April 20, 2012
It is perhaps Pat Courtney’s interest in history that makes her an ideal coordinator of Volunteers for Isham Park – especially this year.
One hundred years ago, the land in Inwood that would become Isham Park, with its views toward the Harlem and Hudson River valleys and the New Jersey Palisades, was pristine. But, in a coda familiar to modern-day land preservationists, the development loomed, primarily from the commercial and residential apartment buildings of a northward-creeping city. Planner Andrew Haswell Green had proposed a logical solution: purchase Inwood Hill and create a park from the great wooded expanse at Manhattan’s northern tip, to parallel Battery Park to the south. But he died in 1903 before his plans could be realized.
In 1911, however, Julia Isham Taylor, whose recently deceased father had purchased land near to Inwood Hill in the 1860’s, donated a portion of his land to the city, recognizing that new residents of the densely built area would need open space. And a few months later Julia’s aunt, Flora Eliza Isham, donated land to the west, according to a 1912 New York Times article: “just to preserve the view.”
The same New York Times article reveals that the Isham women’s gifts of land also revived the discussion of A. H. Green’s plan to purchase Inwood Hill. His dream was finally realized when land for that park was purchased in 1916.
Revealing views the Ishams sought to protect and uncovering the park’s rich history are among the goals of Courtney's group, Volunteers for Isham Park, 100 years later. It’s a challenge, especially with the City’s current budget for tree pruning, which was slashed from $7 million in 2008 to $1.4 million last year. Many of the trees and other invasive plants that obscure the park’s views have self-seeded and are in poor condition or health and need to be removed for the safety of park users as well.
“Caring for the park leads to familiarity with what’s actually there,” said Pat Courtney, a founding organizer of the group. “Today Isham Park’s users are surrounded by a wall of green and don’t realize that amazing views of the surrounding landscape, for which the park was given by the Ishams, could easily be revealed or that the dense foliage is often dangerous or unhealthy.”
Though an Inwood resident since 2003, Courtney began volunteering in Isham Park in 2009 because of a tree – a dying elm she could see from a window in her apartment that faces the park’s northern edge.
“The large dead tree was really disturbing,” she said. “That’s when I got involved.”
She called the Parks Department about the tree, and they quickly connected her with Kate Gluzberg, an Outreach Coordinator at Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and NYC Parks.
Gluzberg urged Courtney to start a volunteer group to care for Isham.
Since then with Volunteers for Isham Park, she has planted, weeded, held park events, and partnered with nearby groups like the Friends of Indian Road Playground. Looking to the years ahead, her group hopes to work with the City to preserve the park and its views.
Currently, though, they're focused on the centennial of Julia and Flora’s gifts to the City. Several events commemorating the gifts have been held this spring and early summer, but Volunteers for Isham Park is planning a fall celebration for the anniversary of the September 28, 1912 park opening. That afternoon, according to the New York Herald, a “parade of taxpayers and other societies” heard speeches from City officials and heard “lively tunes” played by a marching band from Public School Number 52.
If all goes according to plan, Courtney said, crowds will once again enjoy a fall afternoon celebrating the park – complete with speeches and perhaps even a marching band from the same school, now known as I.S. 52.
“It will be special to remember that day,” she said, “and why the park was established in the first place.”