A 358-acre oasis of fields, ponds, trails, recreation facilities and precious forest in Eastern Queens, Cunningham Park has been a meeting ground for New Yorkers throughout the past century. The rolling terrain was carved out by a glacier some 20,000 years ago and remained rural until the economic boom of the early 20th century. The first inhabitants were Native Americans, ancestors of the Matinecocks, who farmed in the Little Neck and Flushing Bay areas. Dutch colonists arrived in the 1600s, followed by English settlers. During the American Revolution British soldiers reaped hay, rye, corn, oats and vegetables here.
The City of New York acquired the land, originally known as Hillside Park, in parcels between the 1920s and 1940s. In 1934, the city named the park for W. Arthur Cunningham (1894-1934), comptroller under Mayor LaGuardia. The Parks Department built tennis courts, bridle paths, baseball diamonds and parking lots at Cunningham in 1936. In the early 1950s, the city linked the park to the Kissena Corridor, a greenbelt also comprising Flushing Meadows-Corona, Kissena and Alley Pond Parks. Today Cunningham Park is an integral part of the New York City Greenway system, providing essential growing space for flora, fauna and humans.
Cunningham Park is a premier example of the vibrant force of nature within an urban setting. Despite the proximity of three major highways (the Long Island Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway and the Clearview Expressway), more than two-thirds of the park remains undeveloped natural land lush with greenery and wildlife. Within yards of speeding cars, mallard ducks settle down for the night on centuries old glacial kettle ponds, and ancient oaks stand sentinel over ball fields loud with the cheers of future Yankees and Mets.
Flora & Fauna
Red oaks, flowering dogwoods, tulip trees, red maples, sweet gums and hemlocks are plentiful in Cunningham Park’s Southern Forest. Similar to the forest found by early settlers, it also contains black cherry, hickory and sassafras, in addition to ferns and flowers such as geraniums, buttercups and violets that bloom on the forest floor. Several kettle ponds dot the area. Summer visitors may notice pepperbush or maple leaf around the edges of a pond where mallard and black ducks feast on duckweed. Most of the trees in the Northern Forest are younger than those in the southern section, and visitors may notice the remnants of farms in old stone walkways and walls. Black oak, black cherry and black locust trees abound in this forest, along with flowers such as wild sarsaparilla, bellwort and Star-of-Bethlehem. Late in the summer, jewelweed, also known as “touch-me-not,” puts out its distinctive orange flowers. Squirrels, chipmunks and cottontail rabbits may scurry by, and hawks have been sighted.
The area around Cunningham Park remained rural until the early 20th century, when the City’s economic boom and population growth brought new housing, parks and roads. Today, Cunningham is used by residents of Bayside, Holliswood, Queens Village, Hollis Hills, Jamaica Estates, Fresh Meadows and the West Cunningham Park area. Students of neighboring St. John’s University organize clean-up projects in the park, while school children from nearby public schools visit the park on a regular basis.
Activities & Sports Facilities
People come to Cunningham Park from all over Queens to play sports, enjoy outdoor concerts, such as the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, and attend a variety of other cultural events. Regulars speak of gathering at the “core” area, which comprises about one-fourth of the park’s acreage, for bocce tournaments, tennis matches, and basketball and soccer games. Parents can drop their children off at the day camp inside the park and then eat a picnic lunch at the wooden tables. Visitors stroll through the Grand Allee, a beautiful walkway flanked by sweet gum trees, jog on the Vanderbilt path, or join weekly baseball or soccer games. In addition, visitors jog and walk on the track and through the path in the Kissena Corridor. Sports facilities include 20 tennis courts (10 outside/10 inside), two bocce courts, one full basketball court, two cricket fields, two soccer fields and 25 baseball diamonds. Permits are required to use tennis courts and all baseball fields. For information about obtaining permits or to find out how to get in touch with baseball, softball or soccer leagues that play in the park, contact the Queens Borough Permit Office at 718-520-5941. Stop by the district headquarters at Union Turnpike and 199th Street for a map of acceptable barbecuing and picnic areas.
Playing in the Park
Children and families love Cunningham Park for its many playgrounds. These include McLaughlin Playground on McLaughlin Avenue and Francis Lewis Boulevard; 210th Street Playground on 210th Street and 73rd Avenue; Redwood Playground on 193rd Street and Aberdeen Road; and Upper Playground on193rd Street and Radnor Road