History and Tales of the Williamsbridge Bronx Oval Park

Bronx Oval Park

Bronx Oval Park Tunnel – Photo: Brian Kachejian © 2017

The Williamsbridge Bronx Oval Park was known to residents of the Norwood section of the Bronx in the 1960’s and 1970’s simply as the “Oval.” The 1950’s generation called it the “Res.” While a large portion of this article will focus on the history of the Oval Park, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it should be noted up front that the Williamsbridge Oval Park in the Bronx is still open. The park also just underwent extensive multiple-million dollar renovations. However, while the geography of the park has stayed the same, the interior has changed dramatically in the past 40 years.

Anyone who has ever utilized the facilities at the Oval Park in the Bronx can thank former President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the years of enjoyment the Oval Park brought them. The Williamsbridge Oval Park was a product of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The New Deal programs were written by Franklin D. Roosevelt as an attempt to bring the United States out of the Great Depression that began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The New Deal was composed of new government agencies that focused on various facets of society. One area in which the New Deal targeted, was the development of jobs through the employment of public works programs. The Works Progress Administration, also known as the WPA and later in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration was a New Deal Agency that focused on creating jobs by launching public works projects like the construction of roads, buildings bridges, and parks. In New York, Robert Moses’ work had a significant impact on the cities public infrastructure utilizing funds from all areas.

The original site on which the Oval Park was constructed in the 1930’s had been home to a reservoir that supplied drinking water to sections of the Bronx. The original site was named the Gun Hill Williamsbridge Reservoir. The reservoir had been built in the late 1800’s. The Gun Hill Williamsbridge Reservoir was shut down and drained in 1925. Ten years later, the old reservoir became a recipient of the New Deal programs as construction began in 1934 on a public park built on the site. In 1937, the Williamsbridge Oval Park was completed.

Historians are always taught to write about time periods or places in which they have no personal connections. It is to ensure that there is no bias included in the story, or that all subjectivity has been prevented from being applied to the writing. However, when writing about social history we always tend to utilize newspapers, journals, and letters in tapping into the real heart of a time period or place. If one wants to really understand the social impact of a park like the Oval Park, then the writing of those who were part of that history can be more meaningful than that of the researcher.

I lived one block from the Oval Park in the Bronx. My two brothers, sister and I were raised by my mother and father on Rochambeau Avenue between Van Cortland Avenue East and 206th Street. I was born in 1961 and so I spent the entire decade of the 1960’s and a good portion of the 1970’s visiting the Oval Park. A few months ago, I went back to the Oval Park to observe the changes that have occurred there over the past forty years.

Over time, many historians have written that New York City parks served as an escape from the city streets for those living in the neighborhoods. However, what many historians do not realize is that so many of us who grew up in the Bronx never thought of the parks as an escape, they were just part of the neighborhood. The parks were a part of our daily lives especially if you were growing up as a kid or teenager. There was no difference between hanging out at the park, in the schoolyard, at the pizza place or anywhere else in the neighborhood. It’s what you did, you did not think about it, you just lived it. Of course, every place in the Bronx had its own distinct charms and of course dangers, the Oval Park was no exception.

The gateway to the Oval Park is a large concrete tunnel located on the corner of Bainbridge Avenue and Van Cortland Ave. East. The length of the tunnel is around twenty-five to thirty yards long with a width of about ten yards. The Bronx Oval Park Tunnel has a relatively high ceiling of about twenty-five feet. My old Bronx neighborhood friend Kevin Minahan who lived in the Bronx for thirty years, remembers the Bronx Oval Park Tunnel fondly because of its acoustic properties. “The Oval Park Tunnel on Bainbridge avenue was like an echo chamber. My friends and I would sing and shout in amazement as to how the tunnel would reverberate our voices. For little kids, it was the coolest thing ever.”

The Oval Park tunnel did not just serve as a gateway to the park, but many times it would serve as a shelter in the middle of sudden rain storms or thundershowers. When I recently went back to the Oval Park this past year, a thundershower hit suddenly. Like I had done many times as a kid, I ran towards the tunnel for shelter. When the rain ended, a beautiful rainbow appeared in the sky. It was an incredible feeling of deja vu because I had remembered seeing a rainbow just like that one, many years earlier as a kid, standing in that same spot.

