On Wooster Street in SoHo, there’s a long-term installation called “The New York Earth Room.” It’s a swanky apartment, empty save for 22 inches of dirt. You’re not allowed to walk on it. You just look. In college, a design teacher of mine sent my class there for inspiration because “it’s easy to forget the smell of soil.” Honestly, I’d rather go to a park. Parks have plenty of soil. They also seem to me way more worthy of funding than an indoor dirt beach.
Some parks are tourist destinations. I’ve got no problem with that. It would be a sign of End Times if prides of tourists didn’t roam Central Park. But sometimes you want to go someplace less pride-full, as it were. Luckily, almost anywhere you live or work in the city, there’s a park within walking distance. Here are some of my favorites.
Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park
It still surprises me that New Yorkers willingly refer to a Brooklyn neighborhood as Dumbo. The developer who spent nearly two decades getting many buildings in the ‘hood rezoned for residential use came up with the name—an acronym from “down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass”—as a marketing tactic. The earlier name, Fulton Ferry, apparently wasn’t as charming because it had nothing to do with flying cartoon elephants.
Pre-Disney allusion, it was an underdeveloped, somewhat dangerous neighborhood. Now it is hotsie-friggin’-totsie. How I wish I could afford to live there, with its stunning views of both the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, not to mention the skyline of Manhattan itself. In the late ‘90s, I interned for some avant garde artists in the area. It was barren: There was no grocery store within a 20-minute walk. And there were times I wondered if I’d walked into a David Lynch film; once, I found two rat skeletons spooning in a metal box in the street.
But dang, did it have a beautiful park. It still does. Uninterrupted views of the city on one side, a warehouse wall with arched windows on the other. During my internship, it wasn’t uncommon for me to see weddings taking place there. It also wasn’t uncommon to run into a man we called Yellow G. The name was glaringly literal, inspired by his only piece of clothing, a yellow G-string. I wonder what he thinks of the TV actors and trust-fund hipsters moving into the neighborhood. I like to think he refuses to flash them.
There’s no place I’d rather have a Mister Softee cone than in Astoria Park. On warm days, there’s an ice cream truck parked along the narrow thoroughfare that runs between the park’s edge and a part of the East River known as Hell Gate. The park is tucked under the Triborough Bridge and an elevated Amtrak line, and you can look out past the tugboats and barges to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For a short spell years ago, I sublet an apartment near the park. I was underemployed, but Mister Softee cones were an affordable frivolity. Even though the company’s logo is a wafer-cone man with a soft-serve hairdo, I loved eating the treat while strolling unnoticed on the green hill that climbs up from the water. My faith in humanity has been restored in this park on more than one occasion by the presence of people walking dogs with those hind-leg wheelchair devices. The park also scores points because I have never once been sexually harassed within its borders.
Lisa Marie Presley took the makeshift stage. I’d have preferred the sound of the fountain.Other selling points: Just under the Triborough is a well-kept running track where unpretentious people use their bodies for something other than swiping MetroCards. And just a bit north of it is a New Deal-era pool that I can only describe as giant and deco-ey. In the summer, the place is so full of locals it looks like a mosh pit.
Gramercy Park is the emerald haven of a very rich Manhattan neighborhood; you literally cannot get in without a key. Once, I tried to slip in with a key-holding lady and she turned around at the gate to curtly inform me that she would not let me in unless I showed her my key. Sensing she didn’t mean my student ID, I retreated.
So uck-fay that. I’m a woman of the people. Four blocks south and two blocks east is Stuyvesant Park. It’s bigger than Gramercy, anyway, and it’s got flowers and picnic tables and tall trees. Another favorable attribute: its dearth of locked iron gates.
I sat there one afternoon while a then-suitor told me, for the second time, a story about a dog who had locked eyes with him from a distance, made a beeline for him, and took a dump without dropping eye contact. The homeless man sliding a picnic table inch by inch from one side of the park to the other made for sexier imagery.
City Hall Park
When City Hall was built, it represented the northern reaches of Manhattan civilization. So much so that the south side of the building has a marble and granite façade, and the north has just sandstone. At the time, people rarely saw it from the north. Why bother with marble?
Today, civilization flanks the hall on all sides. But you could finish the building’s northern face with a cure for cancer, and I might still prefer the south. City Hall Park rests there, with its real flame lanterns flanking a stunning, Baroque-inspired fountain—gold gilt and all.
I used to take frequent coffee breaks in the park with a colleague whose parents liked to buy her Starbucks gift cards. I felt about those gift cards the way I feel about fur coats from the 1940s: If someone else already killed the animal, what’s there to boycott? So with napkins covering the logos on the cups, we’d sit and watch the water. Sometimes there’d be a free musical performance at mid-afternoon. I never checked the listings, and once as I was sitting on a bench drinking the blood of 1,000 independent shop owners, Lisa Marie Presley took the makeshift stage. I’d have preferred the sound of the fountain.
For a spell after college, I held a secretarial job in Morningside Heights, north of the Upper West Side. The neighborhood is home of Columbia University, Barnard College, the exterior of the diner featured on Seinfeld, and other beacons of the cognoscenti. As it turns out, a lot of the cognoscenti don’t treat secretaries very nicely. For example, the wife of a prominent American poet was designing the interior of my company’s office space. One weekend, while listening to WNYC, New York Public Radio, I heard her husband give a stunning reading. On Monday, I told her how much I’d appreciated the reading. She responded, “Oh, you listen to WNYC?”
All this to say I needed to take walks at lunch. God bless Riverside Park for being three blocks from my office. Its green space stretches along the Hudson between 72nd and 158th streets. No matter what season, I would walk south on its cobblestone path for a half hour, then turn around and walk back for more bludgeoning of my self-esteem.
But even while heading officeward, it was easy to forget my woes. The park was like a tequila shot that way, but without the drunkenness or the company policy violation or the hangover. With its stone wall overlooking unmanicured trees overlooking the river, quiet despite its extreme proximity to Riverside Drive, and squirrels so tame they’ll take French fries out of your fingers, the park creates a natural high. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Riverside Park, clearly knew how to give New Yorkers a physical space that lets them clear their headspace. He’s also the fellow who designed Central Park and Prospect Park, and I love him.