Only in NYC: A Home for Retired Playground Animals!
Plus! The hunt for Obwarzaneks!! Aharon: Bot-or-Not?!!!
Welcome to Issue #87 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Oh boy, I got a lot of nice comments on last week’s feature story recounting my day spent in a rocking chair on the porch of the Avenue H subway station in Brooklyn. My favorite was from reader Frank D. in Ohio. In response to my noting that the rocking chairs are actually an art installation—and isn’t everything these days?—he suggested that the world’s very first art installation was perhaps the Garden of Eden. Something to think about!
I also heard from two readers who, responding to my account of the porch visit from my “friend” Aharon, suggested that Aharon—who makes frequent appearances in this newsletter—is an imaginary person.
“I’m beginning to suspect,” wrote reader Appleton King, “and have for some time, given the way he appears so mysteriously from time-to-time, he may be, hmmmm, a bit of an alter ego?”
Meanwhile, reader Forrest in Providence, who has previously written to suggest that Aharon is actually a bot, emailed to remark: “I noticed there was no accompanying photo of your “friend” Aharon. Very “suspicious".”
I immediately sent Forrest a photo of Aharon and I sitting together on the porch of the Avenue H station:
To which Forrest replied, “Even more suspicious!”
I thought it only fair to give Aharon an opportunity to comment, so I forwarded him the accusations. His response:
“1. Yeah let's all take advice on who's REAL from a person named APPLETON KING.
2. No idea what you "mean," Forrest, "suspicious" is a term more suited to the Rhode Island School of Design.”
In other news, when I recently stopped by the Tesla dealership in Red Hook, Brooklyn (long story), I discovered you can hang out in the back waiting room all day long drinking free coffee, munching free pretzels, enjoying free wireless or just napping. No one will bother you! I thought it’d be fun to do a round-up of similar places around town. Please email your leads: email@example.com
I am also looking for places where one can enjoy an Obwarzanek, which, according to reader Mark D. in Minnesota, is a sort of cross between a bagel and a pretzel. When I checked with CAFÉ ANNE friend and NYC Bagel Ambassador Sam Silverman, he said he hasn’t spotted any in NYC. But if you’ve seen an Obwarzanek purveyor in town, please let me know.
Finally, huge delivered-by-ebike-racing-on-the-sidewalk shoutouts to new paid subscribers Lawrence O., Anita K., Ann H. and Joe F. That’s enough $$$ for me to feast on Obwarzaneks for three months straight!
I am very excited about this week’s issue, of course. NYC Parks recently opened its new Home for Retired Playground Animals, so naturally I had check it out. I also got the scoop on the wild retirement party that preceded the official opening. Please enjoy.
Only in NYC: a Home for Retired Playground Animals
The NYC Department of Parks & Recreation recently posted what may have been the most intriguing press release issued by the city so far this year. The headline, formatted in all caps:
NYC PARKS RETIRES SIX DEDICATED PARKIES AT THE “HOME FOR RETIRED PLAYGROUND ANIMALS” IN FLUSHING MEADOWS CORONA PARK
The department, it seems, had created an outdoor rest home where concrete playground animals who had outlived their useful purpose could enjoy their retirement years.
"Hailing from all across the city," the announcement continued, "these playground animal sculptures loyally served the City’s kids in playgrounds for decades...As part of the new space created in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, new benches have been installed to add to the contemplative nature of the area, and a new accessible pathway has also been added to allow park-goers easy access through the area from three separate points. Parks will also be enhancing the existing canopy with additional trees, shrubs, and landscaping elements."
This I had to see.
Taking the 7 train out to Willets Point in Queens last week on a sweltering afternoon, I was surprised to see enormous crowds headed toward the park. Were they also going to visit the retired playground animals? Then I realized they were headed to the U.S. Open, which is also in the park. Losers!
I found the site about a quarter mile south of the park's north entrance. It was easy to spot thanks to several large signs announcing, "Welcome to the Home of New York City Parks’ Retired Playground Animals."
The sign offered several suggestions:
“DURING YOUR VISIT:
• Offer congratulations and well-wishes.
• Take photos of and with your animals friends.
• Do not climb the animals. They've had enough.”
The space consisted of a long winding path, shaded by evergreens. It was flanked on both sides by playground animal sculptures from the 1980s and 90s.
A pair of frolicking dolphins, their backs and noses worn from decades of use, were the first to greet me. Next, a very large mammal that was definitely supposed to be an elephant but seemed to be lacking tusks and trunk. Maybe this is what elephants looked like in the 1980s?
