Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Real NYC #42 - Escape the city with a walk in Riverside Park

Winter in the city is underrated. People who don’t live here think that city dwellers huddle around the radiator, dashing from apartment to subway to work, and then reversing that trip in the evening. The reality is that we get out in all kinds of weather, and the cold is no barrier to a walk in the park, in fact it might even add something to your stroll.

There is a strip of land that sits between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. Technically it is part of Riverside Park, but until about 10 years ago it was totally undeveloped. Now there is a paved bike and walking path, part of the bike trail that circles the island of Manhattan. You can get to this escape from the city from either 125th street or inside the park and the 98th street highway turnaround. Once you start this walk there is no exit, going forward or back are the only options.

During good weather this path is a mecca for bikers and runners. It also draws people who want to sit and watch the river go by. On a cold December day it was almost deserted and, dressed for the cold, I decided to take a walk along the water. I really enjoy being out by myself. I am an introvert, and I enjoyed walking through the open space. I lost myself, listening to my ipod. The view along the river was serene and as I turned my back on the highway traffic I took in the water and the trees. As I walked north through the park, my eyes were drawn back again and again to the George Washington Bridge towering in the distance.

Between the wind off of the river and breeze generated cars speeding by, the cold was biting at first. My fingers were icicles inside my gloves, and the traffic provided a constant rumble that penetrated through the episodes of The Moth and This American Life coming through my earphones. The cold and the noise cocooned me. They embraced me and separated me from the world. They brought my thoughts in from the outside. My focus narrowed to individual trees and rocks. The shapes of nature filled my eyes and my imagination. My mind framed the photos. Where is the light coming from? Where do the shadows fall? Color or Black and White?

It became meditative, and the feeling of cold slipped away. I moved on, from one picture to the next. My fingers moved smoothly over the camera, set the f-stop and exposure, focus, snap, move on, set the f-stop, focus, snap. The next thing I knew, I had completed the mile and a half walk. No longer cold, I peeled out of the park and headed back to my car, parked a mile away. Now, all I felt was tired, my feet were sore, so I took a bus back downtown. As I warmed up, I came back to the world. Voices invaded my space, along with the traffic on Broadway. I scrolled through the photos in my camera, but I already knew which ones I wanted to use.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Real NYC #41 - Walking Through the Botanical Gardens on a Winter's Day

Near the Bronx River in the NYBG

 The drizzle and low clouds should have kept people home, but it was Boxing Day, December 26th and the New York Botanical Garden was packed. Hundreds of people were there to see the Holiday Train Show. I was headed in the opposite direction, to the Thain Family Forrest. The damp day meant that I would have the paths and the woods to myself.

Everyone loves to walk in the park when it is warm and sunny, but I enjoy cold and wet days. The fine mist in the air absorbs sounds and the land becomes quiet. Walking along abandoned paths, no outside sounds getting to your ears, you can almost imagine what the forests of the Bronx were like 300 years ago.

When I walk I look for anything that might catch my eye. In parks, especially in the fall and winter, that is usually a tree. I become lost in the intertangled lines of the branches, especially when they extend up into the sky. The curves of the tendrils form shapes that are both familiar and unique. I can spend hours walking in cold or rainy weather, wandering from tree to tree. Walking around them looking a different angles for just the right picture.

The Thain Family Forest is the 400 acre heart of the Botanical Gardens. It is the largest urban old growth forest in the country, set aside in 1895, by the founders the Gardens. This area is minimally maintained. The paths are kept clear, but nature is allowed to take its course everywhere else. Winter is a great time to observe this process because most of the undergrowth has gone into hibernation, allowing you to see all of the fallen trees and their process of decomposition. Here shapes seem to change from natural to supernatural. On one side of the path are the legs of a giant, her body missing. On the other are the bones of a dragon’s head. Tree nymphs and elves’ faces pop out of the ends of fallen logs.

Leaving the Thain Family Forest on its eastern side I cross the Bronx River. The longest and largest natural water source in the Bronx, it is navigable from its mouth up to the waterfalls near where I exit the forest. On my visit the recent rains have given its flow a spring like force, but today it has been partly shrouded from my view, and, alone, I can contemplate its history. Nearby sits the Old Stone Mill. Originally a snuff mill powered by the Bronx River, it is a showcase for the Botanical Garden, used for catered affairs. The Bronx once had many forms of wild life living here, and now the Bronx River is again home to a family of beavers, many deer and even the occasional coyote.

Coming back to the urban reality, my walk takes me through other collections in the Garden. The crab apple trees line the path, and while the blooms are beautiful in the spring, today their empty braches look like veins and arteries spreading out into the lungs of a body. Other trees stand tall if bare, like the arms of buried giants, straining to be free.

Yes, everyone loves to walk when the weather is beautiful. Me, I enjoy the empty spaces that allow my imagination to roam free.  

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Real NYC #40 - Walking around New York City means finding surprises everywhere you look

I love walking around a city. It is the only way to really understand its life and rhythm. You see how people live. You feel the passage of time, both in the changes in architecture and in the passage of people on the street. When I travel I spend days walking neighborhoods, both touristy and homey.

I also have pleasure of living in one of the most walkable cities – New York. It goes beyond cliché. Manhattan is the center of the city, and it is a compact collection of neighborhoods. It is where I grew up. And I still spend hours walking around its streets. I walk in all weather, because New Yorkers don’t let rain or snow stop get in the way of what they want to do.

On the streets of New York, my eyes are often captured by signs. Not the new flashy LED signs with words and pictures moving around, changing images faster than you can process them. My eyes settle on the old signs. Some are for businesses that have been in the same place for decades. They still have their original painted signs up over their windows. They may even have phone numbers with no area code or even with letters in addition to numbers, showing their age.

Often, my eyes are entranced by signs that hang perpendicular to the buildings. On a good block they can layer the view, different colors competing for my attention with words in different styles. One of the worst things to happen in New York was when landlords decided that all of the businesses in their building had to have uniform signs, all the same color and font. They blend in together and nothing catches the eye.

But my favorite time to walk the city is at night. The distractions fade away and light gets to dance at the center of the stage. Once again, my eyes dodge past the LEDs, those new kids, moving fast. Like break dancers, their moves are too hard for me to follow. I search out the slow moving signs. There, over a diner – NEON!

Neon is a sensuous slow dance. Red light in the basement for a house party, it invites you in with a promise of more. Today neon promises an authenticity earned by age. Some new diners try to mimic the style, but you can tell the new from old in an instant. Old neon has a certain dingy quality, not quite dirty, but not clean either. There is a comfort level that it promises, whether in front of a diner, where you know just what comfort food to order, or over a dive bar, letting you know that there will be no frou-frou drinks, just beer and whisky.

You learn a lot about a city when you walk its streets. You see the people who live there. And you see how they live. So put on your walking shoes and take to the streets.