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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interlude: Cruising the Meadowlands

You might think that with 1,300 parks, New York City would be enough to explore.

You also might think the New Jersey Meadowlands are nothing more than an unappealing swamp surrounding a sports complex.

You'd be wrong, twice. The greatest joy of exploring the environment, urban or otherwise, is discovering places that aren't just new, but that feel like entirely new worlds. It doesn't happen often when you're staying close to home, but it does happen. A recent "Eco-Cruise" through the New Jersey Meadowlands, conducted by the Hackensack Riverkeeper, revealed a universe previously unknown to this longtime New Yorker, yet closer to my own lower Manhattan haunts than parts of the Bronx.

We didn't even have to get to the Meadowlands to find wildlife. In addition to a flock of Canada geese marching along the road, blocking traffic, this egret rested in a pond in front of a warehouse building along the road.

Leave Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel, drive a couple of miles, and you're at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus (pronounced, as the natives will tell you, SEE-kaw-kus.) "Laurel Hill" sounds bucolic but it's no gentle rise. A remnant of the same volcanic activity that raised the Palisades some 200 million years ago, it sticks out of the surrounding wetlands like a crow among the sparrows.

At the boat launch a group of about 15 of us boarded the Edward Abbey, skippered by Captain Bill, the founder of Hackensack Riverkeeper and a bottomless fount of historical detail about the region and the ongoing struggle by environmentalists to preserve some of the wetlands from destructive development. We glided out into the water and past these peaceful little islands of mud and grass:

It's easy to see the high tide line on the marsh grass here:

And it's easy to see the birds, too. Among the species we spotted were sandpipers, northern harriers, a few types of egret (including the striking snowy), terns, common gulls, a great black gull, yellowlegs, osprey, cormorants, and several kinds of heron—including the great blue, shown in the last of the following four photos:

A pair of osprey has nested in a Bloomberg radio tower. Here's one I managed to snap despite the great height and distance:

The works of man take on new aspects when seen from below:

A beautiful sunset made a fine end to the day. These natural wetlands are here for us to enjoy mostly thanks to the tireless work of environmentalists like Captain Bill. But our enjoyment is just a small link in the chain. The ecosystem depends on the wetlands. As I write this, a Category 4 hurricane called Earl is threatening the East Coast of the US. Without wetlands, powerful storms would inundate our low-lying populated areas and grow from damaging to disastrous. The coast has already lost a lot of wetlands. We have to preserve what remains, for our own good if nothing else.

What the Riverkeeper and similar organizations recognize is that in order to muster the political will to preserve the ecosystem, they must make more people aware of the interdependence of its different parts. We can't know that if we aren't aware of what's around us in the first place. And we can't know that if we sit in our houses and apartments and offices all day watching idiotic "reality" shows and checking our Blackberries.

To get people out to enjoy nature, it helps a lot if there's convenient access to beautiful places like these Lands of the Meadow. Creating parks helps. (There's a regulation cricket pitch in Laurel Hill park!) So does holding events where kids and adults can participate in water activities. And so does leading excursions like this "eco-cruise." I can't recommend this trip enough.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Father Demo Square

As the Parks Department website suggests, Father Demo Square has a bit of the flavor of a European piazza, being more notable for the surrounding buildings than for greenery. Another Greenwich Village triangle, this "square" is named for the Italian-born priest Father Antonio Demo, who became pastor of Our Lady of Pompei church in 1900 and made himself an essential fixture in the community.

Father Demo was instrumental in the creation of the present church building, which soared up in 1926 and quickly became one of the area's architectural focal points. Here, it rises behind the square's fountain:

In this view of the square you can glimpse the intricate decorative elements of the brick building at 228 Bleecker Street, which dates from 1900 and now houses condos.

The people who live here can look up as they enter and appreciate this wonderful transom window and know they live in a great city where small treasures like this turn up in every corner:

Father Demo Square. Secluded oasis? Hardly. Nice place to sit in the heart of one of New York's most historic neighborhoods? Hard to beat.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Central Park in Winter

Entire books have been written about Central Park, easily New York City's most famous green space. Countless movies have essential Central Park scenes—Love Story, Enchanted, Hair, The Out of Towners, you-name-it by Woody Allen. Entire websites and blogs are devoted to this one park, so since we have 1,300 parks to visit, there's no need to dwell here on this vast and varied green that everyone already knows about—and if they don't, they have plenty of dedicated sources for finding out just about anything they could ever want to know about Olmstead and Vaux's rectangular tapestry in green, grey and blue.

So: big park, small blog entry. It's only fair, I say. Instead of a bunch of writing, here are some of my favorite images of Central Park as seen through my own humble camera during the season parks tend to be least visited: the winter.

First, a clear day.

Bundled up

Harlem Meer in the northeastern corner of the park

Your correspondent at the Blockhouse


Too cold to sit

And now, one of those snowy days we don't seem to be seeing too many of in recent years.

