Colleagues of former New York City Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern know that Stern appreciates good nicknames, having doled out new nomenclatures to city parks and people that New Yorkers still use today. Stern, who served as Parks Commissioner from 1983 to 1990 and again from 1994 to 2000, is also famous for his rather unprecedented mandates for urban greenspaces.
Perhaps Stern’s most prescient order came when he required that animal sculptures be installed within every city playground. The mandate brought a leaping dolphin to Cobble Hill and a bear to Bay Ridge. It’s estimated that there are well over one hundred animal sculptures installed in parks across New York City’s five boroughs.
In 2021 the Parks Department announced plans to retire the beloved animal sculptures, setting them out to pasture at a new location as playground equipment ages out and the facilities undergo renovations. This week the city celebrated the retirement of six of these sculptures with a party at their new place of residence: a site adjacent to the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. According to NYC Parks, the location where the sculptures are sited is “passive” and “contemplative.”
Among the first residents to arrive at the “Home for Retired Playground Animals” are two dolphins, a frog, a camel, an elephant, and an aardvark. To commemorate the installation of the sculptures and their opening to the public, NYC Parks hosted a gathering, complete with party hats for the animals.
“At NYC Parks, our civil servants take many forms: not only park workers, but also the beloved concrete animals children have been playing on for decades in our playgrounds across the city,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue at the party. “We’re so excited to unveil this new contemplative space in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, as we send some of our hardest-working employees into retirement in style. We hope that despite their retirement, they will continue to inspire imagination and creativity in parkgoers into the future.”
Each of the six creatures hails from a different park across the city. Each is made of concrete and once touted bright colors that have since faded, as indicated by the chipping paint across their torsos. Alongside the animals is new signage stating not to climb on them, they are in retirement after all. Additionally, a new accessible pathway winds through the site and several new benches were installed nearby. NYC Parks has plans to add more trees, shrubs, and other vegetation to the surrounding area.
The “Home for Retired Playground Animals” is permanently on-view and accessible to all.