He was only 40 years old. Two years later, in 1936, LaGuardia renamed the park in his honor to coincide with the completion of a number of parks projects conducted by the Depression era Works Progress Administration.
While sympathetic to LaGuardia's motivation in naming the park after his comptroller, Stern thinks the former mayor should have heeded the advice of the 19th century designers of the New York City Parks system - landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, both of whom were steadfastly against the practice of naming parks after people. Hence, we have Central, Prospect, Riverside, Forest, Alley Pond, all of which evoke clear images of nature, and Cunningham - which, sad to say, registers nothing in most people's minds. That's a shame. "It's a beautiful park, a great park," says Stern. "Maybe the city's largest neighborhood park."
The people in the neighborhoods around the park do seem to enjoy it, whether or not they know anything about W. Arthur Cunningham. "To have an open area in the middle of our community that can be used by all ages, and is used by all groups is a boon to the community," says Marc Haken of Holliswood, president of the Friends of Cunningham Park, a local nonprofit civic group. But the openness of Cunningham Park extends beyond the spacious field located near the main parking lot. It's in the spirit of the community as well, in the welcoming attitude of the park's primary constituent - the residents of the surrounding communities of Bayside, Holliswood, Queens Village, Hollis Hills, Jamaica Estates, West Cunningham Park and Fresh Meadows. "It's the most neighborly park in Queens," says Richard Murphy, the borough's park commissioner. "They welcome everything and everybody."
That includes the annual summer appearances of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the Big Apple Circus - all of whom perform in Cunningham and in no other park in Queens. Not to mention local religious and civic groups who hold festivals or special events there and local schools (such as nearby St. Francis Prep and St. John's University) which use the park for sports events and other outings. It should be noted that this tolerance does have its limits. Bob Harris of the West Cunningham Park Civic Association says that many nearby residents are not happy about some of the multi-day events - such as the circus, which comes to Cunningham Park for about two weeks in the summer - because of the crowds and the litter they leave behind. But generally, Harris agrees, "as long as it's a one day or night thing, people don't mind ... [they] very much enjoy and appreciate the park."
The open-mindedness manifests itself in other ways, too - in the diversity of groups, sports and the blurring of traditional boundaries of who plays what. Consider the Cunningham Bocce Club, a 28-year old organization that plays on one of the finest bocce courts in Queens (built in the 1930s by the WPA). Bocce is a game - similar to lawn bowling - that is usually identified with people of Italian descent. But when we stopped by to visit some club members, taking a break on a hot summer afternoon, we found that they broke the stereotype. One of the club's best players is Asian: John Eng, a retired pharmacist who lives in Flushing and jokes that he's originally from "East Palermo." Eng first got curious about bocce watching the club members play on the two regulation (85 feet long, 12-feet wide) courts at Cunningham Park. "After a few months, I got the nerve to ask if I could play," he said. Now, six years later, he's a skilled player, a board member and part of a group that his fellow club member Walter Levine calls "the friendliest bunch of people in the world."
The Cunningham Core: The bocce courts are located at the center of what is referred to as "The Core" - the area around the parking lot and the large field facing Union Turnpike, between 193rd Street and Francis Lewis Boulevard. This is the hub of Cunningham Park's activity: In addition to the bocce courts, the adjacent tennis courts attract a loyal following, as well. How loyal? Consider that Joan Gewurz and Sabina Steiner met here 35 years ago - and they're still tennis partners. "You won't find a better park for tennis," said Gewurz, who lives in Jamaica Estates. Steiner, originally from Whitestone, moved out to Coram in Suffolk County 15 years ago, but still returns three or four times a year to take the court with her old friend. "I love Cunningham Park," said Steiner. "The bocce, the baseball, the track, the picnic area, the concerts, and of course the tennis. When we retire we're moving back to Queens, so we can be near here again."
In addition to the team sports, individuals enjoy the Core as well. Bob Harris says that over the course of a couple of hours on any weekday morning, you can find 200-300 people, walking or jogging around the nearly .7-mile oval track that circles the field (the connecting trail around the back of the tennis courts has recently been paved, so that walkers can now cover a full mile each time around). Some use the .7 or one-mile loop as part of a longer course that takes them off the beaten path and into the trails in Cunningham's abundant wooded area.
The Cunningham Forest: The Matinencocks are the tribe originally believed to have lived in this part of Queens. Although their world, and that of the colonists who began arriving in the 1600s, is long gone, the wooded areas of Cunningham Park might still look familiar to them amidst the modern jungle of concrete and asphalt. The park's Southern Forest hasn't changed much over the years: Red oaks, dogwoods, tulip trees, red maple, sweet gums and hemlocks predominate here. Newer growth - black oak, cherry and locust trees - dominate the Northern Forest (north of 73rd Avenue). This area was also the site of farms that predate the park - the remnants of foundations and old walkways are still visible in some parts.
Today, says Aline Euler, education director of the Alley Pond Environmental Center in Douglaston, Cunningham Park is a "flourishing urban forest." Its topography, similar to Alley Pond, is the type of up-and-down terrain known as "knob and kettle," a result of the glacier which left the small hills (knobs) and kettle ponds, holes originally formed by chunks of ice from the glacier, that were eventually filled with rainwater. Euler also notes that Cunningham has "a wonderful array of birds." Birders come to the park in fall and spring to see the migration of warblers; many species of songbirds are found here, the kettle ponds attract ducks and herons, and hawks and owls have been spotted in the park, as well.
Long Island Motor Parkway: William K. Vanderbilt's Motor Parkway was already almost 20 years old in 1926, when he extended the western end of the parkway through what would later become Cunningham Park. According to Motor Parkway historian Bob Miller of Richmond Hill, the toll road was extended all the way to what was then called Nassau Boulevard (later Horace Harding Boulevard) in order to draw more traffic to the parkway. While Vanderbilt's 46-mile long highway was the first major automobile road in the country, it was never as widely used as he had hoped, particularly as rival Robert Moses' network of public, toll-free parkways began to appear.
After Vanderbilt closed the parkway in 1938, the old road was overgrown and little used. In the mid-1980s, the Parks Department began to restore the sections in both Alley Pond Park and the nearly one mile stretch through Cunningham. Today, the surface of the 22-foot wide road is smooth and even once again. But it's now open only to the kind of traffic Vanderbilt originally sought to keep off: cyclists and pedestrians.
Cunningham Park Facts
Size: 358 acres, 241 of them wooded.
Facilities: 27 ballfields, 20 tennis courts (10 are covered by a bubble for indoor play, from November-April), one full basketball court, two cricket pitches, two bocce courts, four playgrounds (Two new soccer fields are being built on the eastern end of the park, on 210th Street and 73rd Avenue, and are expected to be in use next summer).
Access: 6 a.m.- 9 p.m., seven days a week.
Information: Call 718-217-6452. For ball field permit information, or special events (for groups of 20 or more) call 718-520-5942.
For an outdoor tennis permit - required to use courts at Cunningham or any other city park - call 718-263-4121. Cost for season-long permit is $50 for adults, $20 for seniors, $10 for children 17 and younger. For information on playing in the bubble at Cunningham Park, call 718-740-6800. - Hanc
John Hanc is a regular contributor to Newsday.