New York’s less heralded public spaces are just as important to the life of the city as their more famous counterparts. These are the places where New Yorkers meet each other and experience their neighborhoods, where the city’s diverse communities gain a shared sense of pride and ownership. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such places across the five boroughs. Here are some of the best.
South Bronx community gardens
||Through years of hard work, gardeners and park activists transformed these once lifeless, rubble-strewn lots–where buildings had burned to the ground–into community meeting places and cultural centers. The story is one of the most inspiring examples of how New Yorkers have used their own sweat and ingenuity to make more vibrant neighborhoods.|
Cricket is preferred over baseball among New York’s South Asian communities, and in this park by the Bronx River you can often see a match played on an informal pitch. In the summer, music from boomboxes pierces the air, the scent of grilled food is everywhere, and vendors quickly sell out their stocks of flavored shaved ice.
||Wave Hill is one of New York’s best-kept secrets, a 28-acre botanical garden and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades that offers an array of educational programs to visitors of all ages.|
The Bronx River Art Center and Drew Garden
||A multi-arts center on the Bronx River in the West Farms neighborhood, the BRAC gallery features ten shows per year and is open to the public six days a week. BRAC also produces concerts and dance performances in Drew Garden, a community garden across Tremont Avenue.|
||One of the few walkable neighborhood streets in the Bronx, Arthur Avenue is known by New Yorkers from every borough for its Italian restaurants and markets.|
City Island, in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, is a destination for seafood lovers from all over the New York area due to its concentration of seafood restaurants at all price levels along its main street, City Island Avenue. It has a long history as a center for fishing, oystering and shipbuilding, and is still the home of a number of marinas. It still has a distinctive pedestrian-friendly feel, although some of the restaurants are building large parking lots in front of their buildings.
The stretch of Southern Boulevard in Hunts Point is a very active shopping avenue, often pleasantly congested with people browsing the wares of various merchants.
||Farther north on Southern Boulevard, the commercial energy dissipates and asphalt predominates, but these ample pedestrian medians create a surprisingly sociable space amid the otherwise inhospitable streetscape.|
New York Botanical Garden
||Wilder and more expansive than the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, this Bronx institution is in top form in the winter, when it hosts the stunning Orchid Show. Admission is free on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings.|
Bronx Museum of the Arts
The Bronx Museum, founded in 1971, is a relatively new addition to the city’s cultural landscape, unique in its mission to promote contemporary art of special significance to residents of the borough. Focusing on art forms such as video, graffiti, and music, as well as more conventional media, the museum has a well-deserved reputation for supporting local artists and engaging surrounding communities.
Pelham Bay Park
The largest park in New York City features many miles of cycling and jogging trails, picnic areas, and boat launches.
Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue stretches for nearly 100 blocks, serving as a distinct commercial corridor in the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Sunset Park, and Bay Ridge.
68th Street Pier and the Shore Parkway Greenway
||The 68th Street Pier is the northern terminus of the Shore Parkway Greenway, offering open views of Manhattan, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and the to-and-fro of seagoing vessels. Though perilously close to highway traffic for certain stretches, the greenway entices people from all over the borough with its promise of continuous waterfront access for miles on end, as well as plenty of fishing spots for those unafraid to sample the bounty of New York Harbor.|
Flatbush Avenue in Central Brooklyn
One of the many main streets that sustain communities throughout Brooklyn, the stretch of Flatbush Avenue that passes through its namesake neighborhood of Flatbush is a cacophonous mix of ground floor activity and busy sidewalks.
Fulton Ferry Landing
This pier, where the Brooklyn Bridge soars overhead, is a great place to enjoy a black and white milkshake (from the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory) or a margherita pizza (from Grimaldi’s), though it suffers from a lack of walkable connections to downtown Brooklyn.
Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint
||Home to a large Polish community, the neighborhood of Greenpoint is centered around Manhattan Avenue, its main shopping destination. A huge variety of small scale storefronts line the avenue, with goods often on display. The two-way street is rather narrow, which keeps the traffic moving at a reasonably slow pace and gives pedestrians plenty of opportunities to cross where they please. Perhaps one too many chains have taken over independent establishments, although the results can be interesting — an old theater-turned-rollerskating rink is now incarnated as the only Eckerd Pharmacy to sport a disco ball.|
||The largest park serving the northern end of Brooklyn, McCarren Park is always full of activity. The park’s features include a community garden, dog park, and a Saturday farmers market, but most of the activity is sports-related. Games of all kinds are constantly taking place, and groups of families and friends often set up large picnics and barbeques to watch the events. People even socialize at the running track, which is seamlessly integrated into the rest of the park.|
Latin American prepared foods market at Red Hook Ball Fields
||About 20 vendors serve street food representing cuisines from throughout Central and South America at this summertime fixture. The mouthwatering scent of their grills wafts over a nearby soccer field, where patrons can sit and watch highly skilled athletes compete on weekend afternoons.|
There’s a common misconception that Green-Wood Cemetery is not open to the public, but in fact it offers visitors lessons in history, architecture, and nature. In the mid-19th century, when cemeteries were relied upon as public space much like parks are today, Green-Wood was a sought-after destination in New York City. It is still a place where Brooklynites go to enjoy its beautiful natural surroundings, not to mention the art and architecture of the monuments.
||Sunset Park may be the most bustling public space in all five boroughs. The grassy slopes invite both leisurely strolls and impromptu soccer matches, and the playground and public pool are immensely popular. Plus, its unique hill-top site on the second-highest elevation in the city reveals a sweeping vista encompassing Lower Manhattan, New York Harbor, and much of western Brooklyn. Serving distinct Latino, Turkish, and East Asian communities, its value to surrounding neighborhoods as a social gathering place cannot be overstated.|
East New York Farms!
Residents of this Brooklyn neighborhood have taken their community gardens one step further than most. They teamed up with four community organizations to start a market called “East New York Farms!” on a vacant lot donated by the City, enabling urban gardeners to sell produce to other people in the neighborhood. Serving a large immigrant population hailing from South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Russia, the strength of East New York Farms! lies in its ability to adapt to the diverse tastes and skills of local residents. People from the neighborhood run the market, organizing different themes and activities each week that celebrate the many cultures within the community.
||Though it shares the southern coast of Brooklyn with Coney Island, Brighton Beach is a world apart from the amusement rides and carnival atmosphere of its famous neighbor to the west. Here, in one of the rare New York neighborhoods where residents can actually access the waterfront, Russian cafes serve customers on the boardwalk and locals of all ages engage in animated conversation while enjoying the sea breeze.|
Fulton Street Mall
Located between Flatbush Avenue and Adams Street, the Fulton Street Mall is a vibrant commercial corridor featuring anchor retailers and a host of outdoor vendors. Drawing shoppers from throughout the region, its commercial real estate is some of the most productive in the city. Although private cars are prohibited from the mall, the constant bus and taxi traffic stifle some of the street experience.
Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park
The main drag in the larger of Brooklyn’s two Chinatowns, 8th Avenue is a bustling market street lined with Turkish groceries, Hong Kong-style snack shops, Vietnamese restaurants, Chinese bakeries, and a plethora of street vendors.
Not yet overrun by tourists, East Broadway is perhaps the best street in Chinatown to shop for groceries or find late-night snacks.
This neighborhood pocket park between Houston and First Street exemplifies the concept of triangulation. With a kiosk dispensing French street food, plentiful outdoor seating, a children’s playground and handball courts–all next to a subway entrance and several low-rise mixed-use buildings–it goes to show you don’t need green to have a great park.
Alphabet City Community Gardens
||The beautiful gardens that dot Alphabet City are a testament to the commitment of hundreds of community residents, young and old, who nurtured the decaying, empty lots back to life after decades of serious decline.|
Hua Mei Bird Garden
||Early in the morning, Chinese men gather in this community garden within Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, bringing beautiful songbirds–known as Hua Mei–in elaborate bamboo cages. It’s a daily ritual that underscores the social importance of this unique gathering place.|
Liz Christy Garden
||Founded in 1973, this was the first community garden in New York City. Though a huge new development next door has encroached on the space, the garden has survived.|
Riverside Skate Park
||A mecca for skateboarders and in-line skaters from the New York metropolitan area, designed and constructed by teenagers. The skate park is a success because it has tapped into the ideas and skills of teenagers, developing ways to channel their energy constructively instead of treating them as problems or victims. But they’re not the only ones who make this park a destination. Parents and senior citizens come to sit on the benches and observe — for the latter, it’s seen as “something different.”|
The Great Hill, Central Park
The Great Hill is open yet intimate, tucked away in the northwest corner of Central Park by 106th Street. Encircled by benches, a walking path, and large trees, the area is used by people of all ages for a wide range of activities, from kite flying to meditating to picnicking with the family.
