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University Woods: Restore a Discarded Treasure

July 18, 2007


Recently, my wife and I moved to the Bronx after living in Brooklyn for more than a decade. She teaches at Bronx Community College (BCC). I left working downtown to direct the development of the New York Rowing Association (NYRA), which is changing the lives of youth by promoting healthy development and social responsibility.

Last year we purchased a modest wood-framed house built on a steep slope where Undercliff Avenue splits from Sedgwick Avenue, in Morris Heights. The front door is 15-feet above the sidewalk. From the elevated stoop I have a bird’s eye view of NYRA’s home, the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, floating on the Harlem River on the shore of Swindler Cove Park, a former dumping ground that’s become a restored wetlands teeming with animal and plant life. This idyllic cove was created through the chutzpah of Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project.

My daily trek from Morris Heights to Inwood takes me north on Sedgwick Avenue, west on 179th Street, then north on Cedar Avenue until I hit Fordham Road. Then it’s over the University Bridge. Walking on Cedar I pass University Woods Park. I have become increasingly fascinated with this majestic park filled with enough trees to earn its name. The city’s Parks Department describes it as “a forested area situated on a steep slope overlooking the Harlem River. It commands an impressive view of Upper Manhattan, the Hudson River, and the New Jersey Palisades.”

The three-acre University Woods is inaccessible to community use. Not due to its natural elevation but to neglect by New York University (NYU), for which its name is derived, as well as the City University of New York (CUNY), the Parks Department, community leaders, the Department of Sanitation, and the police.

Two of the five existing entrances to the park are closed, only recently were the others opened. The paths are unkempt. There are no benches, bathrooms, or water fountains. Too few Parks Department employees maintain University Woods. The lengths of Cedar and Sedgwick Avenues that border the Woods are de facto dumping grounds. Daily, garbage is left along the edges of the park. Weekly, the charred hulk of a burnt vehicle ominously sits on Cedar Avenue, gradually stripped of parts before it is taken away. From the southern end of the Woods extends an unmarked forest littered with an assortment of trash.

University Woods

Reports about University Woods are distressing. For three years it was voted the city’s worst park by New Yorkers for Parks. Timothy Williams, writing for the New York Times in July 2005, described University Woods as a haven for the drug and sex trades. Usually eloquent Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe essentially threw up his hands when asked by Williams about University Woods, “That park is not a park.” University Woods traditionally fails the Parks Department’s own criteria for acceptability.

University Woods is the historic gateway to what is now CUNY’s BCC—one of the least heralded yet culturally rich locations in the city. BCC sits atop the highest natural elevation in the five boroughs, a strategic promontory used by the British during the Revolutionary War. Buildings from that era still stand.

During the Gilded Age, NYU built a grand campus on this hill to rival Columbia University. Landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers, designers of grand parks, including Central and Fort Tryon Park, designed the campus grounds. Architect Stanford White, member of the firm McKim, Mead, and White, which designed numerous historic city buildings including the Farley Post Office, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed the original buildings, still used by BCC. The Gould Memorial Library is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Hall of Fame of Great Americans is considered a secular National Shrine.

NYU later hired modernist architect, Marcel Breuer, to design several buildings. Breuer designed the famous Whitney Museum of Art, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, yet one of his most unique buildings is Begrish Lecture Hall.

Albert Einstein taught on this campus. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in 1961 to a standing-room only ground at the Gould Memorial Library. The first huddle in football history occurred on Ohio Field near the corner of University Avenue and Hall of Fame Terrace. Early on students traveled by boat on the Harlem River then climbed a path through University Woods. Remnants of these stone stairwells remain.

A coalition should be created to restore University Woods so that it can be used once again by neighborhood residents, BCC students, and visitors. Let Swindler Cove and Fort Tryon Park be our inspiration. Community Board 5 should call for a meeting including Borough President, District 14 Council Member, Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, CUNY, Dormitory Authority, New Yorkers for Parks, New York Restoration Project, NYU, and the Parks Department to explore the restoration of University Woods.

Fuchs is the development director of the New York Rowing Association. He lives in Morris Heights.