Bronx Oval Park Rainbow

Standing in the Oval Park Tunnel as the rainbow appeared. Photo: Brian Kachejian© 2017

The interior of the Oval Park in 2018 is dramatically different from the park I knew in the 1960s’ and 70’s. While the geography of the park has stayed the same, the amenities, playgrounds, and fields have been completely upgraded into modern times. Most of the park’s attractions have been modernized. However. some of the features that were so loved by neighborhood kids have long gone. During those hot summer days in the city, there was no better place to be for city kids than the Oval Park sprinklers rink.

Laughter in the Rain sprinklers

In the 1960’s, we used to call the sprinklers rink the “showers.” Somehow, in modern times, that does not seem to actually describe one of the centerpieces of the 1960’s Oval Park accurately. In front of the main building and centered between both playgrounds was a small rink enclosed by a fence. Lined along the length of the rink were metal shower heads ingrained into the concrete. During the summer days, the rink was filled with kids dancing and running around under the cold high pressure spray. I remember having to be very careful in there when it was crowded. Kids would run around waving their hands in the air with their eyes closed because of the pressure of the water. Time and time again, kids ran into each other knocking themselves down onto the hard concrete floor.

In the early 1970’s, the New York City Parks commission decided to install a small public pool into the park. It was an above ground pool surrounded by a fence with a small ramp that led to a small terrace surrounding the pool. The pool itself was not much bigger than the average size of a typical Long Island suburban house backyard pool. Kids lined up outside the pool and waited for their turn to be led into the pool. The lifeguard would allow about forty kids at a time into the pool area. Once we were led in, we all had to sit on the side of the pool and listen to the pool rules. The lifeguard would announce that we were not allowed to dive, jump or even swim in the pool. There was simply not enough room in the pool for swimming. We would basically step into the three feet of water and stand there face to face with another person who was usually only about six inches away. From that marvelous experience, we usually waited for about two hours, for twenty minutes of pool time. When our time was up, we got back on the line to do it all again.

At night, when the pool was closed, many of the teenagers in the neighborhood would climb the fence to go swimming. There was one security guard or park ranger that rode around on a motorized scooter. The guard would travel the length of the park’s inner and upper terraces patrolling the park on a regular basis. The kids would wait for the guard to pass the pool. It would take the guard about ten minutes to circle the park. The scooter he rode was very slow. Everyone would climb the fence and jump in the pool once he passed knowing that there were at least ten minutes of swimming time. There were many times when kids overstayed the ten minutes and would almost be caught by the guard. The end result was usually a group of teenagers running in their underwear through the park soaking wet while being chased by a security guard on a slow scooter that had no chance of catching them. It was a cycle that was played over constantly.

Field of Dreams

The Oval Park’s football field was, in essence, a field of dreams for many of the neighborhood kids playing football. There were not many places in the Bronx that hosted an NFL sized football field. For many, the centerpiece of the Oval Park was the football field quite literally. We had sort of an unofficial league. The teams were organized by what street you lived on. There were no uniforms but we did play tackle with whatever equipment one owned.  Most of the football games we played there were during the week. If we could not play in the field at the Oval Park, we utilized the inner meridian field that ran along Mosholu Parkway.

On Sundays in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were semi-pro football teams that played on the Oval Park football field. The teams that played there had great looking uniforms. The players were huge and as scary as could be. They made quite an impression on the younger kids. We stood on the sidelines watching the games. There were no stands. These guys hit hard. The players cursed across the field at the opposing teams, they cursed at each other, cursed the refs, cursed anyone alive in the Bronx.

Bronx Oval Park 1970's

Oval Park Football Field circa 1979 – Photo: Brian Kachejian ©1979

Playground In My Mind

The Oval Park featured a magnificent playground for the children of the neighborhood. The  New York City playgrounds of the mid to late 20th century were very different from the playgrounds of the 21st Century. The new New York City playgrounds that were designed in the 1990s and onward have been built in line with new regulations regarding safety standards. In the 1960’s there were no safety harnesses attached to the children’s swings. The swing sets in 1960’s and 70s were made of metal seats hanging from cold thick chains. The smaller swings had a sliding metal rod in the front that most kids just slipped right out under. I fell out of those swings all the time. When you fell, you hit solid concrete. There were no rubber mats under those swings. No one even thought of that.  However, none of that mattered because to city kids those swings were awesome. The Oval Park had two large swing sets on both sides of the fenced-in playground.

