Willowbrook Park on the northern fringe of the Staten Island Greenbelt is an idyllic setting for a family picnic or a stroll around the pond. Take a few spins on the Carousel for All Children, a fully-accessible, Victorian-style merry-go-round featuring a virtual zoo of creatures for your riding pleasure: giraffe, panda, leopard, panda, gorilla, fantastical beasts, and, yes, horses. It’s one of the best bargains on Staten Island at $1 a ride. The park also features playground, archery, catch and release fishing, and baseball.
From the City of New York/Parks & Recreation Historical Signs Program:
Willowbrook Park is one of the most popular of Staten Island’s Greenbelt parks. Its combination of natural wilderness and recreational facilities draws a variety of visitors, particularly in the summer months. The 164 acres of greenery offer a welcome contrast to the bustling neighborhood and traffic-lined streets that surround it.
The Willowbrook area is mentioned in colonial records as early as 1683. Its many streams and waterways attracted early industrialists. By 1760, Willowbrook could boast of at least one sawmill and a number of factories producing metal tools, but most industries closed in the early 20th century when development caused a drop in the water level. It was here that the patriots of the Committee of Safety held their secret sessions during the American Revolution. Willowbrook developed significantly following the opening of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge in 1964. Formerly a sparsely populated, watery landscape, present-day Willowbrook is home to a large number of one and two family housing developments.
The original 105.41 acres of Willowbrook Park were acquired by the City from the Staten Island Water Supply in 1909 and assigned to Parks by the Sinking Fund on November 20, 1929. The second and third parcels of land that make up today’s park came in 1939 and 1940 as part of land condemned for the Willowbrook Parkway extension which was never built. One or two more small parcels have been added over the years.
Willowbrook came to the attention of the public with the expose of the infamous Willowbrook State School that once stood near the Victory Boulevard entrance to the park. After a visit in 1965, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy declared the school to be in “deplorable” condition. In 1971, reporter Jane Kurtin revealed the details: the understaffed, overcrowded ‘Shame of the City’ was little more than a holding pen. The children, at best, were neglected, and often much worse. Geraldo Rivera, a reporter for ABC-TV, presented a series of award winning reports exposing further horrors.
The story led to inquiries into the care of retarded and mentally ill children across the country. After the New York Civil Liberties Union sued the State on behalf of the children in Willowbrook, the Willowbrook Consent Decree called for the gradual dissolving of the facility. Renamed the Staten Island Development Center, the school provided dramatically improved care to its remaining residents until its closing in 1987. Today the neo-Georgian buildings of the Willowbrook School have been renovated and they are part of the 240-acre campus belonging to the College of Staten Island, a branch of the City University of New York.
The natural features in Willowbrook Park include a large tract of lowland forest, where tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), willows (Salix babylonica), and red maples (Acer rubrum) proliferate, swamps and a red maple swamp.
Among the recreational facilities are ballfields, tennis courts, a boathouse, playgrounds, and an archery range. Willowbrook Lake, the first man-made pond on Staten Island was constructed in 1932 by Parks Commissioner John J. O’Rourke. Stocked with fish, the five acres are also a bird sanctuary. A new feature in the park is the Carousel for All Children, a 94’ structure that opened in May 1999. Designed by Gabriella Ward and Jonna Carmona-Graf, the carousel has 51 hand-created animals, and panels depicting Staten Island scenes. The carousel is completely accessible to children and adults with disabilities. Begun by citizen efforts in 1993, the greater part of the funds for the $2,216,000 project came from Borough President, Guy V. Molnari. The Greenbelt Conservancy is raising an endowment for its maintenance. In 1989, the park received $1.2 million worth of improvements, including six new tennis courts, gravel for the roads, and an asphalt pedestrian walkway providing handicapped access to the lake.
Willowbrook Park is part of the Greenbelt, the largest Parks sub-system. Established in 1984, it links the large parks of Staten Island in a continuous band of green through the center of the island. Willowbrook is an important beneficiary of this unique institution, which assures the survival of this Staten Island treasure for years to come.
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