The sun peers out from behind a bare tree

Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist and explorer, keeps watch over the park near the Museum of Natural History

Humans huddle in a gazebo under an icy blue sky

Snow drapes this outcropping of Manhattan Schist

Birds take off…

…but this one posed gracefully first.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jackson Square

Another misnamed triangle! But for some reason Jackson Square feels almost…square-like. Maybe because of its big round fountain (and planters)? And look—the sign is square! Self-referentiality, anyone?

Jackson Square has been in the news in the last couple of years mostly because of the adjacent condo development called One Jackson Square, whose design, size, and neighborhood-changing character got many residents and bloggers riled up. Now that One Jackson Square is fact, though, it's time to step back and appreciate the park itself.

Yes, you might see a few too many yuppies sitting here buried in their mobile phones and iThings, instead of appreciating their surroundings. This lady, though, seems to have an actual physical notebook of some kind in her lap!

And anyway, those surroundings are awfully nice. The spruced-up little park remains a neighborhood treasure, apparently free of the jackbooted thugs feared by some. Green and flowery and fountainous (that's right, I've coined another word), it has enough trees to muffle the sound of the surrounding streets a bit.

The newish fountain dates from the capital reconstruction project that was completed in 1990. But Greenwich Avenue, which forms the park's eastern border, is an ancient way, formerly an Indian trail, and Jackson Square is one of the oldest parks in the city, dating in some form or other to the time of the genesis of the Manhattan street grid circa 1811. Its exact origins are somewhat obscure, like those of Dante Park. There isn't even an official record of the square's having been named for Andrew Jackson, though Old Hickory's popularity with Tammany Hall suggests that it probably was.

Whatever its roots, Jackson Square is a colorful but relaxing spot to set a spell and appreciate the fact that you're in the greatest city in the world.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Listening Well at Dante Park

Like a great many of Manhattan's small green spaces, Dante Park is a triangle defined by streets that cross at something other than a 90-degree angle. In this case it's Broadway and Columbus Avenue, across from Lincoln Center.

But unlike some of those semi-accidental greens, Dante Park isn't much of a park. With no fountain or flagpole and little seating, it's usually seen, but often hardly noticed, by those crossing to or from Lincoln Center and the restaurants immediately to the east of that great cultural institution. But Dante Park is worth a pause.

First, it's one of a number of testaments throughout the city to the influence of New York's Italian-American population. Like the statue of Garibaldi in Washington Square Park, the one of Dante Alighieri here is a point of pride for New Yorkers with Italian roots—especially, in this case, those with a literary bone. The Italian sculptor Ettore Ximenes didn't complete the statue until 1921, the 600th anniversary of Dante's death, but Dante, who died in 1321, predates the other famous Italians celebrated by New Yorkers, even Christopher Columbus and the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, whom Ximenes also depicted in statue form several miles south in Battery Park.

Staring at Dante from the other end of the park is a much more modern sculpture, architect Phillip Johnson's 1991 bronze "TimeSculpture," with its four clock faces oriented in the four directions of the compass. Shaped like a prism, it reminds me more of the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else.

Dante Park is also rooted in a small mystery. When, exactly, did the space become a park? 1852? 1868? The Parks Department doesn't know. Just a small reminder that despite our desire to know all, we can never do better than knowing much.

Finally, Dante speaks across the centuries to anyone who writes, reads, or hopes to understand anything about this heavenly and hellish world. Wrote the great poet in the Divine Comedy: "He listens well who takes notes."


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fort Tryon Park

One of the most beautiful parks in the city and one of my favorites, Fort Tryon Park has just about everything you could ask for to delight the eye (especially in spring), invigorate the spirit, and—maybe most important of all—lubricate the joints.

The spectacular gardens are like nothing else on the island of Manhattan, and the setting on a ridge high above the Hudson River quietly sparks one's sense of the sublime. The sheer size of the 67-acre park, which is sliced through with curving, sloping paths and staircases, makes it suitable for a nice mini-hike too.

Walking through vast archways and up and down picturesque stairways, you can wend your way all the way down to the West Side Highway and back. Along the way you'll appreciate the natural contours of the island itself, something you just can't do downtown—even along the rivers, narrowed there by centuries of landfill.

Up here—In the Heights, as it were—the air feels cleaner, the sky looks bluer, and the Manhattan schist looks as old as the hills, because it is.

You can get deep enough inside the park that you feel you've entirely left the city behind, and you won't find the big crowds that bluster through Central Park on a nice day. Peace is within reach. Even the children seem to feel it, staying quieter than usual.

The birds, of course, sing their usual songs, delighted to be in the kind of high place where they belong, taking in the view of the New Jersey Palisades, the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, and the gravity-bound primates who tend the green spaces below as if nature were its own reward.

