Place Category: Parks and Playgrounds
The rolling terrain of Cunningham Park was carved out by glaciers nearly 20,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans, ancestors of the Mantinecocks, were the first people to settle in the area, arriving about 7000 years ago. They fished, hunted, and later farmed near the shores of Little Neck and Flushing Bays. Dutch colonists arrived in the area in the early 1600s and were followed by the English. During the American Revolution, British soldiers occupied the area and clear-cut most of the native forests for firewood. The rural landscape of eastern Queens remained largely intact until the economic boom and population explosion of the first decades of the 20th century.
As a result, new parks were created and new roads were laid out. Between 1928 and 1944, the City of New York assembled a series of parcels of land for what was originally called Hillside Park. One of these parcels was the site of the nation’s first automobile highway in 1908. The 48-mile private toll road was built by William K. Vanderbilt Jr., and was especially popular with bootleggers during the Prohibition era. Competition from a newly expanded public highway system put the parkway out of business in 1938, and the property was donated to the City as parkland. Today the parkway provides a tree-lined path for walkers, joggers, and bicycle riders.
In 1934 Hillside Park was renamed for W. Arthur Cunningham (1894-1934). Born in Manhattan, Cunningham was raised in Brooklyn, where he attended St. James’s Academy. He received his L.L.B. degree from Fordham Law School in 1915, but postponed his legal career to serve his country in World War I. Cunningham distinguished himself in combat as a major in the 69th (later 165th) Regiment, A.E.F. He served as counsel and later vice president to the Textile Banking Corporation until 1933, when he was elected City Comptroller on Mayor LaGuardia’s fusion ticket. Cunningham died suddenly of a heart attack while horseback riding on Long Island on May 5, 1934.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia dedicated the plaza in Cunningham’s memory near the center of the park in 1936. That year marked the completion of work by the Works Progress Administration and the Parks Department to develop the southern part of the park. The plan provided tennis courts, playgrounds, stables, bridle paths, playing fields, picnic groves, and parking lots. In the early 1950s the City of New York acquired land for a greenbelt of public parks along the route of the former railroad that ran from Flushing to Babylon. The Kissena Corridor links Flushing Meadows-Corona, Kissena, Alley Pond, and Cunningham Parks in a 2816-acre, 4.5-mile “emerald necklace” of parkland.
As Queens continued to grow, the park was decreased in size accommodate the construction and expansion of schools and roads. These projects included Oceania Street (1944), Horace Harding Expressway (1951), J.H.S. 74 and its playground (1952), and the Clearview Expressway (1957-60). For more than thirty years, the Sanitation and Transportation Departments occupied a site on the east side of the park; this area was restored as playing fields in 1986. Cunningham Park is a treasured neighborhood resource that features diverse recreational facilities and an extensive calendar of special events. Annual events include appearances by the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Big Apple Circus.
- Springfield Bl/Grand Central Pkwy
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