Highland Park is in disrepair and grass covers crumbled paths in areas that were thriving in the early part of the 20th century. The park is just a ghost of the beauty and culture it hosted a few generations ago.
Residents now walk dogs without leashes in the patchy grass of the promenade that used to be one of the most beautiful gardens in the city and a top destination for photographers.
The reservoir on the site seems largely forgotten, or largely unknown, by area residents. Hiding just behind the Jackie Robinson Parkway is a thriving wetland that hosts upwards of 147 species of birds. Some are listed on New York State’s threatened species list; others are migratory birds that nest in the marshy areas of the reservoir before continuing on their way to Central and South America.
Ridgewood Reservoir was acquired by the Parks Department in 2002 after a long decline in use. The reservoir had been providing water to Brooklyn only in emergency situations for many years. The system, built in the late 19th century, was obsolete by 1977. Two of the three reservoir basins were drained in 1989, and since then a young forest has emerged over the stone masonry laid by hand in the 1850s.
Members of the Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance are hoping the $19.2 million allocated by the city for the park and reservoir goes to maintaining the park and creating an educational nature preserve, not plowing the reservoir and creating baseball fields, as some would want.
Charles Monaco, a lifelong resident of the area and member of the alliance, led a tour of the location on Saturday, emphasizing its historical and environmental significance to New York City.
“The environmental resources here are unequaled for urban and natural systems studies,” Monaco said.
The alliance unilaterally agrees that baseball fields should not be built in the basins of the reservoir. Fields are currently available in the southwest corner of the park, but are not properly maintained.
Another issue that faces the park is the overabundance of non-native invasive plant species that have overrun the native ones because of the lack of maintenance, said Rob Jett, also a member of the alliance and a birdwatcher for 15 years.
“When you start to look at birds, you start to learn about the environment,” Jett said, noting that he has not seen birds nest in the trees that are not native to this area of the country, or this continent.
The tour passed by bittersweet vines, invasive plants that have overrun much of the park. The vines were creeping over the side of the Rubble Bridge that straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border of the park.
The bridge is constructed of stones that were left by the receding glacier as it passed through the area during the end of the last ice age. Monaco said that it’s the largest bridge of its type in North America.
On the other side of the bridge, Jett pointed out a kettle pond, something he called a 30,000-year-old environmental artifact that should be protected by state and federal law. To most park goers, the area must appear as just another bunch of trees and brush that have become overgrown. The pond is actually fed by glacial water that was deposited underground all those millennia ago.
Monaco said the park has lost eight structures over the years, including the garden fountain, a bandshell, rustic lookouts and most recently a bathroom in the 1990s. He attributes the losses to budget cuts and the unwillingness of some politicians to invest in the park that straddles the two boroughs.
On a recent walk through the park, Jett counted the light posts that line the bike path through it and the reservoir, and found that 52 don’t work. Of these, most of the broken lights appear vandalized. Some are missing the lighting fixture altogether.
Part of the bike path that is visible from the Jackie Robinson Parkway was the site of early gunshots of the American Revolution in the Battle of Brooklyn, led by George Washington. Monaco said with disdain that there are no markings or plaques to commemorate one of the most important events in American history that occurred within the park’s boundaries.