A fortnight ago, I managed to get completely lost in Prospect Park on the way to a members-only tour led by the Prospect Park Alliance. Late for our meet-up at Grand Army Plaza, I decided to go straight to the tour's destination, the Vale of Cashmere. It had been ages since I'd ventured into the secluded and neglected gem.
Entering through a fence break on Flatbush Avenue, I stumbled on a mountain of post-Sandy mulch, a maze of ad-hoc dirt-bike jumps, and a lot of trees. I headed confidently towards the Vale...but wound up instead in the Rose Garden (above), another utterly cloistered garden of mystery. It was empty of humans (and its pools empty of water) on a gorgeous Saturday morning. In the silent sunlight, it managed a sort of David-Lynchian touch of verdant menace.
I thought I knew just how to get to the Vale from the Rose Garden, but instead wound up going in circles, then stumbling onto the East Drive. From this familiar vantage point, I spotted something brand-new: the Donald and Barbara Zucker Natural Exploration Area, a brilliant concept wonderfully executed using the copious deadfall from Sandy and the other weather catastrophes of late.
It's a perfect spot for city kids to remedy their "nature deficit disorder" and wallow in the unstructured beetle-poking, water-sloshing, log-jumping idylls that kids used to just do in back yards. vacant lots, or countrysides. Historically, it's also right; in the park's early days, this area near Nellie's Lawn was "the Children's Playground."
And the stream from an enticing water pump runs straight into...the Vale of Cashmere! The Vale's beautiful but deadly isolation is now broken open by a corridor of stroller moms and dads and their frolicking offspring.
And there in the Vale was the tour, led by Justine Heilner, newest member of the park's landscape design team. The reaction of the just-arrived group was one of mingled awe and muted shock...at the weed-choked ruin that should be a glorious Romantic folly with dancing fountains.
As we gazed abjectly at the stagnant water, Justine recounted the Vale's history. Its semi-formal design (dating from the 1890s) and even its fanciful name met with the disdain of Frederick Law Olmsted, who championed faux rusticity. Now that the Park's East Side has processed the epic arrival of the Lakeside rink, I wondered, was the Vale next in line for a make-over...and would that mean its demise to make way for another high-profile attraction?
The Vale and Rose Garden are definitely "next" on the agenda, she replied, but "next" means 5 or 10 years before any ribbon-cutting. What that ribbon will adorn is also up for grabs; there are lots of ideas on the table, from renovating the current site to creating a sculpture garden or other new use.
All of which made me very, very jealous of the Zuckermans, whose vision for the play area could be realized with the wave of a checkbook. How I would love to bankroll the revival of the Vale! Even without Olmsted's blessing, this secret garden in its deep, leafy glacial kettle is one of the most enchanted spaces in the city. It needs "stakeholders," the current buzzword for "people who love and care for something." The current stakeholders are birders, a few dog walkers, and the furtive men who come alone and leave in pairs, hardly the robust constituency to raise dollars for sparkling fountains to dance again. It also needs sensitive oversight to maintain the just-right balance between "peacefully isolated" and "slightly scary." Even without Zuckerdollars, I can at least offer some common-sense ideas that could be done right now.
HOW TO REVIVE THE VALE OF CASHMERE AND ROSE GARDEN RIGHT NOW
* Cool events! Wrong spot for food trucks (they're doing that at Grand Army Plaza). But how about trendy farm-to-table dinners with all those curated, artisanal Brooklyn gourmets on board? (The Vale is not, by the way, the site of the upcoming "Pop-Up Dinner," I have heard, but it would be perfect for intimate gatherings.) How about art and craft shows? Garden shows? Small-scale theatre under the stars? Folk-music coffeehouse en pleine air?
* Regular visitors! An urban or naturalist-themed book club. Photography, birding, and foraging meet-ups and workshops. Tai chi, dawn or sunset yoga.
* Market the spot aggressively for photo and movie shoots.
* Hold a photography contest for the Vale in Four Seasons.
* For the pools in the Rose Garden (which have never worked right), an open call for art installations that would put them to creative use.
* Finally, spread the word that the East Side Revival—a regular corps of dedicated volunteers who work each Monday from 10 to 2 to beautify the area—is the hottest singles opportunity for freelancers in Brooklyn, a magnet for sensitive, hunky guys and ravishing, spunky gals! (It probably is!)
Add your ideas in the comments, please!