David and I have recently returned from a trip to USA and in the coming days I hope to take you, by means of armchair travel, to some of the special places we found and enjoyed. One of the main purposes of this journey was to visit friends and family, some of whom live in the ‘wilds’ of that great metropolis, New York.
New York is all that I had heard about it; it has a life force of its own; it pulsates; it’s busy, chaotic, brash, noisy, clogged with traffic, and it both excites the senses and saps your energy. But there are places where you can escape the hectic hustle and bustle, places where you can find a little peace and tranquility and let yourself recompose before re-entering the hubbub of busy Manhattan; before you dive down steps into the noise and smell and heat of, what must be said, is a very efficient subway; or weave your way between the throngs of people hurrying in the streets, hurrying it seems without a moment to waste; or trying to make yourself heard by the person right beside you in one of the hundreds of good but extremely noisy restaurants and cafés. Why, oh why, must the sound level be raised so loud in a place where people want to enjoy good food and a chat? But that’s New York.
Sunday morning in the Soho area of lower Manhattan.
But there are a few places to escape. One is on the rooftop terrace of one of the many skyscaper buildings. There you are somewhat removed from the chaos as you look down on an expansive view of the metropolitan landscape. Some of these rooftops are open to the public; some are not. Our vantage point was the deck of a private office area on the top floor of the old AT&T building in Lower Manhattan, in the Soho area.
Looking north from Soho towards the Empire State Building
When you look down from this eiri above the city what you see is a mass of buildings, the proverbial concrete jungle, interspersed by a grid of roads streaming north and south (the Avenues), and east and west (the Streets). The skyscapers seem to be getting ever higher as space on this island becomes scarcer.
Another view from the roof terrace of the AT&T Building
And the other thing that is obvious is that there is little room for gardens in this mega city. There are a few roof top terraces as in the left bottom corner of the photo… but they are few and far between. How, one wonders, does this city breathe? Is there anywhere to truly escape the city and find trees and grass and green? The answer is yes.
Perhaps the best known place for green and ‘escape’ is Central Park. It’s much further north, well beyond the skyscrapers that surround the Empire State Building. To get there we had to venture north to 59th Street… the subway is best as the roads become like parking lots and it takes a lot of time to get anywhere. And the subways are cheap and efficient.
When, like a mole, you emerge from the subway at 59th you will find the gateway to the massive Central Park. It is a huge park, covering many blocks in the midst of this busy city, from 59th Street north to 110th Street, a distance of 4 kms (2.5 miles). It is, indeed, the most important escape valve of this heavily populated island city. It’s the place where New Yorkers and tourists alike gravitate especially on weekends to try to ‘get away from it all’ and to enjoy some of the many attractions and activities available in the park.
Official Central Park map of attractions (see the web for details)
We went one lovely, sunny, autumn afternoon in October…. and wished we hadn’t… for it seemed like the whole of the population of New York was there. Perhaps not all! Some, I know, were at a “Pickle Festival” and others no doubt found other less well known New York retreats, but we were certainly not alone in Central Park that day! Hundreds upon hundreds, no, thousands of people descended on the park that Sunday afternoon.
Boating on ‘The Lake’
They came to walk, run, cycle, skate board, roller skate, ride in horse drawn carriages, ride in people powered pedicabs, boat on the lake, visit the zoo, play a game of baseball, walk in a natural woodland or the wildlife sanctuary, watch theatre, listen to bands and buskers, walk the dog, ride a horse, find a rock or grassy knoll to sit or lie on and generally unwind in the park. It was not, however, a peaceful retreat from the chaotic, busy city. It was just different. But it was anything but peaceful! So my advice is, if you are not into chaos and want to truly escape the city, go to Central Park mid week!
“The Lake”, one of several expanses of water in the park.
During the working week, you may enjoy a little more peace, a little less chaos. It’s then that, to me, Central Park comes into its own as one of the great parks of the world. This park was designed by two visionary men of the 1800s, Frederick Law Olmsted and Englishman, Calvert Vaux. The population of NY had nearly quadrupeled between 1821 and 1855 and these two landscape architects won a competiton to provide the city with a green escape. They built a park that, for them, translated their democratic ideals into trees and green spaces. They wanted a park that would give respite to rich and poor alike, to New Yorkers, no matter their educational status, no matter their origins, no matter their class; a park that would provide a respite from the industrial pollution of the time; a place to relax and recuperate from the hard physical labour of the time. The park was opened first in 1857 on 778 acres (315 ha) of city owned land and completed in 1873. It has gone through several revisions and restorations since and now covers 843 acres (341ha). It still provides the city with the green space it needs to survive. It is indeed the city’s “green lung”, a term first used by Olmsted.
The San Remo Apartments rise above the trees.
The park was built on land that was once shanty towns. It is said that some 1,600 poor people were evicted and their villages razed to make way for the park. Whilst the park was being constructed, sheep grazed on the lower end meadows and did so from the 1860s to 1934. Now the streets that run alongside the park are lined with wonderful museums like The Met and The American Museum of Natural History, as well as the homes and apartments of the rich and famous. This is a very expensive area of Manhattan… but the park is free and open to the public to enjoy. And, for most of the time whilst you are in the park, the city, whilst it can still be distantly heard, is not seen.
Rocky outcrops in the northern end of the park.
Because the natural land here was not very fertile, the building of the park required taking way extensive amounts of material and replacing it with topsoil brought over the river from New Jersey. It is claimed that, by 1873, more than four million trees, shrubs and plants representing 1,500 species had been brought in and planted to beautify Central Park. I have read that there are currently 25,000 trees and that these include 1,700 American elms, thankfully protected by their isolation here in the park from the devastating Dutch elm disease.
Planting and maintenance is of course an ongoing process and the efforts of the ground staff is well rewarded in this very special park for all New Yorkers and their visitors to enjoy. The park staff deserve a very special thank you.
Central Park is a green space. It is not a flower garden. But in my next entry, I will introduce you to a little known corner of Central Park where peace and quiet and the beauty of flowers can be enjoyed in abundance.
Jennie and David
Photography © Jennie Thomas