New York, New York

New York’s Real Skyscrapers

The proposed designs for downtown Manhattan are roundly disappointing, particularly for their lack of imagination. How about some tulip poplars?

In a city of parks, Inwood Hill stands out as one of New York’s most gorgeous—and idiosyncratic—green spaces. Tucked into the extreme north corner of Manhattan, the 196-acre spread contains the last primeval forest on the island, a bald eagle reintroduction site, and Sharakkopoch Rock, where Peter Minuit made the first of Manhattan’s ridiculous real estate deals by purchasing the island from the Reckgawawanc Indians for 60 guilders.

Compared to the city’s other large parks, such well-coiffed affairs as Central, Prospect, and Bryant, Inwood Hill is a shaggy rebel. It has a mere 40 acres of grass, just enough room for a few baseball fields, four tennis courts, and two soccer pitches. The rest of the park is dense forest that runs over and around the tip of Washington Heights and contains some of the oldest things in the city: untouched pine glades, glacial deposits, massive tulip poplars.

Walk under Inwood Hill’s towering trees, sit on the banks of the Harlem River overlooking the Spuyten Duyvil; you’ll easily forget you’re in a city dominated by skyscrapers. You may even forget that you’re in a city that was ripped apart by an attack on its two tallest skyscrapers, just over 10 months ago. And yet as home to some of the island’s last majestic tulip poplars, Inwood Hill maintains a symbolic link to the other end of the island: Both are dominated by their own monolithic testaments to power, the soaring bank buildings to the south, the enormous trees to the north.

New York is still reeling, albeit more quietly these days, from last year’s tragedies, trying to redefine itself in an era when tall buildings evoke feelings of insecurity instead of dominance; nevertheless, in casting about for a symbol for the post-Sept. 11 age, few have considered the possibility that nature might present the perfect emblem to bind the city’s future with its past. Finishing a walk through Inwood Hill, you may just ask yourself: Why not the tulip poplar?

So called for their tulip-shaped leaves, tulip poplars (also known as tulip trees, yellow poplars or Liriodendron tulipifera) are some of the oldest living things—plants or animals—in the country, the Eastern Seaboard’s answer to California’s redwoods. Many of New York’s tulip poplars are more than 200 years old, and researchers estimate some tulip poplars found in the Appalachians at more than 600 years old. The trees still grow in abundance throughout upstate New York and New England, and once prospered across the city’s five boroughs—the city’s first skyscrapers. But from the farming days of colonial New York through the commercial 1800s and the urban explosion of the twentieth century, the city’s trees largely disappeared, and today exist almost completely in parks, mostly in the outer boroughs.

But for anyone who has ever laid eyes on a tulip poplar, the idea of it disappearing seems preposterous. The trees aren’t just the granddaddies of the forest; they’re patriarchs, looming over even the elms and oaks that make up most of the city’s deciduous population. Many boast an 18-foot circumference; The two current titleholders for largest tree in the city are both tulip poplars—the 133.8-foot-tall Queens Giant and Staten Island’s 119-feet-tall Clove Lake Colossus. The city’s most famous tulip poplar, which stood on the site where Minuit’s famous deal went down but died after being struck by lightning more than 60 years ago, measured 20 feet around and stood 165 feet high. As the plaque-festooned rock that replaced it notes, the tree ‘was, until its death in 1938 at the age of 230 years, the last living link with the Reckgawawanc Indians who lived here.’

New York is a city famous for its ability to recreate itself and infamous for its willingness to pave over the past, but these days there’s an almost palpable desire for some sense of groundedness, knowledge that life goes on, as it always has, despite tragedy and the inexorable passage of time. Just recently the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation released the six potential plans for the site, and though (and perhaps because) all of them pander to an acceptable middle ground, few people are excited by any of them. Whatever we get—a plaza, a garden, a square, a promenade—we’re guaranteed another swatch of sterile flat greenness, corporate landscaping to reflect the commercial interests driving the LMDC’s plans.

So here’s for something different: a grove of tulip poplars. Living things to replace death, majestic trees to last hundreds of years. Just as today’s tulip poplars link us to the distant past, a grove at the World Trade Center site will stand as a vibrant memorial into the far future. And it would tie the city together, bringing tulip poplars to the south end of the island just as the commerce borne of the financial district brought urbanization all the way to Inwood Hill. The trees’ growth would reflect the city’s ability to overcome the attacks, while their towering presence will remind visitors of what was once destroyed. And they just may encourage a few folks to visit the city’s lesser-known parks, and see New York’s first skyscrapers.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen