Since at least late November, the press office of outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has put forth a flurry of major end-of-year and end-of-administration announcements including the selection of four university-led teams competing to establish a planned Center for Climate Solutions on Governors Island and the more recent unveiling of a sweeping climate resiliency plan for Lower Manhattan’s flood-prone Financial District and South Street Seaport neighborhood.
One substantial bit of news that may have gotten lost in the pre-holiday shuffle was the December 16 announcement that the city is allocating $40 million in capital funding for a long-envisioned revamp of two major landscapes, the Children’s Pool and the former Rose Garden, within the 26-acre Vale section of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The historic investment marks the largest funding allocation in the history of Prospect Park Alliance, the nonprofit organization that sustains the Frederick Law Olmsted- and Calvert Vaux-designed park in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
The design process for the effort, dubbed the Vale Restoration, is expected to kick off next year and, as detailed by the Mayor’s Office in a news release, the project will be subject to standard NYC Parks Department design and construction guidelines, including a year for design, a year for procurement, and 12 to 18 months for construction. The Prospect Park Alliance, working in partnership with urban planning, design, and development nonprofit Hester Street, will also embark on an community engagement process to further identify meaningful ways in which to breathe new life into this heavily wooded and often-overlooked northeastern section of the nearly 600-acre park that stretches alongside Flatbush Avenue.
“Thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $40 million investment, the gateway to Prospect Park’s treasured Vale, the borough’s last remaining forest, will soon be renewed, restored and revitalized,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Gabrielle Fialkoff in a statement. “We are excited to work with our partners at the Prospect Park Alliance who provided the vision and advocated for this multifaceted project. Upon its completion, the Vale will be home to an amphitheater, a pollinator meadow and so much more. This amazing new space will serve Brooklyn for generations to come.”
Referred to as a “lush, woodland oasis” by the Prospect Park Alliance, the full and decidedly mystical name of this sylvan swath of parkland is the Vale of Cashmere, which is derived from the 1817 Thomas Moore poem, “Lalla Rookh.” As mentioned, the secluded Vale is one of the lesser-known and lesser-trafficked sections of Prospect Park although it is a popular spot with birders and men, particularly men of color, in search of discreet amorous encounters with other men.
Subject to a substantial overhaul in the 1960s, the Vale and an area that was once home to a formal Rose Garden (originally the site of a playground complete with a horse-driven carousel when the first park debuted in 1867) have fallen into a state of decrepitude in recent decades and, aside from its natural splendor, has remained without any major attractions or amenities. (The rose garden was ripped up following the 1911 debut of the neighboring Brooklyn Botanic Garden.) In a 2014 conversation with Brooklyn playwright Will Akers on the Vale’s forgotten, off-the-beaten-path charms, WNYC described the area as “an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place: a row of benches facing a sunken fountain filled with reeds, moss and an empty wine bottle or two.”
Already overgrown and a bit too wild for casual park visitors in search of more manicured landscapes, this section of the park sustained considerable damage during Hurricane Sandy although these storm-blighted areas have since been restored. In recent years, areas of the Vale overgrown with invasive plans have also been cleared by industrious, cloven-hoofed landscapers.
In 2017, the Vale emerged as a key focus area in a Prospect Park Alliance-led community outreach initiative known as Reimagine Prospect Park. As detailed by the city, the Alliance, working alongside Hester Street and landscape architecture studio Grain Collective, engaged with 2,000 community members in search of ideas as to how the long-neglected landscape could best be put to new use without detracting from its arboreal appeal. Emerging from this process were several desired amenities, some of which were mentioned by Commissioner Fialkoff in the above statement: a landscaped amphitheater, a sensory garden and “rustic arbor,” a nature play area, and a modest structure featuring restrooms and flexible gathering space.
As mentioned, the Vale, in a role much like that of the Rambles of Central Park, is known as a longstanding gay cruising area due to its relative remoteness and its function as such has been depicted both in literature, film, and documentary photographer Thomas Roma’s 2015 exhibition and accompanying book In the Vale of Cashmere. It is unclear how—if at all—long-planned (and now funded) restoration work within the Vale could impact the area’s disappearing, decades-old cruising subculture. But as Carey Dunne wrote for Hyperallergic back in 2015, the intimate portraits that comprise Roma’s In the Vale of Cashmere might “inadvertently become a swan song for a wilder Brooklyn and the Vale of Cashmere’s hidden world.”