A two-hump camel came next. He exhibited the peaceful, dreamy look you might find in a perfectly medicated nursing home patient. The giant frog beamed up at the sun. My favorite, the aardvark, flaunted an incredible dappled patina from decades of paint jobs.
There were additional signs posted by each animal, advising visitors to keep off:
But that didn't stop Paola Estrada and her family, who live nearby, from clambering all over the retirees.
Ms. Estrada said she was very happy to see the animals installed in the park for her kids.
"Is the sign a joke?" she asked.
"I dunno!" I said.
I explored the area to see what additional amenities the site offered for the retirees. I was impressed. They included:
• A small brick building nearby labeled "Vault B Danger High Voltage Keep Out”
• Squirrels friends and ant friends
• Spray mist fountains for cooling off
• Tree stumps for dancing and impromptu oratory
• A Mister Softee truck parked at a nearby curb and a spectacular view of the park’s legendary Unisphere:
Returning to the display, I spotted a fellow park-goer, Hecmar Delgado, patting the camel’s nose. He was visiting from Rhode Island for the U.S. Open.
"It's great! They bring character and liven up the space and add a neat little quirk," he said of the site. "It's nice you can see the passage of time—these animals are very well used and they were obviously huge in a lot of kids’ childhoods. It's nice to see them retired here.”
I was excited to learn that Mr. Delgado is a veterinary technician. "Is this an ideal environment for a retired playground animal, would you say?" I asked.
"It's tranquil, it's nice, it's well shaded," he said. "It's checking off all the boxes!"
A few days later, I enjoyed a video interview with the two Parks Department staffers who instigated this whole thing—Creative Director Vanessa Valdes and Public Engagement Coordinator Jenn Graeff.
"It sounds like the kind of funny idea you come up with after you've been drinking all night," I said.
"Let’s go to the next question," said Ms. Graeff.
The idea actually did start off as sort of a joke, the two said. But it came up again in a monthly Parks Department meeting known as the Why Not Working Group, where staffers from all over the city gather to discuss ideas. To their surprise, the concept got the green light from higher-ups.
"It's exciting when you realize that an idea that you thought was really kooky and out there—that there actually is support for it," said Ms. Valdes.
It took several years to choose a location and get the design approved and built. "We visited a lot of potential retirement homes for the animals," said Ms. Valdes. "We were looking for a space that was quiet and contemplative. But we also wanted our retirees to be stimulated in their retirement. We didn't want to put them in such a quiet spot that nothing was happening."
Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens—the site of two 20th-century World’s Fairs—was perfect, she said: "It has so much history and there's so much going on all the time."
Most of the animals now enjoying the rest home had been living in Parks Department storage. The blue dolphin and frog were rescued from a warehouse in Staten Island, the grey dolphin and aardvark came from a warehouse in Queens. The elephant hails from the Bronx. The camel was still working in Frederick Johnson Playground in Upper Manhattan before he accepted his retirement package.
I asked if the signs directing visitors to stay off the animals were serious. The answer: sort of!
While the sculptures do not meet contemporary design specs, they were all refurbished to meet safety standards and are perfectly safe for climbing. That's not the issue.
The creators actually seem to view the animals as fellow “parkies” (as Parks Department staffers call themselves) who deserve respect and rest in their golden years.
In fact, to celebrate the site's opening, the Department threw a big retirement party complete with huge vanilla sheet cake decorated with paper cutouts of each animal.
"We thought that was critical. A party without a cake is just a meeting," said Ms. Valdes.
Each retiree also got a party hat and gold watch:
Park Commissioner Sue Donoghue, meanwhile, delivered an official city proclamation, thanking the animals for their years of dedicated service.
My last question for Ms. Valdes and Ms. Graeff: “What do you think is the most difficult New York City job? Is it cop or fireman or teacher—or is it park playground animal?”
"You could make the case that it's playground animal because their job never ends," said Ms. Valdes. "They can't say stop. They don’t get overtime but they work overtime. You have to be tough and resilient. You're out in the rain and snow and sleet and enduring the elements."
"You could also get shot,” I observed.
"You could what? Sorry?" said Ms. Graeff.
"You could also get shot!" I said.
"Fair enough," said Ms. Valdes.
"But hopefully not," said Ms. Graeff. "All our retired animals seem to be intact. There's damage, but just from overuse."
And there's likely hundreds more around the city.
"Who knows," said Ms. Valdes, "Maybe there'll be future retirement homes in other boroughs—because we know there's a lot of animals out there."
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