I live about three blocks from a state park called Riverbank, not to be confused with the city park that lies south and north of it, called Riverside. Riverbank is basically a sports complex with a track, playing field, handball and basketball courts, a couple of playgrounds, an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, and a handful of buildings I know nothing about. It sits up maybe six stories above the Hudson River, atop a city sanitation facility; the smell of cooking sewage is not a constant presence, but it does pop up pretty regularly. In the past when I have wanted to take a walk, but didn’t have the time to take a subway somewhere more appealing first, this was one of my default paths. You walk out my door, turn right and head down to the pedestrian bridge over the Westside Highway into the park. Walking the perimeter, you get some gorgeous views of the river; to the south it feels like you can see all the way to the end of the island; to the north you see the George Washington Bridge and the Palisades State Park in New Jersey. Exit over another walking bridge at 145th, then back down to my house, the whole thing takes maybe thirty minutes at the most.
At the north end of Riverbank there is an elevator and stairwell that takes you down to the northern part of Riverside City Park. In my first few years here I would occasionally visit this area too, but generally I went there even less than I went Riverbank. The only way I knew to access it (and in fact construction was blocking most other ways) was by way of this stairwell. It would take me at least twenty minutes just to get there so if I wanted to spend any time actually walking near the river, I had to expect it to take at least forty minutes, or, better yet, an hour; in that time I could have ridden the subway to Central Park or Fort Tryon, someplace I really liked. This place had very little to recommend it, as far as I was concerned. It is flat, narrow strip of land with an admittedly pleasant boulevard of oak and mulberry trees, some playing fields to which I am largely indifferent, some additional basketball courts (yawn), and some enormous parking lots. Its biggest drawback as far as I was concerned though was the highway running alongside it. The constant roar of six lanes of heavy traffic I could sometimes fool myself into thinking was just the sound of a waterfall, but the honking and frequent off-ramps usually ended up breaking that illusion. Above, you can see what I mean when I say the park is over-shadowed by the highway. There just wasn’t enough to keep me coming here.
But then there was this blustery day, see? I walked down 139th with the intention of first visiting the small gardens that lie under the pedestrian bridge (themselves recently made accessible by the end of construction), below the highway, next to the Amtrak tracks. This spring I’ve been enjoying the ever changing flowers on display there, and the increase in green loveliness as the trees leaf out. On the first of these blustery days, I discovered that some additional barricades had been removed, and some grand park stairs were now available.. I’ve mentioned before than any kind of elevation change, but especially an unexpected descent is, for this flatlander, a rather mystical experience; I always feel like I’m walking into a new, secret world. This time the experience was all the more powerful because the staircase itself looked like something out of Middle Earth, and at the foot there were a whole line of restaurants I had never seen before, with outdoor eating areas, tucked away in a quiet little cul-de-sac (well, as quiet as the nearby six lane overpass would allow).
Heading closer to the river, I found a pedestrian/jogger/bike trail. There wasn’t anything particularly attractive, but here again, something about finding it today had a magic to it. I recognized too that weather I was enjoying was keeping most people indoors. Almost since I had left my apartment building, I hadn’t seen another soul. In Manhattan, during daytime. Once I walked under the 138th pedestrian bridge, (taking a moment to marvel at the daredevil graffiti on the sides), I realized this path was going to take me right to the park.
The racing clouds-and-light show above me was quite exciting, but I also didn’t mind – in fact even kind of liked – the gritty urban quality to the sights. Parking lots and sanitation works to my left, railroad tracks and high walls to my right, metal fencing all around me, nothing but this stretch of tarmac and some green on either side. This marks an interesting step in my development; as a kid, even into my twenties, I would have found this landscape claustrophobic and terribly depressing. Don’t know if that’s progress, or resignation exactly, but it’s interesting. And did I mention how much I was loving both the weather and the solitude?
In the park itself, a fierce wind blew off the water more or less drowning out the sound of the highway. The light and water were constantly changing from the wind. I took note of the fact that most of the water appeared to be flowing upstream. This close to the ocean, the Hudson is actually an estuary, not a river; this apparent reversal in flow let me know the tide was rising. I didn’t see any boating rats or moles, but there was something so right about being by a mighty river during a blustery day, as I thought about life on the Thames. When I came home I felt like I had been miles away; I get the same experience from my other park walks, but the subway ride always breaks the spell before I walk into my apartment. This time I was able to sustain the feeling all the way home.
Three days later I took exactly the same route, in exactly the same kind of weather, once again having the place to myself almost the entire time. As is the case with these things though, it was an entirely different walk. Different things were blooming, recent heavy rains had some areas flooded, and I pushed farther north this time, ending up finally at the sight of another children’s book, the Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (I haven’t read this one, yet). I’d been noticing, and photographing the lighthouse from a distance for years, but this was the first time I actually paid it a visit. It was nice enough, but it was the walk there and back that was the real pleasure.
A few days later I took the walk yet again, on the spur of the moment, after I had run some errands on Broadway and 145th. That endeared this place to me even more, that I could simply be out and about, and decide to head home by a scenic route. This time the weather was warmer and calmer, so I no longer had the place all to myself; seeing people fishing helped me take note of the fact that this was one of the few places in Manhattan where one could walk right down to, even into the water, if one was so inclined. Most places the closest one can get is a railed walkway at least six feet about the river. I sat down on a rock and stared into the water. Two hours later I was still there, drinking in all the millions of things going on; there were ducks, Canada geese, a single cormorant. One tourist boat chugged south, followed later by some larger working boats, hauling something (lumber? garbage?). The sky wasn’t putting on quite the dramatic display it had the last two times, but it was still lovely and cool there by the water as the sun set. I had sat next to the river this long many other times, in other locations, mainly Battery Park, and the new Chelsea riverfront, but today was the first time I felt like I was really noticing the Hudson itself. I thought again of the River Rat talking about the Thames to the Mole when they first met: "‘It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts and company, and food and drink and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.’" That afternoon, sitting by the river with those words in my head, getting better acquainted with this water's moods and secrets, I felt like I was just making friends with the Hudson. I don’t know how else to put it.
I’ve taken this jaunt three or four more times since then. The rate of change among the flowers and plants seems to be slowing down, naturally, though I did have the chance to drink in the scent of clover (I hadn’t realized I missed it), and, to quote my friend Greg (quoting Will Smith), to appreciate just how many plants and trees were "getting jiggy with it." I came home from some of those walks covered in a wide variety of seeds, fluff, down, and dust. Thank god I don’t have allergies. Each walk was a completely different experience.
As the weather has gotten warmer, the place has gotten more crowded, and now, it’s always packed full of people grilling, picnicking, fishing, playing ball, lying under the trees near the water in pairs, hanging out in large noisy crowds. Now the roar of the highway is more often drowned out by someone's really hot sound system in the back of his car. The park no longer makes me think of an English meadow, and the lack of tree cover means I probably won’t be back to visit it much until the weather once again turns cool (sometime late October, no doubt). I’m happy though; the place is being well-used and well-loved.
At the end of my second blustery, solitary walk, I came back by way of the state park, since it is slightly quicker, and I was hungry.
The contrast this time between the relative silence I’d been experiencing, and the roar of traffic from the highway as I crossed over it was markedly distressing. It was the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend, and the stream of cars leaving town was already quite heavy. As I turned in the direction of home though, I saw this.It looked like it was looping right over my building, calling me home. Silly, I know, but it restored me to a sense of calm.