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Out-of-the-world views are closer to home

Westminster Park

Thursday, October 28, 2004
DICK CASE Staff Writer -- Syracuse Post-Standard

"This is a managed landscape," Norm Richards is saying the other day. "Basically, managed by the neighborhood."

We're standing on one of Syracuse's summits, the drumlin rising from the 700 block of Euclid Avenue we call Westminster Park. This used to be farmland; stories persist of sheep grazing at the peak. Officially, it?s been city land since the Westminster housing tract developed around it, starting in the 1890s.

The view's spectacular. To the west, we see the profiles of the city and Syracuse University.

"People come up here just to watch the sunsets," Norm says. He's lived on the drumlin's side more than 30 years.

To the east and north, the summit's capped with trees and scrubs. The legendary "thousand steps" stairway plunges to Euclid. Norm's count is 181 steps. To the south, Westminster Avenue winds to Kensington Road.

Westminster Park's history is marked by spurts of attention. Developers of the tract deeded the land to the city in the 1890s but it stayed a "paper park" until about 1910 when we notice neighbors prodding the city to spend money to develop it.

That eventually happened. We have a newspaper picture of Boy Scouts planting trees on the "bald face" of the 4.7-acre plot about 1916. Still, interest in Westminster - one of Syracuse's secret scenic wonders ebbs and flows over time.

"We keep at it," Norm says.

This neighbor is right for the job. Norm's retired from the faculty of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forest ry, where he developed a specialty of urban forestry. Among other accomplishments, he guided the city's first tree inventory, starting in 1978.

The Richardses bought their 1913 house in the 100 block of Westminster Avenue in 1972. Karen Richards grew up in the neighborhood. She?s the daughter of the late ESF professor, Svend O. Heiberg, namesake of Heiberg Forest in Tully.

Karen says she used to play softball on the park's roundtop. "We called it 'The Circle,'" she says.

A circle it is, clearly pictured on 1891 Westminster Tract maps. An asphalt drive circles the top; it's been closed most of the time the Richardses lived here.

Norm says he started bringing students to the park the year after he moved in. "This has been my lab," he explains.

He's led students and neighbors in cleanup drives ever since. With the help of city foresters, Norm - at the command end of a chain saw - directs pruning of trees and brush to keep the western view from the top clear.

"One of the first things I learned when I came here to college is that 'trees grow.' But you can't intensely manage all of our green space. Some of it is kept wild, within limits."

Westminster's carried on the city's books as a "natural area," one of five among our 896 acres of designated parkland in Syracuse.

Any group of neighbors, no matter how dedicated, can go only so far looking after our parks. Like the new Westminster neighbors of 1910, citizens around the park have had to speak up to get the city to pay attention.

This happened recently as the old railing with concrete posts around the circle deteriorated. The parks department put its skilled tradesmen to work there last fall and this spring, replacing the barrier.

"It's important when neighbors get involved," according to Alix Krueger, the parks department's program coordinator. Alix, a landscape architect, is a former student of Norm Richards.

Norm says Alix worked closely with the neighborhood on shaping up Westminster. The work continues.

"This is our next project," Norm explains, looking down the stretch of bumpy steps to Euclid Avenue.

The city's closed the stairway from time to time over the years. Recent repairs made it safer, but city experts think the steps and railings have to be replaced. One estimate of the cost is $350,000.

"We've started the process," Alix Krueger explains. "We're getting quotes and looking at old drawings and maps."

Norm says a former neighbor of the park, now living in California, has promised a donation to help the city restore the stairway.

In 1910, when neighbors leaned on the city to make a park out of the "huge hill" in the Westminster Tract, David Campbell, superintendent of parks, said he would see to it the hill got drives, paths and shrubbery to make it "most beautiful."

He added:

"I have heard that they intend to use the top of the hill for an aviation station. It would be most convenient to fly over there from Mount Olympus and then the students at the university could use the hill to study astronomy, especially on moonlight nights."

Westminster and Mount Olympus are only two of the drumlins on University Hill. Even at a lower place on the slope, the view from the Richardses' back yard takes in Onondaga Valley to the Onondaga Nation.

Norm looks out and smiles: "I'm sold on living in Syracuse."

Dick Case writes about neighbors and neighborhoods every Thursday. Reach him at 470-2254, or by e-mail, citynews@syracuse.com.

© 2004 The Post-Standard.

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