Around The Park

What’s in Bloom

Summer is in full swing, bringing many more blooms. Take a look below for some current highlights in the park!


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A Little Neighborhood History

East 20th Street looking east in the direction of First Avenue, ca.1938. Two of the huge gas holders appear in the foreground.

Peter Cooper Village Stuyvesant Town (PCVST) stretches from First Avenue to Avenue C and from 23rd Street to 14th Street. The 80-acre tract has a rich history. The area was originally called the Gas House District because it was dominated by giant gas storage tanks, or “gashouses,” from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century.

Buildings in the Gas House District, early 1940s

These tanks often leaked and made the area undesirable to live in, even becoming the namesake of the Gas House Gang, a popular New York City gang that operated in the area. As a result, residents of the district were predominantly poor, and many were immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Eastern European countries. However, the area began to flourish during the 1930s, following the removal of the tanks and the construction of the East River Drive, known today as FDR Drive.

Recognizing opportunity, the district became part of the large-scale urban renewal projects championed by Robert Moses in the 1940s. Moses sought to clear the area and build a housing development in anticipation of the returning World War II veterans and in lieu of a housing crisis which originated during the Great Depression. He convinced MetLife Insurance Company to build the complex, based on an earlier development in Parkchester in The Bronx. As a result, 600 buildings, containing 3,100 families, 500 stores and small factories, three churches, three schools, and two theaters, were razed. As would be repeated in later urban renewal projects, some 11,000 people were forced to move from the neighborhood through eminent domain.

Construction of Peter Cooper Village Stuyvesant Town, ca. 1945

Construction of PCVST took place between 1945 and 1947; 110 buildings and 11,250 apartments were erected. The complex received 7,000 applications within the first day of initially offering the apartments and veterans received selection priority. Rents ranged from $51 to $90 per month. The complex’s first tenants, two World War II veterans and their families, moved into the first completed building on August 1, 1947. By that time, the complex had received 100,000 applications.

Historic building zoning map of PCVST and the surrounding area, ca.1955

MetLife President Frederick H. Ecker said that PCVST would make it possible for generations of New Yorkers “to live in a park – to live in the country in the heart of New York.” However, this did not extend to all New Yorkers. The only veterans MetLife Insurance Company supported were white veterans. The company, Moses, and prominent politicians discriminated against Black people and barred them from living in PCVST. They believed allowing Black people to live there would harm the complex’s profitability and make the area less desirable. Lee Lorch, a City College of New York professor, petitioned to allow Black people into the development, and was fired from his teaching position as a result of pressure from MetLife. Upon accepting a position at Pennsylvania State University, Lorch allowed a Black family to occupy his apartment, thus circumventing the rule. However, as a result of pressure from MetLife, he was dismissed from his new position as well. He ultimately had to leave the country to get work, in Canada, and remained in exile there for six decades. He died in Toronto in 2014.

Lawsuits to combat this sanctified segregation abounded. White residents of PCVST teamed up with Black activists to form the Tenants’ Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town. Many of the veterans saw these racist policies as an extension of fascism, which they had fought against during the war. After nine years of activism, MetLife allowed three Black families to move into PCVST. The three white families who volunteered to leave had to promise to never return. Ultimately, this fight for equality helped lay the groundwork for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made housing discrimination a federal crime.

PCVST once contained original plaques honoring Frederick H. Ecker and marking the complexes as housing for moderate-income families, which were dedicated during the complex’s opening day in 1947. In 2002, when the property went luxury market rate, the plaques were removed.

In October 2006, MetLife sold PCVST to Tishman Speyer. The new ownership implemented significant capital projects on the property. Tishman Speyer relinquished control of the property in 2010. CW Capital remained the owner from 2010 until 2015, when they sold the property.

Today, the property is controlled by Blackstone/Ivanhoe Cambridge and is home to over 30,000 residents. Rents range from approximately $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom apartment to roughly $13,000 per month for a five-bedroom apartment. Some units are part of affordable housing and are rent stabilized. They remain immensely popular, 75 years after the units were first built. Much like in the 1940s, PCVST is a coveted home for people of all ages.

Peter Cooper Village Stuyvesant Town Today

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Devoted, Romantic, and Melodic

Cardinals are birds in the Cardinalidae family found in the Americas and the Caribbean in woodlands, gardens, shrublands, and wetlands. They come in a variety of colors and are passerine, meaning their toes are designed to grab onto surfaces for perching. The family consists of 14 genuses, which together comprise 53 species. The Cardinalis genus specifically consists of three species – the Northern cardinal, Vermillion cardinal, and Pyrrhuloxia – all of which are found in the eastern United Sates, southeastern Canada, Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. The Northern cardinal is the most common cardinal in New York.

