Here's a hidden park in plain sight:
The five-and-a-half mile long Hudson River Park runs down Manhattan’s western shore from West 59th Street in the north to the island’s southern tip, ending officially at Battery Place, one of the greenest parts of the city. The genius of this challengingly narrow 400 acre park is that it is divided into segments corresponding to the neighborhoods that run on to the river. The character of each segment, and the park it contains, changes to reflect the horticultural and botanical sensibilities of its architects, and the use to which it is put. Some of these parks within the park are so unexpectedly intimate that they are a secret within the city that created them.
Well below Canal Street, between the relentless traffic up and down the euphemistically named West Street (a quaint misnomer for this eight lane artery that feeds Manhattan with vehicles), a cycle path packed with joggers, cyclists, skaters, and pedestrians, and the wide, placid waters of the Hudson River, is an undulating and sinuous boardwalk. It is easily spotted on a satellite image - a pale snake resting beside the river at the western extremities of Laight and Watts Streets, in the bluntly named Segment 3, known as the Tribeca Segment of the Hudson River Park. It was designed by Sasaki Associates and the landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen.
Invisible from the street and path between voluminously massed grasses dotted with eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana), the boardwalk branches off to form private lull waters where smooth, weathered wooden benches provide a place to rest. There is an improbable calm, a taste of a faraway prairie, and often not another human in sight. It is one of those New York contradictions.
This is a landscape best appreciated in the declining months, when the grasses which dominate it reach their gorgeous, flowering peak. It is late to wake in the spring: the bitter winter wind that whistles off the Hudson and makes gardeners’ lives a torment, here, slows things down on its edge and creates a challenging microclimate. The perfect time to visit is late summer to mid fall, August through October.
The curving boardwalk rises and falls, creating an illusion of endless length, belying its three-block constraints. The plantings are in broad sweeps, and a stroll reveals the rhythm of their repetition. Sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) festooned with fat, tear-dropped seed heads reach their peak in late August and early September. Bright swathes of yellow rudbeckia start to bloom in early summer and carry on through early fall. They are echoed and overlapped by creeping goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata), which foretells cooler weather and ushers in earlier evenings.
In October the minute seeds of the switch grasses (Panicum virgatum “Rohstrahlbusch” and “Heavy Metal”) create a pixilated mist suspended above their fine grass blades, magically backlit in the setting sun. Purple and soft, the foxtailed plumes of Pennisetum “Moudry” invite a stroking hand. Statuesque Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster” catches the westering sun in its blond seedheads tilting over the path. The contrasting textures of the grasses create the illusion of a massively soft quilt thrown down at the river’s edge.
Sit down on the most inviting bench, so that the grasses rise to shoulder height, and you can be meditatively alone. You see pieces of the glinting river and its water traffic between the junipers, and watch the sun’s progress as it slides down over Jersey. Or pack a picnic and choose the single bench at the northern end, facing the view of the Financial District rearing above the disappearing curve of the boardwalk and its luxurious grass banks.
The traffic has not disappeared; the honk of a yellow cab’s horn is not muffled. But enclosed in your little grass hide none of it seems to matter as much, as if the soft curve of the arching grasses has smoothed the edges of a city whose pressures demand that we sometimes seek escape - and can - even in its midst.