Washington Square Park. Photo: Sara Messinger
Among the best ways to experience summer in NYC is to visit one of its many public parks, each a concentrated reflection of the locals (and visitors) who play, gather and rest there. To capture that energy and to get a sense of the varied roles these green spaces play, we sent five different photographers to a park in each of the five boroughs on the same summer weekend. Each one came back with their own vision of how the park displays its personality.
Scroll on for a glimpse into daily life at these places and to read what the photographers learned along the way.
Photographs by Sara Messinger
For a quick introduction to the energy of the City, head straight to Washington Square Park. Its central fountain and Washington Arch are instantly recognizable from frequent depictions in film and television, and the park serves as the hub for a storied Manhattan neighborhood. But if those landmarks are well-known, it is because of the park’s history and reputation as one of NYC’s most concentrated microcosms of city life. People of all ages cool themselves off in the fountain’s spray, while musicians—guitarists, saxophone players, even a pianist on a grand piano—play for a crowd. NYU students sometimes can be spotted having class here, TikTok creators canvas for new content with tiny microphones and groups meet for anything from rallies and protests to activities like salsa, art in the park or a (frequently not so) casual game of chess.
“This park celebrates the individual. You’ll see people dancing or drawing or playing music, I’m there with my camera and it becomes this exchange of passions. I love that I’m always going to run into someone I know. As I was going there, I was thinking, It would be great if I see my friend Matt Weber [below, with the pigeons on his arm]. That’s where I met Matt, and I just associate him with the park and always being able to find him. I’ll just hang out there for the day and speak to so many different people, who have stories of joy about the park.” —Sara Messinger
Photographs by Ahmed Gaber
If you’ve been to Central and Prospect Parks, you’ll know that NYC has greenery that makes the hustle recede into the background. Van Cortlandt Park, the third largest park in the City, doesn’t attract as much press or as many out of towners as those spots but gets plenty of visitors from the Bronx seeking a bit of calm, some recreation and a place with real nature. Van Cortlandt is home to the country’s oldest municipal golf course as well as the oldest building in the Bronx, the Van Cortlandt House Museum, which hosted George Washington on a few occasions during the Revolutionary War. There are more than 20 miles of hiking trails, including one that joins a path stretching into Westchester County. Facilities include a pool, tennis courts, plenty of fields for baseball and soccer, horse-riding stables and pitches that play host to a long-running cricket league.
“I don't think that many people outside the Bronx know about it; I feel like it’s more for the people living in the area. People go and spend the whole day there. I saw people once we got there in the morning and saw them again when we were leaving in the evening.” —Ahmed Gaber
Photographs by Adam Pape
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Staten Island was growing quickly and people were tired at the distance they had to travel to enjoy a public park, the conversion of the land around Silver Lake began to take shape. The lake itself, once known as Fresh Pond, had been used for ice-harvesting and -skating in the late 19th century before being turned into the reservoir at the center of Silver Lake Park. More than 100 years on, the green space includes an 18-hole golf course, hiking trails, baseball fields, bike paths and dog runs across its 209 acres. It’s also a gathering place for locals that reflects the immigrant demographics of the area.
“I’ve always enjoyed that New York City parks harbor unexpected rituals. At Silver Lake I found an array of people that came to forage mulberries, including a young mother and daughter from Ukraine and a woman named Anum, who picked the berries from high-up branches while her children played. In the picture of her [below], it was serendipitous that the color of her headscarf worked in harmony with the color of the mulberries and stains in her hand.” —Adam Pape
Photographs by Maridelis Morales Rosado
When it comes to activities at Astoria Park, residents are spoiled for choice. Are you at the skate park practicing kickflips? Strolling riverside on Shore Boulevard? Perhaps you’re headed to a little party on the lawn or finding the perfect pair of trees from which to hang your hammock. Astoria Park is a neighborhood enclave that works hard for the people of Queens, offering, as many parks do, a calm, green refuge. Its location adjacent to the river and between two bridges—the Triborough, which gracefully rises against the skyline, and its squat neighbor Hell Gate—is particularly scenic. The park’s facilities strengthen the community feel, with a large public pool (closed this season for construction), track, soccer field, bocce courts, that skate park and a big lawn. The last of those serves as a site for regular events, including movie nights, concerts and fireworks viewing; there’s also an annual carnival.
“This isn’t like other parks. This isn’t McCarren [in Williamsburg, Brooklyn], where there’s like 40,000 people gathering on a Sunday afternoon and you have to look everywhere to find your friends. It’s more of a family environment. When I realized that, it felt like more of an escape, a reason to be outside and be outdoors. I think the bridges and the buildings across the river make it special in that way. You can see so much of the sky.” —Maridelis Morales Rosado
Photographs by Jordana Bermúdez
Tamales, tarot readers, Ecuavoley—encountering these on a visit to Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park will help you understand the heart of this vibrant neighborhood. The size of a square city block, this welcoming community space has struck a balance between Bushwick’s current state as a gentrifying neighborhood and its enduring identity as a predominantly Latino community. The park was renamed after the brave Bushwick community activist Maria Hernandez, who was shot in 1989 for rallying the neighborhood against drug trafficking. Today it feels like a perpetual party, with art performances and DJ sets in the central courtyard, a pump track that draws skaters from all over the City, a dog run, frequent rallies and locals playing Ecuador’s version of volleyball.
“Until I moved to New York City, I’d never seen so much activity happening in a park. It’s very ‘summer’ to me, and specific to the City. It’s a park with a lot of personality, just like the neighborhood. It’s surrounded by street art, thrift shopping and a mix of food, bars and cultures. But it’s important to say that Maria Hernandez is about the Latinx community first. When I had just moved to New York City I went to the park, and everyone spoke Spanish. I remember it felt like home! I was not expecting that.” —Jordana Bermúdez