Male and female Northern cardinal

Male and female Northern cardinal

Both male and female cardinals are songbirds, and they will sing to each other for communication and for courtship. The songs are learned, meaning cardinals will sing songs similar to other cardinals around them. Male cardinals will sing their songs from a high perch to mark their territory and will chase after and fight other males. Both males and females are highly territorial, and will even fight their reflections in water, bumpers, windows, or other reflective surfaces, sometimes for many days, especially during breeding season. They also use their song to warn against predators – falcons, hawks, owls, and other birds of prey consume cardinals, and milk snakes, bluejays, squirrels, cats, chipmunks, and other animals consume cardinal eggs.

Cardinal couples are known for their devotion to one another. Male cardinals will woo female cardinals with their bright coloring, song, and by feeding them choice seeds and berries beak to beak. They generally mate for life and are monogamous, working together to raise chicks throughout the year. The female lays three to four eggs two to four times a year. The father raises and feeds the young while the mother incubates more eggs. Unlike many other birds, Northern cardinals are not migratory and will stay in the same area during their lifetimes. This means families stick together and form relationships with other cardinals around them. In order to keep warm during winter, cardinals will fluff their down feathers to trap warm air and alternate tucking their legs one at a time into their body while perching.

Male Northern cardinal feeding a female beak to beak

Male Northern cardinal feeding a female beak to beak

The relationship cardinal couples have with each other inspired cultures to associate devotion, romance, and friendship with the bird. For example, according to a Choctaw legend, a cardinal once came across a beautiful, lonely maiden looking for companionship. As the cardinal continued to travel, it came across a brave, handsome man. It befriended the man and tricked him into following it straight to the maiden’s home. The maiden and the boy met and quickly discovered friendship, companionship, and romance. The positive qualities associated with cardinals, their distinctive appearance, and their wide distribution contributed to their instatement as the state bird of seven U.S. states and as the mascot and namesake of a number of sports teams.

The Northern cardinal is one of our many neighbors who call Stuyvesant Square Park their home. They frequent our bird baths and are regulars at our bird feeders. Their devotion to each other is reminiscent of the vision we have for the Stuyvesant Square community – coming together to care for one another, cultivate relationships, and help ensure our park is the best it can be for everyone. You can find more information about Northern cardinals here.

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Toxic and Protective

Monkshood, also known as aconitum, aconite, wolfsbane, and devil’s helmet, is a member of a genus of over 250 flowering plants in the Ranunculaceae family. These herbaceous perennial plants are native to the mountainous parts of North America, Europe, and Asia, and grow in mountain meadows in moisture retentive but well-drained soils. They prosper in full sun to partial shade in temperate climates and grow to two to four feet tall and one to two feet wide. The leaves of the plant are palmate, meaning they resemble hands with lobed “fingers” that often have toothed edges and vary in color from light to dark green. The two- to ten-petaled flowers come in shades of blue and purple. However, rare species of monkshood can have white, yellow, and even reddish pink flowers. The plants are not invasive and are moderately difficult to grow. Once planted, they do not take well to transplantation.

The name monkshood is derived from the helmet-shaped petal distinguishing each flower, which is called a galea, also deriving its name from a Roman helmet. The conical shape resembled the hoods worn by English monks. Other common names for monkshood, such as aconitum and wolfsbane, stem from the plants’ most popular trait: they are poisonous. The roots and tubers of monkshood are particularly toxic and contain aconitine and related alkaloids. When touched, numbness occurs. When ingested or absorbed into the skin, diarrhea, convulsions, ventricular arrhythmia, and other symptoms develop, eventually leading to death.

Monkshood galea

Monkshood galea

Monkshood galea

Poisons from the plant were used to coat weapons. The name aconitum derives from the Greek word for dart or javelin, the tips of which were poisoned with the substance. The Minaro in Ladakh used the poison on their arrows to hunt ibex, while the Ainu in Japan used it to hunt bears. In addition, the Aleuts of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands used the toxin on their harpoons to hunt whales. The Greek name lycoctonum, which translates literally to “wolfsbane,” refers to the practice of coating arrows with the poison to kill wolves. In Greek myth, wolfsbane originated from the toxic slobber of a three-headed dog named Cerberus, the fearsome canine guardian to the gates of Hell.

