Friday, February 20, 2015

Central Park: Free Ice Skating On Pond Returns! Other Boroughs Not So Lucky

Bring Your Own Skates.  Tim Davey and son Vann, 5, play hockey on the Conservatory Water in Central Park, the park system's only free outdoor ice skating pond available to the public.    With icy temperatures expected to return beginning next week after a brief respite,  the pond is expected to be frozen over for the immediate future.   Ice skating was the first activity in Central Park when it opened in 1858,  twelve years before the park was completed.  (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) click on images to enlarge)


By Geoffrey Croft  

One of the most delightful, and free, winter fun activities is to skate outdoors among nature.

And for those who have their own ice skates — or are able to borrow them –  a little slice of winter heaven exists in Central Park.

As the public knows ice skating is strictly prohibited on the Parks Department's numerous waterbodies due to safety concerns and for good reason:  the risk of falling through the ice and getting hurt or worse is also too real. 

Each season one park prepares for the possibility that winter just might get cold enough to allow skating on one of its ponds.  

This is the year.

For the past several weeks the public has been quietly using the park's famed model/sail boat pond near 73rd street near Fifth Avenue to ice skate.

The Conservatory Water,  as it is officially known,  is normally 3 to 4 feet but each year the Central Park Conservancy cleans the pond and, borrowing a page from the past,   drains the water to a depth of 1 foot in the winter months in order to facilitate a solid and safe bed of ice.  (The Parks Department requires the ice be at least 6 inches deep to allow skating)     

The Conservancy also builds a wooden ramp so people can access the pond.

This week Tim Davey and his son Vann, 5 1/2,  enthusiastically cleared the snow covered surface with a broom and shovel so they could play.   

"I saw a couple of people out here the other day,  it was news to me that you could even do this," said Mr. Davey, a father of three who lives a few blocks way. 

"It was great, we were loving it.  We loved shoveling off the snow to make our own hockey rink," he said. 

After a large enough section was cleared an impromptu pick up hockey game broke out that included Maxy,  14 a student from the UN School, and Emmet, a 10- year-old visiting from  southern California.   While walking with his mom Emmet saw the action, borrowed a broom and made his way onto the smooth ice wearing sneekers and began playing goalie.

For Tim's son Vann it was the first time he played stick and puck. 

"He didn't want to leave after four and a half hours, he was having a great time."

Even his 2-year-old daughter Teagan made an appearance on skates. 

Two nearby concessions stands serve hot chocolate and snacks.  

On February 6th, the Conservancy tweeted out: RARE OPPORTUNITY! Conservatory Water OPEN this w/e for skating!! BYO skates. Ice not groomed. Do NOT go on any other frozen waterbody!!!

Up in Crotona Park in the Bronx, the situation is quite different.

Although Indian Lake was also built for the same activities as in Central Park  the once popular ice skating activities and lake boat rentals were abandoned many decades ago.  

Several garbage cans are embedded into the ice at Indian Lake in Crotona Park, once a popular ice skating destination in the Bronx.

With no dedicated maintenance staff the impacts are obvious. Several garbage cans tossed into the pond remain frozen in the water. Several bright red wooden ice rescue ladders are littered on the snowy landscape. 

The red brick Parks Department building that replaced the wooden warning huts for skating is still there but no such programs are offered.  Today Park Rangers have to shoo kids away from the dangerous icy waters. 

Sign Of The Times.

During the Bloomberg administration the Parks Department established  "safe skating" sites throughout the five boroughs.  

A Parks Department spokesman said there are no plans to establish such sites this winter.

Free outdoor skating options in the city's parks are basically non-existent today, but that wasn't always the case.  

Skating in Central Park for instance has a long and storied past.   One of the first parts of the park to open to the public was the skating pond, now called The Lake, in the winter of 1858-1859, twelve years before the park was completed.   The Lake was actually designed to accommodate this activity in the winter, and for boating in the summer. 

In order to help ensure proper skating conditions, and safety, The Lake was designed so it could be drained to a level that helped ensure that the would ice froze every year. The 20-acre water body was labeled on park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's original Greensward plan as a "skating pond." This was the park's first recreational activity when the park opened and it immediately attracted parkgoers in droves.

Long before Zambonis people swept the ice to make it clear for skating.  There were ice skating warming “huts” along water’s edge where park patrons could leave their shoes while skating.  Parks Department workers would raise the flag to indicate it was safe to skate. 

Skating competitions were a popular attraction.     

According to the Central Park Conservancy when Central Park first opened more people came in the winter than in any other season….largely to skate.

Today some have a hard time orienting themselves when they see the iconic late 19th century photos of the throngs of people skating on the Lake with the famous Dakota building towering alone on Central Park West in the background. 

The iconic photographs of ice skating in Central Park (1898) with the Dakota building (1884) in the then non-existent skyline along Central Park West. The Lake was designed to so it could be drained to a level that would ensure public safety as well so it could freeze each year.  

Agnes Tait’s Skating in Central Park, 1934. The Pond (59th Street and Fifth Avenue) and The Lake (W.72nd Street) were very popular locations for ice skating in Central Park. 

But Central Park was hardly the only spot.  Tens of thousands of people once flocked annually to skating sites that once dotted the park system. The city built concession stands for skaters as well as for those who used the ice for other winter activities such as curling, yes curling! 

In the Bronx skating sites included Van Cortlandt Park and Crotona Park. 

"During the winter when the lake was thick enough to support skaters,  "Parkee" Solomon,  would raise the flag (a red ball on a white field) near the boathouse to indicate that skating was permissible," Daniel Wolfe writes. 

"Whenever that flag was up, homework was benched. I would grab my skates, dash across Boston Road,  pass P.S. 61,  round the corner at Charlotte Street,  pass the playground on my left and run to the Indian Lake in Crotona Park."

Curling, Van Cortlandt Park, New York

Brooklyn sites included McCarren Park, Prospect Park, Sunset Park, and Commodore Barry Park. 

The Brooklyn Parks Department annual report of 1920 notes that in Prospect Park, the Boat House was converted to a Skate House which also offered coffee and snacks, the Parks Department notes.  

Today the Prospect Alliance has been allowed to seize the historic building and rents it out for private parties.   In 2014 the Alliance raked in $346,210 for 68 parties, records show. The landmark building, renovated with millions in taxpayer funds, was closed to the public on weekends starting in April 2013.

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