Monday, May 14, 2012
The Big (Green) Apple
New York has several of the tallest buildings in the world. It has the two most-visited tourist attractions on earth. It contains a single smallish island that, during the day, crams well over one percent of the entire country’s population onto its shores. Its metro system is among the busiest and most extensive anywhere. The city has more people than Switzerland.
For just those reasons, New York’s parks are all the more miraculous.
Central Park tends to grab all the headlines, for good reason—the 843-acre rectangle has been defying Manhattan’s urban development for 155 years, despite having a land valuation of well over $500 billion in 2005 dollars. The development of the park was almost shockingly prescient and farsighted—who in the mid-1800s could have predicted the massive extent of New York’s growth? Frederick Law Olmsted’s design minimizes the effects of the surrounding city, not just by being big (it’s not even the biggest park in the city—Pelham Bay Park and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Staten Island’s Greenbelt, and Flushing Meadows in Queens are all larger), but by providing a surprising amount of landscape relief. The park has hills and valleys, lakes, prairie lawns, rock piles, tunnels and bridges. It fences out the encroaching city rather effectively.
Central Park is the obvious one, the park everybody knows about and expects. What’s surprising is to learn that New York is littered with such green spaces. Some of them are huge (Pelham Bay Park is over four square miles—that’s three Central Parks, or about twenty-five Vaticans). Some are miniscule—Nine Heroes Plaza, a shrimpy triangle a few blocks from my apartment in Elmhurst, is smaller than the café I’m sitting in right now. (Odradek's Coffee House.)
The city has over 1700 properties in its park system. (How many cities have 1700 of anything?) I’ve only been to a small fraction of them, but after last night’s ramble in Fort Tryon Park, I may have a new favorite.
Fort Tryon Park is a relatively small (67 acres) park on the western edge of Manhattan’s panhandle, just north of the George Washington Bridge. What’s exceptional about it is the physical setting: it towers over the rest of the island, perched on a rocky hill with lovely views of the Hudson to the west and not-quite-as-lovely views of the Bronx north and east. The pathways are varied and interesting, set almost in a terrace pattern, with cultivated flower gardens, rock-lined tunnels, and dense tree growth fringing the perimeter.
The lawns are smaller and more intimate than Central Park’s great green quilts, with space still for wildlife (saw one skunk, smelled another). Its rock-hewn arches seem almost medieval—fitting for a park that contains the Cloisters, an art museum in the shape of a monastery. Watching boats putter under the Washington Bridge’s mighty span, I thought the city seemed almost relaxed.
Fort Tryon Park’s very existence is aberrant. The city is meant to be flat, steely and loud. There aren’t supposed to be any skunks. (Insert Wall Street joke here.) But here it is—a towering presence held together by something other than rivets, a system of pathways worn smooth by feet rather than wheels.
Before my first visit to New York in 2006, I imagined the entire city being Lower Manhattan-esque—all high walls and narrow streets, with perhaps a couple of hours of direct light when the sun hit its zenith. I love Lower Manhattan for these exact attributes—I can get happily lost in that mess for hours—but it was a huge relief to discover that there was more to the city. With Fort Tryon in the bag, I can tick one more site off my list.
Only 1600 or so to go.