In addition to hunting, the poison was used for warfare, espionage, and protection, inspiring its inclusion in numerous facets of popular culture. For example, the 1931 film Dracula began the trend of associating wolfsbane with protection from vampires. It is only when Mina discards the wolfsbane from her room that Count Dracula is able to approach her. In the Harry Potter series, Remus Lupin, a tormented werewolf, drinks a potion of wolfsbane carefully concocted to control his transformations, inspired by the use of the plant in the Middle Ages to treat lycanthropy and deter wolves. In Game of Thrones, one of Tywin Lannister’s commanders is assassinated by a dart, identified as being coated with wolfsbane.

Despite the toxicity of monkshood, the plant still has medicinal properties. It can be used to reduce fever, as a topical anesthetic, and to treat neuralgia. However, the plant is no longer used for medicine because of the slim margin in determining the correct dosage. The risk of using too much outweighs potential benefit of the toxin.

A few monkshood plants can be found in Stuyvesant Square Park. They are best enjoyed from afar – even gardeners must use gloves when caring for them. Bees and butterflies, however, are immune to the toxins. Although spooky season is over, the plant will offer protection from any vampires and werewolves who may still be among us.

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Our Winged Neighbors

Hawks are birds of prey in the Accipitridae (“to seize”) family, which consists of birds of varied sizes and behavior that all have strong, hooked bills. They are found throughout the world, because they easily adapt to multiple environments and climates. Overall, they prefer open spaces, such as grasslands and valleys, where they can easily see and swoop down to seize their prey. Because hawks are so widely spread out, they are opportunistic hunters, and will devour all sorts of small animals, such as mice, lizards, fish, and rabbits. Their excellent vision, which is eight times stronger than that of a human, and their keen instinct make them effective hunters. As adults, they have no natural predators, but the young and eggs can be eaten by owls, raccoons, foxes, and other animals.

Red-tailed hawks (shown in our park in the four images above) are the most commonly found hawks in North America, including New York City. They have rounded wings that span up to four feet across, yellow legs and feet, rich brown outer feathers, a beige underbelly, and a short reddish-brown tail from which they get their name. The females are generally 25% larger than the males, and they can live from 12 to 30 years. Red-tailed hawks have a symbiotic relationship with the City. They provide pest control, while buildings and bridges provide great nesting areas and high perches from which to spot prey. Although it may be tempting to approach these majestic birds, people are advised to admire them from afar and not feed them. Killing, capturing, trading, or transporting these birds are illegal, per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The goal is to coexist without infringing on each other’s personal space, which is no small feat in New York City.

Totem Pole in Cape Mudge Village, c. 1919-1924, British Columbia, National Museum of the American Indian, NMAI-134_pht_001_P06408

Beginning in early Mark, red-tailed hawks mate through grand aerial courtship displays. The male repeatedly flies up high, then steeply plummets downward toward the female, offering and enticing her with prey, occasionally interlocking talons in mid-air and spiraling toward the ground before eventually pulling away. After the display, both hawks will perch, groom one another, and then mate. In early April, the female will lay one to five eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for 28 to 35 days until they are ready to hatch. They then care for the young for up to six weeks until they are ready to fly, hunt, and leave the nest. It is common for hawks to live in the same place year after year with the same partner.

Fragment of Temple Relief, 664-332 B.C.E., Egypt, Brooklyn Museum 37.1357E

Many cultures associate certain symbols and characteristics with hawks. Courage, perspicacity, and intelligence are all associated with these birds. A passage in the Book of Job describes their sophisticated migration and behavior as being ordained by God. Hawks are considered guardians and messengers in Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythology, and in the traditions of native peoples in North and South America. Totem poles made by indigenous peoples may have a hawk perched at the top, symbolizing power and seeing situations from a higher perspective. Hawk feathers continue to be used in religious rituals and in regalia, and are included in the Eagle Feather Law, allowing only federally recognized tribes to obtain feathers and continue their customs.

Headdress, 1962, Made by the Rikbaktsa, Brazil, Penn Museum 89-1-16

Red-tailed hawks frequently stop over in our park. Next time you visit, look up. You might just find our feathered neighbor perched high on a branch, ready to swoop down on a moment’s notice.

You can learn more about hawks and other birds of prey in New York State by clicking here.

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