In the 1870s, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned a greenbelt across the Bronx, consisting of parks and parkways that would align more with existing geography. This contrasted with Manhattan's grid system, laid out during the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, which had given rise to Central Park, a park with mostly artificial features within the bounds of the grid.:47 However, in 1877, the city declined to act upon his plan. Around the same time, New York Herald editor John Mullaly pushed for the creation of parks in New York City, particularly lauding the Van Cortlandt and Pell families' properties in the western and eastern Bronx respectively. He formed the New York Park Association in November 1881.:49 There were objections to the system, which would apparently be too far from Manhattan, in addition to precluding development on the parks' sites. However, newspapers and prominent lobbyists, who supported such a park system, were able to petition the bill into the New York State Senate, and later, the New York State Assembly (the legislature's lower house).:56 In June 1884, Governor Grover Cleveland signed the New Parks Act into law, authorizing the creation of the park system.
Acquired in 1888 as a result of the New Parks Act, Crotona Park is located on property which was formerly the estate of the Bathgate family. Alexander Bathgate, a Scottish immigrant, had acquired the land from his employer Gouverneur Morris.:137 At the time, the land comprising present-day Crotona Park was called Bathgate Woods, which was located on a high point and contained woods and a pond called Indian Lake. The Bathgate family opened the area near Indian Lake to the public, and it became a picnicking spot. The Bronx Department of Parks, in its 1884 report to the state legislature, noted the land as having "indispensable requisites for a park", such as a "luxuriant growth of forest" with native oaks, elms, and magnolias, as well as proximity to railroad lines such as the Third Avenue elevated and the Harlem Line. Due to rapid urbanization, Bathgate Farm quickly became one of the few remaining greenspaces in the Bronx. When the Bronx Department of Parks acquired the parkland, it originally planned to name the now-public parkland Bathgate Park. Due to one park engineer's disagreements with the Bathgate family, it was named "Crotona", after the ancient Greek city of Croton, and to distinguish it from the nearby, similarly-named Croton Aqueduct water system. The northernmost section of Crotona Park was known as Old Borough Hall Park due to the presence of Bronx Borough Hall in the park.
The park did not receive many improvements until the 20th century. Indian Lake's perimeter was paved in the early 1900s, and an ice-skaters' concession stand and a warming hut were installed. In addition, landscaping work was performed, and a new grandstand for concerts and ball games was erected. Three hundred American elms were planted around the lake in 1903.:10 Two years later, an athletic field for the New York City Department of Education was built as well. A bill was introduced in the Assembly in 1909, which would install a New York National Guard armory in Crotona Park. The bill was heavily denounced by the public, and though both the Assembly and Senate passed the bill, mayor George B. McClellan Jr. vetoed it. Crotona Park was expanded via land acquisition in 1907 and 1911, and extra tennis courts were added in 1915. A concrete wall around the lake's perimeter, as well as lamps and paths, were installed in 1914. A "farm garden", to teach children about farming, was added in 1928.:10
By 1911, local landowners complained that the athletic field and bandstand were too loud. They requested that the field be moved further within Crotona Park. In 1916, several local landowners filed a lawsuit, calling the athletic field and bandstand "nuisances" that were not conducive to park operation. Some of these landowners alleged that they could not sell their property.
1964 promotional photograph of the pool at Crotona Park
In 1934, Robert Moses was nominated by mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia to become commissioner of a unified New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. At the time, the United States was experiencing the Great Depression, and immediately after La Guardia won the 1934 election, Moses began to write "a plan for putting 80,000 men to work on 1,700 relief projects".:82 By the time he was in office, several hundred projects were underway across the city.:84
Moses was especially interested in creating new pools and other bathing facilities, such as those in Jacob Riis Park, Jones Beach, and Orchard Beach.:456 He devised a list of pools at 11 locations around the city, including at Crotona Park, which would be built using funds from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency created to combat the Depression's negative effects as part of the New Deal.:456 In total, Moses planned to create 23 pools. Moses, along with architects Aymar Embury II and Gilmore David Clarke, created a common design for each of the 11 proposed aquatic centers. Each location was to have distinct pools for diving, swimming, and wading; bleachers and viewing areas; and bathhouses with locker rooms that could be used as gymnasiums. The pools were to contain several common features, such as a minimum 55-yard (50 m) length, underwater lighting, heating, filtration, and low-cost construction materials. To fit the requirement for cheap materials, each building would be built using elements of the Streamline Moderne and Classical architectural styles. The buildings would also be located near "comfort stations", additional playgrounds, and spruced-up landscapes.
Plans for the construction of ten tennis courts, a new playground, and additional handball courts and baseball diamonds at Crotona Park were announced in May 1934. Construction for some of the 11 pools began that October. Of these, Crotona Park was the only location in the Bronx where a WPA pool would be constructed. By mid-1935, a 110-foot-square (34 m) wading pool had opened to the north of the future bathhouse site. The blueprints for the Crotona Park pool and bathhouse were submitted to the New York City Department of Buildings in August 1935. By mid-1936, ten of the eleven WPA-funded pools were completed and were being opened at a pace of one per week.:456 Crotona Pool opened on July 25, 1936, in front of a crowd of five thousand; according to The New York Times, about 10,000 would-be participants had to be refused entry. The center was composed of the 330-by-125-foot (101 by 38 m) main swimming pool, a bathhouse, and the wading pool to the north of the bathhouse.