Large recessed stone benches make perfect spots to read in the shade. There's even a big grassy field for kids to run around in. But Fort Tryon Park, now 75 years old, is a playground for the soul—that "adult" mind that can exist in a body of any age—and for the legs, the exercise of which, for me, are the key to that soul.

There's Revolutionary War history here, too. And inside the park, at the north end, you'll find the Cloisters with their famous tapestries. But the greatest work of art here is the park itself, a creation of man paying honest tribute to nature.

All these photos were taken in Fort Tryon Park at the height of spring in 2008.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Church of St. Luke in the Fields Garden

There's not much to say about the garden at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields except that it's a beautiful, quiet spot with surprisingly tall trees, roses, and, when the weather is right, lushness.

I'm glad, however, that I took the gorgeous photos below in 2009. The summer of 2010 has been the summer of monster heat, which has rendered the greenery around the city a bit dingy.

The light for taking photos has been ugly most days, too. Skies more white than blue, air thick like gravy. Not so last year:

St. Luke's is an Episcopal church in Greenwich Village that caters to the LGBT community as well as serving the neighborhood in general. When I stopped by the other day to grab the above photo of the tower—the building dates from 1822—the church was holding the West Village Chorale's Summer Sing. Its website has all kinds of information. You can buy the book How to Cook like an Episcopalian at the online store, and learn that Clement C. Moore was a founding warden of the church. But there's nothing about the garden, with its impressive birches.

One Yelp contributor wrote: "I love visiting this spot in the winter and fall; sipping the dregs of my Mud Truck coffee and listening to the house sparrow by the tool shed. It's that simple. It's that good." I can imagine Moore sitting here in wintertime writing "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" when the church was young.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ebony and Ivory in Christopher Park

This humble pennant-shaped parcel is actually one of Manhattan's oldest parks, created in the aftermath of the Great New York Fire of December 1835. Two hundred years before that, the area had been a Dutch tobacco farm, so there's smoke all over Christopher Park's history, and this guy is celebrating that fact.

Today many of the park's regulars are black...

Yet Christopher Park is also home to the whitest people in New York City: the two frozen couples who make up George Segal's snow-white-painted bronze sculpture, Gay Liberation. Being a stone's throw from the Stonewall Inn, epicenter of the gay liberation movement, the park is an appropriate site for the monument.

There's more bronze in the park's eastern tip in the form of a statue of Philip Sheridan, the Civil War general. Why he's here, and not in some other park, I have no idea. But as seen here, glorified, he looks a good deal more like the heroic Civil War leader than the man later accused of genocide for his attempts to "pacify" the Indians of the Great Plains after the Civil War.

The park was last spruced up in the 1980s, and it shows some signs of wear and tear—nothing too specific, just an overall scruffy quality, especially in comparison with the lush neatness—if that's not a contradiction in terms—of some nearby parks like newly spiffed-up Washington Square and the bucolic Jefferson Market Garden. In Christopher Park you don't feel like you've left the city; its narrowness and scruffiness feel very urban. But those same qualities have their value, too, indicating, for one thing, the great age of the park, and the history, from farm to fire to social conflagration, that coats it like an invisible dusting of pollen. (There's real pollen, too, believe me.)

Even the flaking iron fence is old—130 years old, according to the Parks Department. You can see it in the foreground of the first large photo above.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jefferson Market Garden

I must have walked by Jefferson Market Garden a few hundred times before I discovered one could actually visit this Greenwich Village spot.

While the greenery is plainly visible behind the high iron fence adjoining the Jefferson Market Library, the lack of a gate suggests it's a private space. And for years the garden was closed, meant only for viewing from the outside.

Surprise! Those dark days are over.

The entrance isn't on Sixth Avenue but around back, on Greenwich Avenue. And in nice weather the garden is open all day, minded by a volunteer who sits at a small table greeting visitors with a nod and a brochure.

Tucked beside the striking library (formerly a courthouse), the Garden holds within its iron bars a complete, verdant little world—on the site of the old Women's House of Detention. After the demise of that unhappy edifice in 1973, the Parks Department took over, and now, stewarded by local residents, it's a flowery, embirdened oasis of quiet right alongside the bustle of Sixth Avenue. (That's right, "embirdened." Like Sarah Palin and her idol, William Shakespeare, I can coin new words.)

In summer, the richness of the verdure, the smells of the earth, hang so thick in the air you can hardly believe you're in a city.

More unusual than robins and rhododendrons is the fish pond, full of bright golden…fish. (Do I know enough about fish to tell you what kind they are? Is the Pope Jewish?) A scarcity of benches means the garden will never get too crowded, unless there's an event like a concert—or a wedding. Apparently, Miranda got married here on Sex and the City, but thankfully, if the spot is on the route of any gawking tours, such monstrosities have never coincided with any of my visits.

Another Jefferson Market Garden plus: proximity to Roasting Plant Coffee. Just saying.