Highbridge Park forces you to look at the island of Manhattan. Because it's way up there, where it turns skinny and veers off to the west on its eastern flank, beside the thin mapline of the Harlem River. If, like a typical New Yorker, you tend to stick to your hood and its outposts - and I am as guilty as anyone else - venturing into new territory like this carries all the thrill and fear of stepping onto a new continent.
I have been park hunting by surfing above New York on Google Earth, and this long strip of wooded green looked very promising, so I dogeared it virtually for a visit. We have seen it, too, riding out of Grand Central towards Wave Hill. The train track skirts the Harlem River through the South Bronx, and across the water in Manhattan you see this ridge of forest, and a beautiful boat house on the river.
So a couple of weekends ago we packed lamb pies from the Damascus Bakery into Vince's camera bag, and caught the subway all the way up there, getting out at 181st Street, nose bleed territory for us Brooklynites and Lower Manhattan types. I know Inwood, just over to the west a little way, at the very northern tip of Manhattan, but had never explored this side in all my years of New York life.
First impressions were not happy ones. If I had been alone I would have turned around here - it just didn't feel good. Loads of litter, very similar to the woods we clean in Prospect Park - liquor bottles, cigar wrappers...a place for men to hang out. Lots of blind turns and curves. I felt a bit jumpy. The beautiful stone arches of the bridge soared above us.
It might have been OK but I just didn't know - that's the trouble with a new continent, you are not wise to its ways. And the light was horrid, which didn't help.
We soon leveled out onto a wide deserted tar path below a rock ridge, right above the FDR - except maybe the highway hugging the Harlem River is called something else, up there. It cuts the people and park neatly off from the water.
Growing at the base of the brief cliff, silene and some surprising herbs.
Winter cress! I would have picked some right there but a big pipe was trickling an urban waterfall into the swampy ground and who knows where that came from. I may be a forager but I am not suicidal.
Vestiges of asters.
Is this dock? Rumex? It looked delicious.
Fall colour was spectacular, we had left the litter behind, but by now we were right down on top of the four lane highway. There were actual park benches down here facing...the four lane highway. Just feet away.
I found hen of the woods at the base of these trees, but they were well past their best. Good to know, though. We were looking longingly at the other side of the highway, where we could see a nice wide bikepath beside the river, and more trees. I wanted to see Swindler Cove, home of the boathouse we'd seen from the train, and we had no idea where we might be able to cross. So we did what all previously unsquashed people everywhere have done: hopped the metal barriers, hopped the concrete divide, and trotted over to the other side. There are no bridges for pedestrians, no lights, no nothing.
Safely on the other side, pointing back to the bridge. A boulevard..
We found beautiful maraschino cherry trees. People really do land on 66 Square Feet having Googled 'maraschino cherry tree', and I don't want to disappoint. Think of all the Manhattans you could mix with this one crop.
The boat house at Swindler Cove.
The plantings at the reclaimed and restored Swindler Cove, funded by Bette Midler and the New York Restoration Project. Thanks, Bette.
And when we left the enclosed Cove, which closed at 4pm (and to which I shall return), we found our highway crossing. Only one, in the whole, long length of Highridge Park.
We veered up the ridge again at an angle, passing only two teenage boys who smiled in greeting once I'd said hello, and who reeked of pot. A quiet place.
Interesting place. Good trees, though a lot of damage from that October wet-snow storm, and perhaps from Hurricanes Irene and perhaps Lee. Not much litter in these parts. No benches, nowhere to sit down up here, just this crisscrossing network of tar paths. Great promise. But missing something. An animating force. The cut of the highway severing land from river is a great obstacle, but it has been overcome on the western side of Manhattan. The again, that side's inhabitants have a lot more money.
We rose to the top of the ridge and exited the park beside some ball courts where we unpacked our lamb pies on a bench and dipped them ruminatively into some garlicky hummus. Across the road a cop leaned against a wall, watching the block.
I'll go back in spring.
(Visit the Frenchman's post about the park.)
(Visit the Frenchman's post about the park.)