Co-op City’s thrilling ‘Freedomland’ history preserved

The Freedomland memorial in Co-op City.
Schneps Media/ Alex Mitchell

An unusual roadside attraction made up of two wooden wheels and a steam pipe garners inquisitive stares from those travelling along Bartow Avenue in Co-op City.

No, it’s not old time farm equipment but rather three unique pieces of Bronx history.

Prior to the construction of Co-op City in 1966, those 205 riverfront acres in northeast Bronx were part of a theme park coined the ‘Disneyland of the East,’ better known as Freedomland.

Staying true to its name, Freedomland served as a miniature, roadside America along I-95 from its 1959 inception until 1965, when the park closed after incurrring serious financial debt.

Old New York occupied what’s currently Asch Loop while Old Chicago was situated on the north end of Bartow Avenue with New Orleans just south of it, while naturally San Francisco was at the west end of the park, with its ‘old southwest’ section just beneath that.

The park also featured a circular ‘Santa Fe’ railroad, and gave youngsters the opportunity to douse the great Chicago fire and featured steamboats in an artificial pond in addition to many other American, historical thrills.

Pieces of the decommissioned steamboat that docked on a water body that replicated the Mississippi, ‘Totsie,’ have made its way back to the park’s former grounds in commemoration of Freedomland’s 50th Anniversary this year.

Two of its waterwheels and its stack pipe are now part of a memorial garden for Co-op City’s predecessor.

The treasures were donated by arguably the theme park’s biggest living fan, Rob Friedman, an esteemed antique collector who hails from Long Island.

Though he had never had the opportunity to visit Freedomland, his wife of almost 40 years, Susan had toured the grounds during its heyday.

“She wrote an essay about Freedomland and it was around that time many years ago that we began digging up as many relics from the park as we could find,” he said.

The couple has travelled north to Lake George in efforts to add to their Freedomland memorabilia collection in addition to many garage sales throughout the state during their years of searching.

They acquired the steamboat parts upon learning it was going to be dismantled from a decommissioned theme park in Connecticut.

Noting that it was “heavy as hell,” the Friedmans managed to escort much of the boat’s pieces back to Long Island, where it remained as “a rather odd lawn ornament” for some years.

Just over a year ago, Friedman approached Co-op City’s Riverbay Board history committee chairman Bernie Cylich to discuss donating the remains of Totise to Co-op City, which he graciously accepted.

The mock-boat’s pieces, which have been slowly deteriorating since the 1960s have been kept in its authentic, 50-year-old state for the memorial.

The Friedmans both attended the dedication at Bartow Shopping Center on Saturday, July 14, marveling over the preservation of some lesser-known history of the northeast Bronx.

“I’m very happy to see how it came out,” Rob said. “It’s very nice to see these pieces of history be noticed,” the benefactor mentioned.

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