Astoria is not known for its green spaces, and that is a shame. Even many locals are unaware that they can walk just a few minutes to jogging tracks, baseball fields, tennis courts, picnic areas, benches for enjoying alfresco lunches, and swathes of lawn punctuated by leafy trees and offering glorious views of the East River shimmering in the sunlight.
Astoria Park. Image: Costa Constantinides/Flickr
The best known of the neighborhood’s parks is the one that shares its name. The 60-acre Astoria Park stretches from the river to 19th Street, with the parcel that includes its 14 tennis courts reaching as far as 21st Street; lengthwise it spans from Ditmars Boulevard to Hoyt Avenue. From numerous benches you can sit and watch cars driving over the Triborough (official Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge to your left and trains traveling over the Hell Gate Bridge to your right. During the summer the park’s main lawn is the site of the free Waterfront Concert Series and the also-free Movies on the Waterfront Series. This August the latter will show films as diverse of “Casablanca” and “Black Panther.”
The centerpiece of Astoria Park, both literally and figuratively, is its swimming pool, the largest in the city and designed to accommodate as many as 3,000 people at a time. The U.S. Olympic swimming team held its final qualifying meets in the pool in 1936 and 1964; in fact, the first day of the ’36 meets was also the pool’s opening day. The Olympic torches that burned throughout the tryouts were transformed into fountains that spray water 25 feet into the air
The Astoria Park pool. Image: Global Jet/Flickr
The pool is just one reason to flock to the park. Another is the 1.2-mile Astoria Park Loop Trail, which courses along much of the park’s inner parameter; mostly flat, it is open to walkers, joggers, and dogs. Other trails exist as well, along with a quarter-mile track. On Saturday mornings the park hosts an open run—though feel free to walk, saunter, or push a stroller if you prefer.
Other park features include a multilevel skate park with stairs, banks, rails, and other challenging elements, basketball courts, and the only bocce courts in a city park. Its playground is arguably the only one ever named after a sea monster, Charybdis. In Greek mythology Charybdis was a daughter of Poseidon who created deadly whirlpools three times a day; while this may seem an odd name for a playground, it references the equally macabre-named Hell Gate, which is visible from the swings, slides, jungle gyms, and benches.
Hell Gate Bridge is also visible from Ralph Demarco Park, which like Astoria Park hugs the East River. At less than six acres, it is appreciably smaller than Astoria Park, a narrow sliver running from 20th Avenue to Ditmars Boulevard. Weeping willows, cherry blossoms, and other trees offer shady respites along its walkway and bike path, while numerous benches are available for resting up after your run or ride.
The track at Rainey Park. Image: pinterest
Also along the waterfront, but south rather than north of Astoria Park, is Rainey Park. Slightly larger than eight acres, it sits between the East River and Vernon Boulevard, from 33rd Road to just beyond 34th Avenue. Like Ralph Demarco Park, it features a waterfront promenade lined with benches, though these look out toward Roosevelt Island. There is a bike path too, as well as a baseball field and a playground that includes sprinklers, a curvy slide easily twice as long as your typical city-playground slide, and both a mini rock-climbing wall and a petite hill with colorful handholds so that even toddlers can feel as if they are scaling peaks. The oak, London plane, and Callery pear trees that speckle the lawn make Rainey an appealing spot for a postgame picnic.
Athens Square. Image: courtesy of nycgovparks.org
Athens Square is not located along the river; just under an acre, it nestles at 30th Street and 30th Avenue and was originally designed as a playground for the adjacent P.S. 17, aka the Henry David Thoreau School. In the early 1990s its was reimagined as a multipurpose park. While the playground and a basketball court remain—and were upgraded—a central amphitheater with classical statues was added in honor of the neighborhood’s sizable Greek population. Atop checkerboard paving is a round stage where Greek musicians periodically perform. Behind the stage is a granite entablature supported by three Doric columns, an homage to the ancient Tholos of Delphi. To one side of the entablature is a bronze sculpture of Socrates, seated on an angled platform. At the opposite end of the amphitheater stands a seven-and-a-half-foot-high bronze sculpture of Sophocles by local artist Chris Vilardi. Not far from the play area is a bronze bust of Aristotle, donated by the people of Halkidiki, a peninsula in northern Greece. And as befits a park named after the city with which she is closely associated, a bronze statue of Athena stands atop a granite plinth welcoming visitors to the park. A replica of the Piraeus Athena, which dates back to the fourth century BCE, the statue was donated by the city of Athens, a perfect juxtaposition of worlds old and new.