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NYC Park Series – Fountains and Sprinklers

July 24, 2013

In last month’s summer Parks Series entry, I wrote about navigating the abundant natural water around our city with Stringbean. But let’s be honest—while a ferry trip is a pleasant diversion, the meat of our outdoor summer activities with our children involve inland water that is decidedly unnatural, whether we’re splashing in city pools, bathing in the majesty of the many fountains, or enjoying the many watery elements of city parks we’d forgotten were even there over the winter and early spring.

I spent most of last week in Kansas, where the temperatures climbed near 110 degrees and even the gentlest breeze felt like a blow dryer. To tell the truth, though, it didn’t seem that oppressive, because every house, even the in the most dilapidated neighborhoods, has central air conditioning.  I’ve found that in New York City, as with most of the relatively temperate Northeast, even the more wealthy households use window units, if they even bother with air conditioners.  For this reason, on the hottest days in July and August (like last week!), New Yorkers must find creative ways of staying cool. I’ve sat through many a cheesy summer blockbuster just for the AC, and I remember many nights of the long, hot summer of 2001 when my roommate and I would escape the stifling heat of our Sunset Park apartment at night by sleeping on the roof.

Of course, the most obvious (and fun!) methods of beating the summer heat include water.  Since the invention of outdoor plumbing, city kids have found ways of cooling off and having some fun with treated water, the most iconic (and still practiced) being the jimmied fire hydrant, which the photographer Weegee immortalized in his 1937 photo “Summer on the Lower East Side”:


Photo taken from Aphelis.net

Nowadays, though, city kids have more options. No playground is a playground in the summer without some water to offset the heat generated by all those shiny metal slides (for a case in point on how stifling a playground can be if the metal-to-water ratio is off, just take a hopefully-short visit to the newly redesigned Union Square Park playground at midday) and in fact many, like the sublime Teardrop Park and the overwhelming Pier 25, both downtown, incorporate outdoor plumbing so thoroughly and naturally into their architecture that you have to wonder what they do in the winter. Most of the major fountains of New York City are accessible, some (like the one at the top of Grand Army Plaza) for sitting next to and perhaps catching some spray, and others (like the one at Washington Square Park) for getting in and splashing around.

Just for the sake of clarity (and because, again, I can’t help myself from categorizing things to death), I’ll divide up our favorite inland water spots into 1) monolithic fountains and 2) playground fountains and sprinklers. First, the monoliths.

Of all the fountains we’ve visited, I love the one at Washington Square Park best, not just because it’s one of the biggest in the city, or technically the newest (the fountain was moved as part of the recent Washington Square Park redesign in 2011), or that the park itself has long been a symbol of independent thought in New York City. No, the reason is simpler than that—of all the huge, monolithic fountains of the city, this is the only one we found that you can get into and splash around. (Disclaimer: technically, I believe it’s against the rules as stated by the city parks commission. But everybody does it.) And I hope I’m not about to sound hopelessly romantic and/or vaguely socialist, but the first time I took Stringbean there it felt like the kids were transfixed under the spray from the multiple siphons, walking together in the same direction over and over around the fountainhead, striking poses, sitting next to each other in the water, or simply looking up at the sky and daydreaming.


Stringbean striking a pose at the Washington Square Fountain

Two equally ubiquitous fountains that are worth looking at, but not touching: Bailey fountain at Grand Army Plaza just north of Prospect Park, and Bethesda Fountain near the boathouse in Central Park. Both are capped with awe-inspiring sculptures, the Angel of the Waters governing Bethesda Terrace with a single lily—perhaps the city flower of New York—in one hand, while three naked figures with entwined hands look down at the upper torsos of concrete figures reaching up menacingly from the water at Grand Army Plaza.


Bethesda Fountain at Central Park


Bailey Fountain at Grand Army Plaza

Though technically not a fountain, a worthy sight that is probably equally important to a Central Park visit is the model sailboat pond. A concrete-encased rectangular body of water that more closely resembles a swimming pool than a pond, with remote-controlled model sailboats that I’m told are available for rental skirting the surface, perhaps more than any water in the park it represents the city’s confluence of synthetic and natural elements. It also will have any child or adult who’s read Stuart Little wondering if a mouse is racing one of the boats out there.


