Of the 22 national parks in New York State, 10 are in New York City. Every year 12 million people visit these parks, monuments, and historic sites, more than 27,000 acres of protected land and preserved past. Here’s a look at them. By Jessica Allen.
In 1991, construction workers discovered that the spot carefully chosen as the setting for a federal office building was actually a 6.6-acre burial ground used by Africans and African Americans from 1626 to the late 1700s. After much controversy, the National Park Service took over the site, which now consists of a large granite sculpture, with running water and symbols from various African cultures. Its center has a scalloped design that lists a few known facts about the roughly 15,000 people buried there, all likely enslaved, most killed by malnutrition, violence, or punishment. Many remains were removed, and many artifacts are preserved in a nearby museum. Near the entrance are slight mounds covered in dried flowers, another reminder of those whose lives ended here.
Eight million immigrants passed through Castle Clinton between 1855 and 1890 on their way into the United States. The so-called castle was built to defend Manhattan from the British in the lead-up to the War of 1812, one of many former military encampments on or near New York Harbor. After that, it reopened as a theater, then became the aforementioned immigrant processing station in 1855, and then transformed again, in 1896, into the city’s aquarium. Today Castle Clinton looks much as it did when it was first constructed, a sturdy, somewhat imposing edifice. It’s one of the country’s most visited national parks, because it encompasses the ticketing booth and departure point for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Federal Hall stands as an important reminder of New York City’s role in colonial America. On this site, the Stamp Act Congress gathered to protest taxation without representation in 1765, essentially kicking off the Revolutionary War. A few years later, the First Congress composed the Bill of Rights in the same hall, and George Washington took the oath of office as the nation’s first president—and what is now the Washington Inaugural Gallery shows off the Bible he used during his swearing in. New York City was early America’s capital, and 26 Wall Street was the government’s very heart. In 1812, the original building was torn down; the present structure, formerly a Customs House, was completed in 1842.
On October 27, Gateway turns 40. But this national recreation area, boasting 26,000 acres in New York and New Jersey, doesn’t look a day over 30. The humongous park offers camping, beach-going and -combing, kayaking, bird-watching, hiking, and lots more all-around nature-related fun. There’s history too. You can poke around Fort Wadsworth, first fortified by the British in 1779, during the Revolutionary War, and in continuous use until the 1990s. You can tour Fort Hancock’s Battery John Gunnison, a disappearing gun battery in use from 1905-43, with a World War II veteran, one of the park’s “living historians.” And at Floyd Bennett Field’s Historic Aircraft Restoration Project, you can watch volunteers restore historic aircraft or just hang out in the hangar.
The memorial to one of the most complex figures in American history sits at the very top edge of Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson River, and it has the distinction of being the largest mausoleum in North America. The exterior is made from more than 8,000 tons of white granite. Inside rest the remains of General Ulysses Simpson Grant, commanding general of the Union Army and 18th president of the United States, and his wife, Julia. Legend has it that he once declined to attend a party at the White House in his honor by telling the then-president, “Really, Mr. Lincoln, I have had enough of this show business.” At last, there’s finally an appropriate time for that old joke about who’s buried here.
In June 1637, a representative of the government of Holland bought what we now call Governors Island from the Manhatas tribe for some nails, a string of beads, and two ax heads. The British took over in 1664, and for the next 200 or so years this island in New York Harbor was used as a military base and training ground. The Coast Guard—the last of the armed forces to live and work here—left in the late 1990s, and today it’s a park, replete with 18th-century forts, old cannonballs, abandoned residential quarters and houses, long lawns, and awesome views of lower Manhattan. Various events are held on site throughout the summer, including art shows and food festivals. The Bloomberg Administration has announced ambitious plans to increase and improve park land by 2013.
The house that Alexander Hamilton built has been lovingly restored and moved a few blocks from its original location to St. Nicholas Park. Hamilton came to New York City in 1772 at age 17 to study at what is now Columbia University. As many students are wont to do, he became involved in politics, writing treatises that got him recognized by the leaders of the Revolutionary War. He eventually joined the army and served as George Washington’s aide de camp. After the war, he co-wrote the Federalist Papers, helped get the Constitution ratified, served as the first secretary of the US Treasury, and earned his place in the pantheon of Founding Fathers. In 1802, he moved into the house he called The Grange, on 32 acres in upper Manhattan. Then, in 1804, he was killed in a duel with his archenemy, Vice President Aaron Burr.
Approximately 7,000 people from more than 20 countries lived at 97 Orchard Street during its time as a tenement, from 1863 to 1935. Affiliated with the National Park Service, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum seeks to tell their stories via photographs, oral histories, newspaper articles, archival documents, and other artifacts. But the heart of the museum is its recreated apartments. Incredibly informed guides take visitors into these spaces, each full of key period details like bedding, cigarette butts, board games, and a coin-fed gas machine, each showing what life was like for the families who lived there, including Irish Catholics in the 1860s and Prussian Jews in the 1930s. Other tours show how the museum was created from a decrepit, abandoned building and how the neighborhood itself has evolved.
Like so many of the places on this list, Saint Paul’s Church has History with a capital H. This site, right on the edge of the Bronx, includes an 18th-century church that was used as a Revolutionary War hospital, one of the oldest functioning organs in America, a church bell cast at the same foundry as the Liberty Bell in 1758, a cemetery with burial stones dating to the early 1700s, and bits of a village green on which debates about freedom of religion and freedom of the press first began in earnest in the 1730s. In October, the annual Battle of Pell’s Point Encampment offers visitors the chance to see a musket, dance to music of the era, hear about the role of Hessians in the American Revolution, and learn more about the British occupation of New York City.
The Statue of Liberty National Monument consists of two islands: Ellis and Liberty, home to the eponymous statue. Nicknamed “America’s Golden Door,” Ellis Island opened in 1892 and closed in 1954; in that time, it processed more than 12 million immigrants. At the island’s museum, you can search for ancestors at the American Family Immigration History Center, walk through old processing rooms and medical centers, or just stare out at the ocean, imaging what it must have been like to arrive by steamship to an unknown land, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Dedicated on October 28, 1886, the statue was a gift from France in recognition of the US centennial. More than 1 million people showed up for the city’s very first ticker tape parade, in honor of its unveiling.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in North Dakota, and his face is carved into Mount Rushmore, but the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site is located on East 20th Street. He is the only US president to have been born in New York City (thus far). Growing up in the townhouse, Teedie, as the young, sickly boy was called, discovered the restorative powers of exercise, which led to a lifelong engagement with physicality and the outdoors. The original building was torn down in 1916, but the site was purchased and a reconstruction built after Roosevelt died in 1919, decorated with furniture and doodads used by Teedie and family. Galleries are currently closed for renovations; check the site for updates.