The pleasure gardens of Lower Manhattan

Ephemeral New York

Pleasure gardens: The term sounds dreamy and enchanting.

And for 18th and 19th century city residents, these gardens definitely were: recreational spaces open day and night that featured landscaped grounds, lights, music, theater, fountains, and grottos.

Kind of a cross between a botanical garden, country club, and the Playboy mansion, pleasure gardens offered a coed social scene plus the latest fancy refreshments—the alcoholic kind as well as the new craze: ice cream.

New York Vauxhall Gardens, opened in 1767 on Greenwich Street by the Hudson River, was one of the first. Vauxhall eventually relocated between Broadway and the Bowery (practically the countryside at the time) in 1805.

Exclusive Niblo’s Garden (at left) soon became hugely popular, taking over an older pleasure garden at Broadway and Prince Street in 1825 and expanding it with a theater and open-air saloon.

Contoit’s Garden, close to Niblo’s on Broadway, was an elegant rival. And…

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Under A Spreading Chestnut Tree

After an absence of nearly sixty years, chestnut trees are once again appearing in New York City. In 2008, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) planted five American chestnut trees on Governors Island as part of the UN’s Seven Billion Tree Campaign. The project is working in conjunction with the Department of the Interior‘s Office of Surface Mining (OSM), to repopulate the planet’s native but lost woody perennials. Corporate, municipal and private donors from around the world have contributed their time and money in an effort to plant 38 million various trees in select regions.

Chestnut trees once flourished in eastern forests from Maine to Georgia. Their strength of root and beauty of leaf were legendary. Dutch settlers in the New World found the tree’s wood exceptionally strong and durable, using its timber to build the first structures in Manhattan. In fact, chestnut trees were so numerous in Manhattan that Native Americans called the island “Nut” island (an appropriate name even today, but for different reasons).

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow introduced the Everyman/ hero of his immortal poem The Village Blacksmith with the lines, “Under a spreading chestnut-tree/ The village smithy stands.” Then again, many people took such things seriously, and with a straight face, in those days.

Alas, despite the high esteem of the Dutch, American Indians and Longfellow, the American chestnut tree was doomed to slowly diminish and ultimately vanish from its native soil. In 1904, blight was observed on several chestnut trees outside the Bronx Zoo. The blight was of an airborne variety and quickly spread fifty miles a year, killing up to three billion American Chestnut trees in less than 30 years.

The American Chestnut Foundation is chiefly responsible for the chestnut trees that were planted by the ARRI. The partnership between ACF, the ARRI and UNEP are serving as a model for other groups across the globe eager to restore disrupted landscapes.

AMERICAN CHESTNUT TREE RETURNS TO NEW YORK CITY…  US Fed News Service, Including US State News. HT Media Ltd. 2008. HighBeam Research. 19 Dec. 2008

Still Getting The Hang of Hangman’s Elm

At the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, stands an English Elm called “Hangman’s Elm” or The Hanging Tree.  The tree is 110 feet tall (33.52 m) and has a diameter of 56 inches (1.42 m). In 1989, the New York Department of Parks and Recreation determined that the tree is 310 years old, making it the oldest known tree in Manhattan. Outliving both Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree at 13th Street and Third Avenue and a renowned Tulip poplar at Shorakapkok in Washington Heights, Hangman’s Elm is certainly a longtime fixture here.

However, more than its fascinating age is the tree’s dubious name that has intrigued historians for many years…the how and why regarding this strange appellation.

An earliest reference to the tree as a “hanging tree” dates from the late 1800s and it was immediately assumed that at one time or another the tree served as an execution device or setting. Insofar as the name having something to do with its physical configuration, the tree itself doesn’t hang or stoop but stands quite erect. What’s more, at this time public executions no longer took place in New York State and the tree always stood on a private farm that was added to Washington Square in 1827 by the city.

The only recorded execution in this vicinity was that of a woman named Rose Butler in 1820 at Minetta Creek, about 500 feet from the tree. With scant evidence, tour guides (as well as a few historians) perpetuated the claims of the tree’s deadly usage as fact rather than fancy throughout the past two centuries. The most notable allegation is that the Marquis de Lafayette supposedly witnessed the execution of twenty highwaymen. Happily, for those who appreciate the vague and mysterious, the controversial history surrounding the tree continues.

In my bygone days as a student at NYU, where I spent four years in a scholarly coma, I lived in Greenwich Village. My apartment was within walking distance of the university (also within staggering distance, which came in handy many a morning following an all-night bacchanal) through Washington Square Park and pass the The Hanging Tree.

Dappled in sunlight, convulsed in storm or embraced in moonlight, The Hanging Tree weathered the seasons. I often sat beneath the Tree and meditated: my fears assuaged by the caress of its branches, my doubts by the lull of its leaves and my resolve by the awe of its rooted permanence. This was where my first wife and I became intoxicated lovers, destined to wed and doomed to divorce…lending The Hanging Tree’s fiction a glimmer of truth; then again, this was a rather sketchy time in my own legend.

Source: The Big Apple