The sailboat pond at Central Park

Now, for the playgrounds. A personal favorite of both of ours is the one at Madison Square Park, a relatively small recreational space that packs a surprising amount of fun into a corner space of a two-square-block park. The capstone of the playground, a colorful 15-foot waterwheel, kept Stringbean dancing, pointing, and laughing for hours, with periodic diversions onto the ample playground equipment. And afterwards there’s always (the original) Shake Shack right in the park, and if you plan right you can end the day with Suzanne Vega, Erin McKeown, or Ivan Neville in one of their free outdoor concerts.


The waterwheel at Madison Square Park

Pier 6 in Brooklyn has been getting tons of publicity, and for good reason. The recent conversion of the blighted loading docks below the Brooklyn Bridge into city parkland is one of the most breathtaking public works achievements of this young century, and Pier 6 was the first part of the ever-expanding Brooklyn Bridge Park to open. And it has something for every child—a water lab with synthetic streams, massive water cups that children can climb into with drill-like water siphons, and a panoramic view of the Hudson Bay. Did I mention that the B67 bus runs right up to the foot of the pier?


Pier 6 of Brooklyn Bridge Park

For a panoply of water play, Stringbean and I heartily recommend an entire day across the East River in downtown Manhattan (or you can break it up if that’s too imposing). Three of its playgrounds —Pier 25, Imagination Playground, and Teardrop Park—offer startlingly different conceptions of aquatic recreation.

Of the three, Pier 25 is the most, well, standard conception: usually ultra-crowded, with plenty of spraying water and kids running around with Super Soakers and water balloons, all on a pier with the Hudson River lapping its edges. I would advise accompanying parents to wear bathing suits, because you will almost definitely receive some crossfire.

For an almost directly opposite experience from Pier 25, just move a few blocks inland to Teardrop Park in Battery Park City. Obviously built to simulate a hidden natural panacea in the guts of the metropolis, the playground features a cave-like entrance, a rock wall kids can climb to get to the top of a gigantic slide, and multiple pools of water that feel like they were fed by mountain streams. The spell of the place is positively intoxicating, though it was briefly broken when we got a glimpse of an open door beneath the park that had me feeling like we’d just stumbled into the hatch from Lost.


Teardrop Park – The Entrance


Teardrop Park – The Wall


Teardrop Park – The Underbelly

And for perhaps the most Park Slope-y experience outside Park Slope, there is Imagination Playground next to the South Street Seaport. Extensively furnished with equipment for independent child-play, the playground also has attendants, mostly teenagers on summer break from school, on duty to shoo parents and nannies to the sidelines and free the children to express themselves more fully.


Imagination Playground

And finally, speaking of Park Slope, two neighborhood playgrounds have been renovated in the last two years, both of which include water components. JJ Byrne opened its new conception last year, with a rock-lined “stream” running through the middle of it, whose flow is controlled by the children there via buttons located along its span. Stringbean adores this place, though its crowdedness and lack of physical boundaries between the water and the rest of the playground is going to eventually give me ulcers thinking a) I’ll lose her (this hasn’t happened yet), or b) she’ll get wet when she isn’t supposed to or doesn’t have dry clothes to change into (which happens pretty much every time we go). The other playground, which just reopened last month and is right down the block from us, is Slope Park. Its design is similar to JJ Byrne, with child-triggered stream and fountain components, but thankfully the designers had the foresight, perhaps from parental reactions to JJ Byrne, to put some fencing between most of the playground’s components.

Whatever water play you choose, I recommend making a day (or at least a morning or afternoon) of it. Summer is a time to slow down and savor these warm, slow-burning bits of experience, then stow them away in memory. Each of these trips got me through this past long winter, and Stringbean remembers each place vividly and individually. And I imagine, when Stringbean is an adult, maybe a parent, with many responsibilities, hopefully as many triumphs, some disappointments,  and a handful of regrets, all of these memories of summer days in the water with her dad (I’m sure she’ll have stopped calling me Daddy by then) will lose their individuality, and merge to form that elusive thing called childhood that she’ll summon from time to time and smile, without even knowing what she’s smiling about.


John Proctor - Resident Dad for A Child Grows In BrooklynJohn Proctor is our resident dad and writes on his experience living and raising his two children in Brooklyn. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2000, and been a father since 2009. Besides keeping company with his wife, two daughters, and chihuahua, he also writes memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in the Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, New York Cool, and Gotham Gazette, and he serves as editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can see more of him at his website NotThatJohnProctor.com, and he can also be reached at askadad@achildgrows.com. He’d love to hear from you!