In 1938, further improvements were announced for the 11 locations that had received new pools. About $2.87 million was allocated to the renovation of Crotona Park, including the sidewalks on the surrounding streets. NYC Parks started rebuilding the baseball and softball fields and the existing athletic field. Sometime in the 1940s, a brick boathouse was built along the lake to replace a previous wooden boathouse that had burned down. In 1941, NYC Parks announced the completion of these improvements. In total, seven playgrounds were added, three others were rebuilt, and a children's farm and two comfort stations were constructed. In total, between 1934 and the 1960s, NYC Parks added the pool and bathhouse, as well as five baseball fields, nine playgrounds, twenty tennis courts, four comfort stations, paths, and sitting areas.:10
At its peak, Crotona Park encompassed 155 acres (63 ha) of land. When the Cross Bronx Expressway was built in 1945, the northernmost portion of Crotona Park was cut off from the rest of the park. The northernmost section was still known as Crotona Park until 1987, when it was renamed Highland Park; the northern section has been known as Tremont Park since 1999.
By the 1950s, Crotona Park had become the setting for several high-profile crimes, as gangs began to develop in the surrounding neighborhoods. Incidents included a thwarted battle between dozens of teenage gang members in 1950; a series of muggings at the park in 1954; the beating of a teacher in 1958; and the fatal stabbing of a teenager in 1965. Additionally, in July 1960, a six-year-old boy drowned in the Crotona Play Center's swimming pool. To deter crime, and especially in response to a murder in a poorly lit playground in Manhattan, Robert F. Wagner Jr. proposed replacing the lighting in Crotona Park and other city parks. The project was completed by 1963.
Restoration work in the Crotona Play Center was announced in 1965 as part of Wagner's plan to restore parks, playgrounds, and libraries around the city. Ultimately, these improvements did not occur, and many benches and water fountains were damaged without being replaced. The boathouse stopped offering boat tours in 1970. In early 1971, vandals stole multiple electric and plumbing fixtures from the play center, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. To deter future crimes of similar magnitude, the bath house's and filter house's windows were filled in. Nevertheless, the play center remained popular. In 1973, to determine the feasibility of completely renovating Crotona Park, the city performed a "blitz cleanup" with maintenance crews from all five boroughs. According to one official, such a cleanup had not been performed previously because NYC Parks officials were scared of being attacked by area teenagers. Around this time, surrounding portions of the South Bronx were being decimated by fire and crime. One particularly egregious example was Charlotte Street, located directly southeast of Crotona Park, which by the late 1970s saw the demolition of almost every building along its three-block length.
Restoration to present day
By the 1970s, Crotona Park and other city parks were in poor condition due to the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis. NYC Parks commenced a project to restore the pools in several parks in 1977, including at Crotona Park, for whose restoration the agency set aside an estimated $5.8 million. These projects were not carried out due to a lack of money, and by March 1981, NYC Parks only had 2,900 employees in its total staff, less than 10 percent of the 30,000 present when Moses was parks commissioner. In 1982, the NYC Parks budget increased greatly, enabling the agency to carry out $76 million worth of restoration projects by year's end; among these projects was the restoration of the Crotona Park pool. Work had begun by early 1983, and the complex was closed for two summer seasons while work was ongoing. The play center reopened on August 2, 1984.
During this era, other improvements were made to the park, including the restoration of the lake and boathouse, replacement of benches, repaving of paths. In 1983, a volunteer ranger program was created to help maintain Crotona Park and other city parks. Some $500,000 in federal funding was provided by the federal government toward the rangers program. The nature rangers moved into the old boathouse in 1984, but a few years later, abandoned it after their funds had been depleted. In addition, three U.S. presidential candidates, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, came to the park, while Pope John Paul II said mass at the park in 1979. This helped draw attention to Crotona Park as one of the only large green spaces in the South Bronx.
NYC Parks continued to face financial shortfalls in the coming years, and the pools retained a reputation for being unsafe. Crotona Park as a whole was also seen as an unsafe area. Violent crimes including the stabbing of a pregnant woman, a shootout that injured a child, a man who was set on fire during a bike theft, and a serial rapist, were all reported in the 1980s and early 1990s. For the summer of 1991, mayor David Dinkins had planned to close all 32 outdoor pools in the city, a decision that was only reversed after a $2 million donation from real estate developer Sol Goldman and $1.8 million from other sources. Additionally, in the 1990s, a practice called "whirlpooling" became common in New York City pools such as Crotona Park, wherein women would be inappropriately fondled by teenage boys. By the turn of the century, crimes such as sexual assaults had decreased in parks citywide due to increased security.
By the 1990s, there was a movement to revitalize Crotona Park, led by figures such as Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who headed the Central Park Conservancy's effort to revive Central Park in the preceding years. In 1996, an organization called the Friends of Crotona Park was established.:11 The two pools adjacent to the main pool were both infilled in the late 20th century. The diving pool was infilled in 1995 while the rectangular wading pool was modified into a hexagonal shape after the 1980s before being filled in by 1996. In 1999, the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Fund allocated $1.1 million to the restoration of five city parks including Crotona Park, to be matched by funds from the city. The park's nature center was reopened in May 2001, at which point a "restoration and management plan" was created for the park, which envisioned Crotona Park as a greenspace linking the surrounding communities.:11, 13 In 2009, the lake was restored and a new performance amphitheater was opened. A rehabilitation of the nature center was approved in 2014, and the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning opened near Indian Lake in 2015, with a new two-story clubhouse and twenty restored tennis courts. NYC Parks also released a master plan for Crotona and Tremont Parks in June 2015. The plan calls for the construction of a cafe, dog run, and skate park in Crotona Park, as well as the construction of connections between the parks.:29 The boathouse was restored in 2016.