Bronx Oval Park

Riding the swings in 1961 at the Oval Park. Photo: John Kachejian ©1961

Brian Kachejian in the swingset at the Oval Park. Photo: June Kachejian ©1961

The metal swing sets were very popular at the playground. However, the Oval Park Playground featured three other stations that were even more popular. When entering the playground, children were greeted by two large metal sliding ponds. When your only two feet tall, those sliding ponds looked like the Empire State Building. Climbing to the top of those sliding ponds was met with great trepidation, fear and excitement, the moment of truth came when one had to convert the body from the climbing the ladder position into the seating position. Somehow, the engineering behind those sliding ponds just did not take into account that awkward transition from climbing to sitting. For many of us who were not that coordinated, the result was a hard fall down the metal steps to the stone cold concrete.

The playground also featured a row of metal seesaws at the far northern corner of the playground. The seesaw was the one attraction in the playground that needed the full participation of two people to enjoy its wonderful properties of amusement. Have you ever tried sitting on a seesaw by yourself and ride up and down?  The Oval Park seesaws brought great joy to many neighborhood kids. I can remember riding those seesaws with friends as a young kid, and even as I grew older, still hanging out on them with friends engaging in conversation as we flew through the air in so many ways.

While the swings, seesaws, and sliding ponds all brought great joy to neighborhood kids of the Bronx, the pinnacle of the playground was the “Monkey Bars.”

The Bronx Oval Park Monkey Bars were a standard set of metal bars that formed a metal cubed open air foundation that narrowed towards the top of the structure. At the peak of the structure was just a small 2 foot by 2 foot square of metal bars that could usually just fit one person. There was always a mad climb by all kids to race to the top to be “king of the mountain.” Usually, in that race to the top, kids slipped and banged their heads, arms, hands, and shoulders as they fell painfully to the ground. It is amazing that we did not get hurt more than we did. We all seemed to bounce rather well off metal bars. The monkey bars were a standard playground attraction featured in most city parks in the 1960’s and 70s. However, they have long been replaced by much safer climbing apparatus.

Waking Paths

The Bronx Oval Park featured multiple large walking paths that circled the parks oval shape. The inner walking path was ground level and circled the park behind the playgrounds, tennis courts and basketball courts. The larger upper walking path was elevated above the rest of the park and separated from the playgrounds tennis courts and everything else by trees. It was, in essence, the most secluded area of the park. The path was lined with benches and served as an arena for people to walk, run, and push baby carriages without fear of being hit by a city bus.

Depending on the time of day and volume of people in the park at any given time, the walking paths could become dangerous. As a young kid, I was mugged along the path when I was walking by myself. I was also chased many times. Yet, I still went back, because that’s just what you did as a city kid. The paths are still active and open in the present day. In today’s modern world of security cameras and enhanced security, they are probably far safer than they were in the 1960’s and 1970s. The picture below shows the outer walking path right above the Oval Park entrance. Yes, that’s me with my mom in 1961.

Bronx Oval Park

The Bronx Oval Park Walking Path.

For my family, my friends and everyone else who grew up in the Bronx in the 20th century, the Oval Park will forever be enshrined in our memories of life growing up in the city. There was no better way to grow up. Only those of us who grew up in the five boroughs during that period can ever really understand that.

Below are some pictures I took of the Bronx Oval Park in 2017. The place has changed in many ways, but it still serves the current community in the grand fashion it served us many years ago. That was completely evident when I saw the kids still playing, the mothers conversing, and the older people still walking those paths, still living life….. in the Bronx.

Sources:

Eisenstadt, P. E. (2005). The encyclopedia of New York State/ editor in chief, Peter Eisenstadt ; managing editor, Laura-Eve Moss ; foreword by Carole F. Huxley. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. pp.1044-1045

“Williamsbridge Oval.” Williamsbridge Oval : NYC Parks. Accessed May 18, 2018. https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/williamsbridge-oval.

Inside the Oval Park Tunnel. The gateway to the Oval Park.

Bronx Oval Park

 

Bronx Oval Park

The Oval Park Recreation Center is housed inside the original Oval Park building. In the 1960’s the building also a housed a pre-school.

Bronx Oval Park

Bronx Oval Park

The sprinklers used to be to the left in the picture below.

Bronx Oval Park

Gateway to the new playground

Bronx Oval Park

Bronx Oval Park

 The lower level walking path of the Oval Park

Bronx Oval Park

Special thanks to my Mom “June Kachejian,” for holding onto those great 1960’s pics. Would also like to thank Kevin Minahan for adding his memories to the story. Thanks also to Lucille O’Connell and Connie Wunderlich for the “Res,” info.

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