Pat Courtney: Volunteers for Isham Park

Voices from the Neighborhood

pat courtney


Telephone Interview on experiences with the Six to Celebrate Program

With Susan Hopper, HDC Board Member

Date: 9-13-13

Name(s): Pat Courtney


Neighborhood/Group/Year of participation:  Inwood, Isham Park 2011



Why did your neighborhood apply to HDC’s Six to Celebrate?

We applied because even though Inwood is a very historic neighborhood, it had no historic districts.  Inwood has major parklands that retain original geological features of Manhattan Island.  The built environment was very influenced by area parks, beginning with the gift to New York City of Isham Park by the Isham family in 1911.   The park was given in part to preserve its surrounding views, including the one west to the Palisades.  Volunteers for Isham Park, or VIP, wanted to recall this history and create an historic district to protect the parklands, related buildings, and, as much as possible, its views. We wanted to create more awareness of how the histories of other surrounding parklands now landmarked or protected–Palisades, Riverdale, and Washington Heights–are historically and geographically connected to Isham Park.

What have been your group’s biggest accomplishments to date? 

VIP was formed in 2009 in conjunction with the Partnerships for Parks or PFP, and New York City Parks. We work with a PFP volunteer coordinator who provides advice, tools, and plants for work in the park.  In 2010, we were able to arrange for a fiscal sponsorship with the City Parks Foundation.  After being selected for the inaugural class of Six to Celebrate in 2011, VIP created a reconnaissance inventory with photography for Inwood with Pratt Institute graduate students in historic preservation and with Allison Boles, a local archeologist and preservationist.   Inwood community members contributed to the narrative and description for a walking tour guide created by HDC.  VIP, along with J.A. Reynolds of Bruce’s Garden and other Isham Park gardeners began advocating for the restoration of the water system for Isham Park in 2010-11; in August 2011, New York City Councilmember Robert Jackson allocated $750,000 for that purpose. Work on the NYC Parks project is scheduled to begin in 2014.  With assistance from the Municipal Art Society librarian, VIP created a MAS file for Isham Park.  VIP, along with members of other local parks groups including Bruce’s Garden and Friends of Indian Road Playground helped to create a centennial celebration for Isham Park.  In advance of the celebration September 29, 2012, VIP offered a series of tours and lectures and held park maintenance events.  After VIP advertised the centennial, descendants from the Isham family discovered the event, contacted the PFP, came to participate in the centennial, and remain supportive and in contact.

How has participating in HDC’s Six to Celebrate program helped you to address your goals?  What experiences were most helpful?

VIP basically began from scratch in considering Inwood for historic-district designation.   HDC staff came to the first public meeting held at the Inwood Branch of the New York Public Library in April 2011, which helped rally neighbors and helped everyone understand historic districts.   A Pratt historic-preservation student who had heard about the meeting helped VIP form a group that created the reconnaissance inventory, which in turn was used in HDC’s walking tour guide. As VIP became more familiar with local buildings, we saw how important the gift of Isham Park had been to the area’s built environment. Frampton Tolbert, HDC deputy director, Nadezhda Williams, HDC director of preservation and research, and Simeon Bankoff, executive director, all provided advice that was very helpful during Six to Celebrate and in the creation of the walking tour guide. We worked a lot with Nadezhda, who came to our meetings and was incredibly helpful with our plans and public events.

VIP created a lecture series to help inform the public and also went before Manhattan Community Board 12’s Land Use and Parks Committees several times.  Simeon and Frampton organized a meeting with Councilmember Robert Jackson.  Presentation of VIP’s findings to the Landmarks Preservation Commission happened in early 2012.  Finally, in the summer of 2012, I was asked to serve on the board of advisors of HDC, which has proven to be a good way for me to learn more about preservation issues citywide, to network and continue VIP work on behalf of Inwood and Isham Park.

Going forward, what are the next steps toward your goals?

We are working to nominate Isham and Inwood Hill Parks to the State and National Registers of Historic Places.  We also hope to advocate for an historic district of relevant buildings surrounding and related to the parks.  The Isham residence, given as part of the park by the Isham family to serve as a local history museum and gathering place, was demolished during parks renovations in the early 1940s. We hope to find an historic building to serve in that capacity again to ensure that the history of Inwood is not dispersed and lost once more.

Finally, why have you chosen to live in an historic neighborhood?  How has it been important to you? 

My husband and I moved to Inwood in early 2003 largely because of its beautiful parks.  Historic architecture and beautiful view corridors through streets connected with the original terrain were also a big draw for us, as were diverse forms of public transportation to the area and its single-story strips of commercial buildings that make shopping feel accessible and pleasantly informal.  Finally, we discovered some of our own history in the area—a distant relative, a cholera physician, built the house and laid out the grounds later purchased by William Bradley Isham. This discovery highlighted for us the importance of the preservation of local history and historic structures, cemeteries, and landscapes.

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