Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The secret Tribeca boardwalk

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.

By late September the berries on the eastern red cedars are plumping up and powdery blue. They are an important food source for birds, both for the resident locals and for those migrating past the enormous city on the Atlantic Flyway. Every pocket of green space provides them with a potential rest station.

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.


  1. wow, i have to go and walk this path! Your photographs are gorgeous.

  2. Beautifully written and photographed. Thank you for this evocative piece.

  3. Now that's what I call good design (and good writing too - thank you.)

  4. Ah Marie, I see another book. Of wonderful city gardens with Piet Oudolf and his ilk plantings. Not only the Highline, but Battery Park, and that park on Riverside Drive and the ones you've just shown on the West Side Highway. You could get Rick Darke to do the introduction and have lots of grasses info...
    Btw, this page is beautifully written and photographed.

  5. Thank you, Dervla! Or should I call you Dear Ed.? :-)

    Thanks, Donatella. Telephoto lens to pick out texture within texture; need more practise.

    Thank you, Freda...the design really is well done.

    Thanks very much, Betsy, you're sharp: this was, now back-burnered, part of a book idea about the green spaces I love in New York. Alas, can only do one at a time. Rick Darke is a generous guy. He gave me some very good advice when I embarked on the publishing business. "Your established profile is very valuable, and will probably be ever more so as competition increases. I can only suggest continuing to build on this with the utmost care and authenticity."

    In other words, try not to create drivel! I have tried to stick to this (with, no doubt, many a tumble from the wagon).

  6. No need for me to reiterate.
    Jumiper berries.Why does my mind think: GIN!

    (I did walk, one day, from the northern end, but missed this as I was almost frozen by the time I got about 4 miles down!Should have started from Battery end.)

  7. More and more reasons to visit... Wonderful post Marie :)

  8. Sweet and very serene, perfect spot for brief escape. Got my eye on your next posts.

  9. aaaaaaaah beautiful. thank you. i feel like i took a lunchtime stroll from my desk in durban.

  10. My list for the nezt trip just got longer. Beautifully written.

  11. Your photos are indeed lovely, what a nice place. I am also a fan of Rick Darke and Piet Oudolf. Recently a friend who now farms mentioned that ornamental grasses can migrate to hay fields, but are not good for the animals digestion. what a complex world we live in.


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