An article in the Daily News from the early 1980s
The little park that can't, Plans abound, little happens
By Keith Moore
There is more to be said about the things that never happened to Morningside Park than about the things that have happened.
- There is the controversial gymnasium that Columbia
University never built in the park.
- There are the rumors about how crime ridden the park
is - yet the figures don't seem to jibe with the complaints.
- There are the lavish plans for rehabilitating the
park that have never gotten off the ground and probably never will.
- There is the question of its landmark status:
Morningside Park may be the only major park in the city built by
Frederick Law Olmstead that had not achieved landmark status.
Morningside Park has been on hold for 15 years. It seems to be both wanted and unwanted. The park cuts a broad swath across the upper West Side, bounded by 123rd Street, 110th Street, Morningside Drive and Morningside Avenue. Some consider the park to be a kind of demilitarized zone, cutting off Harlem from Columbia and Morningside Heights.
It was in 1969 that Columbia disclosed a plan to build a gym in
the park. The announcement set off student riots, leading to the
occupation of five buildings on campus before the university
abandoned the plan the next year.
The Park Seems Never to have recovered. Indeed, some of the fencing erected in 1969, by the university still stands.
To be sure, there have been efforts to resurrect the park. After more than a decade of infighting, Harlem and Morningside Heights residents, through groups like the West Harlem Community organization and the Morningside Park Coalition, drew up plans they hoped would bring the two communities together.
They envisioned waterfalls. They had plans to install new basketball courts, rebuild the pathways, lights, stairs and benches-the works-at an estimated cost of $5 million to $7 million. Former Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis apparently was so pleased to see the two communities getting together that he had an architect brought in. Columbia also came up with $250,000 and promised $250,000 more.
Then two things happened.
First, Davis resigned earlier this year and was replaced by former Councilman Henry Stern. Second, a group called the Friends of Morningside Park had been formed earlier and now was bent on preserving the park as it was when built in 1887. They opposed tampering with the original design.
The "Born-Again Parkees," as Suki Posts, a member of the Morningside Park Coalition, calls them, have done what the Parks Department didn't or couldn't do. They conducted cleanups, trimmed hedges, cleared away underbrush and encouraged others to take advantage of the park. "The Friends" are mostly Columbia students led by a former student, Thomas Kiel, who is now in medical school at New York University.
"We started before we even knew there was any controversy because we saw a park in need of maintenance," Kiel said. But Ports and others view Kiel and "The Friends: as " arrogant young kids: who feel: they have the last word on the parks and they are going to pass it on to all of us"
"We've done more in the past 15 months than all the groups have done in 15 years," Kiel countered, noting the park had become safer because drug addicts are unable to lurk in the shadows anymore.
Statistics tend to bear him out. But there is a perception that Morningside Park is not a safe place after dark-or in broad daylight. Police figures show 10 robberies, one rape, one drug arrest but no homicides for the park in 1982. The fear persists, and few people venture into the park." It's more imagined than real," said Matt Turner, a planning board member from Central Harlem.
Of The Proposals, Stern said: "They're good, but there were problems." There is the waterfall that was supposed to be carved from the rock that Columbia had partially blasted away. Stern said he is concerned that the Landmarks Preservation Commission " might balk at the redesign."
The new parks commissioner said he will sit down with community residents next week and review plans.
Stern, the department's executive director under former Commissioner Thomas Hoving in 1966, is the eighth commissioner to tackle Morningside Park's revised schemes. When asked if he expected the work to be done during his tenure, Stern smiled and said: "If we wait another 17 years it will be the year 2000, won't it?"