The Abandoned Garden of Prospect Park

The Vale of Cashmere is an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place, home to overgrown weeds, murder, and intense writerly contemplation.

More than eight million people, eight-and-a-half billion square feet. Suffice to say, New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with space, all the more reason for us to occasionally get away from it all. But finding sanctuary in the city is not as hard as you might think. In “My Secret New York Sanctuary,” a series by Narratively andWNYC, we get up close and personal with New Yorkers who use a little ingenuity to find solitude in some unlikely places.

William Akers has written about murder. He’s written about jazz, and plenty of baseball. His non-fiction writing and plays draw inspiration from the past, especially the rough-and-tumble days of the late 19th and 20th centuries. And now, he’s uncovered the hidden history of his favorite spot in New York City: The Vale of Cashmere.

William Akers at Vale of Cashmere  (Photo by Emily Kwong)
William Akers at Vale of Cashmere  (Photo by Emily Kwong)

Situated on the northern end of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Vale is 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. Akers, 27, discovered it by accident and now, visiting the Vale is a summertime ritual.

One hundred years ago, the Vale of Cashmere was a formal garden populated by high society families, but over the years, it fell into disrepair and neglect. The Prospect Park Alliance is raising capital to restore the Vale to its original condition, but Akers, a native of Nashville, doesn’t mind how it looks today. “It’s very Southern Gothic,” he says, “which is probably why I like it.”

Vale of Cashemere 1896 (Photo courtesy of Prospect Park Archives)
Vale of Cashemere 1896 (Photo courtesy of Prospect Park Archives)

“There’s nowhere else in the park like this because the renovations haven’t gotten here yet,” Akers explains. “Because so much of New York is torn down and rebuilt all the time, anything that survived, especially if it’s shown its age, is all the more precious. I want to hang on to these things for as long as I can because they go away.”

The Play Ground Pool (Photo courtesy of Prospect Park Archives/Bob Levine Collection)
The Play Ground Pool (Photo courtesy of Prospect Park Archives/Bob Levine Collection)
Vale of Cashmere in 2014 (Photo by Mike Hicks)
Vale of Cashmere in 2014 (Photo by Mike Hicks)
Vale of Cashmere in 1925 (Photo courtesy of Prospect Park Archives)
Vale of Cashmere in 1925 (Photo courtesy of Prospect Park Archives)

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Emily Kwong, a radio and multimedia producer based in NYC, recorded and produced the piece. Emily is an alumna of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and a production assistant for WNYC’s Education/Youth Reporting Unit. After graduating from Columbia University (’12), Emily taught digital storytelling in India through The Modern Story. You can follow her on Twitter at @emilykwong1234.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog ‘Fox’ he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.

Find more Secret Sanctuaries on WNYC’s website.