El Sitio Feliz
El Sitio Feliz–“The Happy Place”–is a community garden and playground situated behind Harlem’s Union Settlement House. By incorporating water play, swings, slides and a small picnic pavilion with community gardens, it has become well-known for its creative combination of activities for children and adults.
Built in the early 20th century on what was once John J. Audubon’s estate (Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets), Audubon Terrace is a collection of neo-classical museums and cultural institutions facing a sculpture-filled plaza. Its builder, Archer Milton Huntington, intended it to be a kind of American acropolis. It has the potential to be an important cultural center and public space in Washington Heights.
Swindler Cove Park is a hidden gem built by the New York Restoration Project on the site of an old dump on the Harlem River in Inwood, at the intersection of Dyckman Street and 10th Avenue. The 5-acre park runs programs for children and youth in the neighborhood through its Riley-Levin Children’s Garden and the Peter J. Sharp Boathouse.
Water Taxi Beach
||A recent addition to Long Island City, Water Taxi Beach is a wonderful example of how waterfront spaces benefit from simplicity. The “beach” is really a plot full of trucked-in sand overlooking the East River and the Midtown skyline, rounded out with some seating, tables, cheap eats, and a makeshift volleyball area that sometimes doubles as a performance space. Built on an unused industrial site–mainly to give people a reason to take the Water Taxi from Manhattan to Long Island City–it has become a wildly popular waterfront destination in the warmer months.|
||This Long Island City park provides welcome waterfront access in full view of the midtown skyline, even though the cold, metallic design isn’t exactly inviting.|
A great example of how a park without much green can become a much-loved (and much-used) neighborhood place.
30th Avenue and Steinway Street
||Two of the borough’s best shopping streets intersect in Astoria, brimming with Greek and Arab specialty stores.|
||In typical New York City playground fashion, this pocket park on Steinway Street has very little green. It does however boast an authentic bocce court, where older men from the neighborhood play on weekends. Small groups of onlookers often gather to watch especially good games, fascinated by the intense emotional interaction of the players, who argue with ardor and sincerity. It is a tiny public space in a densely built neighborhood, full of life and sociability.|
Just one block south of Queens Boulevard and its infamous traffic lies this little gem of a street in Forest Hills. The half-mile commercial stretch between Ascan Avenue and Yellowstone Boulevard boasts a wide array of grocers, specialty food shops, cafes, and fancy clothing stores.
74th Street – “Little India”
||Teeming with stores of every kind — saree boutiques, beauty parlors, jewelry stores, antique outlets, immigration law firms, music shops, mithaiwalas and more, this is the place to go in Jackson Heights. The local merchants association has considered naming the section between Roosevelt and 37th Avenues “Little India,” a bustling hub of activity all day and well into the night. Although it lacks pedestrian amenities and the sidewalks tend to be overcrowded, the street has a unique pedestrian-friendly quality — there are so many people on the street that cars and buses recognize the primacy of the pedestrian.|
||One of the most vibrant commercial streets in the city, 37th Avenue (between 72nd Street and 90th Street) is little known outside of Jackson Heights. Chock full of butchers, bakers, cafes, restaurants, book vendors and clothing shops, this is where most residents of the neighborhood conduct their daily shopping and schmoozing. While it lacks sidewalk seating and other public space amenities, 37th Avenue remains a great street with a great social scene.|
Rufus King Park
There are pick-up soccer games and picnics aplenty in Rufus King Park, one of the only green spots in Jamaica. Easily accessible by foot or by transit, it is extremely well-used by people from throughout the neighborhood. In fact, on summer weekends and afternoons there is not enough space to accommodate the demand.