Happy Pre-Thanksgiving, everyone! It is going to be a very different holiday this year. In the spirit of the season, let’s take a moment and give thanks for family – be they near or far – by enjoying these photos from Sara and Justin’s Marcus Garvey Park family portrait. Our session started on the steps of a beautiful Harlem brownstone and I have all the details (and tips) in today’s blog post.
Marcus Garvey Park – A Short History Lesson
This was my first time visiting Marcus Garvey Park (formerly known as Mount Morris Park). Located smack dab in the middle of Harlem, the park covers 20.16 acres. It is defined by a steep, rocky hill in the center of the park upon which sits the landmarked Harlem Fire Watchtower. The park was created by the city of New York in 1840, and renamed in 1973 after publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and black nationalism activist, Marcus Garvey.
Marcus Garvey Park offers the biggest bit of green space in Harlem, and is the site of many cultural events. Indeed, music has always been a major part of the park’s history – there are records with the NYC Parks Department showing performances as far back as 1872. In the 1960s, Marcus Garvey Park was home to the Harlem Cultural Festival, and today the park’s outdoor amphitheater still hosts a range of neighborhood performances, including the el barrio Latin Jazz Festival and recitals by Dance Harlem.
The Harlem Fire Watchtower
The most striking feature in Marcus Garvey Park is the fire watchtower in the center of the park. Erected between 1855 and 1857, the cast iron watchtower has a 10,000-pound cast bell at the top. The tower was designated as a city landmark in 1967 and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Unfortunately, the historic fire tower is currently closed thanks to the pandemic. Getting to the top of the hill to see the fire tower is quite a trek, and unless you have a dying desire to see the 47-foot tower itself, I wouldn’t bother for the sake of your family portrait session. If you are on your own and want to visit the tower, then by all means take the stairs to the top. Note, however, that the view isn’t that grand from the top of the hill, and all the natural attractions surrounding the tower can easily be found on the ground level.
The Marcus Garvey Park Alliance website is a great source of historical information on the park and the watchtower. The watchtower is undergoing restoration, and you can check out the status of the improvements as well as see photos from visitors who have been all the way to the top here.
Construction in the Park
Speaking of restoration, Marcus Garvey Park also features a huge public pool, the facilities of which are being refurbished at the moment. The construction site takes up the entire west side of the park. Due to the refurbishment of the restrooms within the pool facilities, the public restrooms are currently out of order. The hope is that the renovations will be completed by next year. You can check out the current status of the park renovation projects here.
One word of caution: there is lots of vagrant activity around the pool construction area and the amphitheater. I did not feel unsafe during my visits, but you should still stay alert when in the park.
Start Your Portrait Session Outside the Park
With its central location, Marcus Garvey Park is an ideal starting (or ending) point for exploring the beautiful architecture of Harlem. The surrounding churches and brownstones are magnificent, and if you have time to incorporate the neighborhood into your shoot, then I suggest you do.
For Sara’s family portrait, we began her family session the corner of 120th Street and Fifth Avenue for a few city crosswalk shots. You can get an epic view of the downtown NYC skyline at this intersection, and if you time it right with oncoming traffic, you can get a great wide-angle shot.
The brownstones along 120th Street have wide staircases and plenty of space for a family group shot. Furthermore, I found the neighbors to be very accommodating for people sitting on their steps.
Recommended Path Through Marcus Garvey Park
Our next stop was to actually enter the park. If you head to the immediate left of the 120th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance, you find a nice patch of grass with benches. I used this area for individual photos of the baby with each parent, and we also put down a quilt for some photos in the grass. One word of caution: the park grounds on this particular day were littered with trash, so choose your grassy knoll carefully.
From the far southwest corner, I recommend heading around the fire watchtower hill (a.k.a., ‘The Acropolis’) to the southeast corner of the park. This section of Marcus Garvey Park will give you the most bang for your photo shoot buck since the other side of the park is largely taken up by the pool facility construction site. If your portrait session is scheduled for the afternoon, you will find shade in this southeast corner. This area has lots of access to the forested hill and unique rocks leading up to the fire watchtower, plus there is a dog run and playground. (During our trip to Marcus Garvey Park there was a neighborhood music festival taking up the entire southeast corner so we ended up heading north past the pool construction.)
The north side of the park has the most features and, as you can guess, is also the most populated. Marcus Garvey Park is actively used by the community, so plan to share the space. You can easily climb up the rocks on this side of the park and make it look like you are deep in the forest. This section of Marcus Garvey Park also features wide pathways and a few formal plantings, which makes for some spectacular photos. Take advantage of all the park has to offer, and as always, end your day at the playground.
Enjoy the photos, and I will have more photo shoots to share with you next week!
Interested in scheduling your own Marcus Garvey Park family portrait session? Drop me a line and let’s chat.
If you would like to see more images from my family portrait portfolio, then please visit my website – KellyWilliamsPhotographer.com