I just “developed” some photos from a walk I took in Morningside Park in late December. I think they do a good job of capturing the feeling of upper Manhattan parks, particularly in the off-season. They’re a tangled mass of leafless branches overhanging stones and hideouts and raccoon dens and shooting galleries that were better hidden in the summer’s foliage. There’s a bit of a sense of resignation to the grime of accumulated years of intense use by millions of people — despite the fact that New York parks are so drastically improved and better cared for these days.
Morningside Park is a particularly good spot to experience this feeling. For one thing, it’s one of the few places in Manhattan where the natural geography really overwhelms the human modifications to the landscape. (Other such places are St. Nicholas, Fort Tryon, Inwood and especially Highbridge Parks.) There’s an escarpment of schist here that prevented the area from being developed in the same way as its surroundings. It also long served as the fortress-like barrier between Morningside Heights, where Columbia University is located, and central Harlem. This was part of the reason the 1968 protests over the proposed Columbia gym in the park were so energized — the design of the gym would have underlined this separation even more. When I moved to New York in 2007, Morningside Park still felt like a striking geographic barrier between the mostly black, poorer flatlands and the wealthy heights around Columbia. (That distinction has faded somewhat as this portion of Harlem has transformed into trendy, so-called SoHa.)
Walking through the park in early winter, you think of all the many visitors who have passed time in this little geographic anomaly over the last 140 years. My grandfather, for example, grew up across the street on Morningside Avenue and 122nd Street, and supposedly pitched his pup tent in the park for afternoons spent reading Peter Pan. Later, the park gained a reputation for danger, and in its shadows there is still something of the noirish menace of The Warriors’ Central Park fight scene.
Various details lend the park an air of even deeper mystery: an indiscernible figure on a neglected stairway, a crevice between two flat stones on the castle-like wall that you can imagine leads to a secret passageway, a strange rustle and breaking of twigs somewhere behind a glacier-scoured boulder.
Layered on top of all that are the echoes of the shouts and music of barbecues of countless summers — in the years I’ve been here, people sit on the picnic benches from 8am every summer weekend to reserve spots for parties later in the day.
It all makes for an intriguing if melancholy walk, and a great place to ponder New York’s remarkably dense history of human lives.
Take a look at the rest of the photos below.
3 thoughts on “A spooky evening walk in Morningside Park (photos)”
I love this park.
Used to ride my bike from 123rd to 110th, making sure i did a few laps around the pond. Good times.
I was a Columbia freshman in fall 1964, one of eight black students in the College, a group which was a virtual glut for the time. We were warned, as were the freshmen (what a misnomer!) women at Barnard to beware of leaving the sidewalk on Morningside Drive and descending into the park. There were certainly good reasons to be cautious, because unknowing women had been raped in the park. Other Columbia and Barnard students had been beaten and robbed. The park was depicted as this foreboding place, and of course, the Harlem blacks, Negroes back then, the labyrinthine monsters of the park, were on the other side.
Yet, as you mention, the park for the people of Harlem has been a refuge, not an evil labyrinth, one of the vivid expressions of natural beauty that punctuate Harlem.
I have some special history with the park. After exchanging their marriage vows, a just-married couple emerged from the Church of the Master at 81 Morningside Avenue in the late afternoon sunshine. The bride wore a green silk print, with a giraffe pattern! The date was August 25, 1940 around 6 p.m. It was the first time my parents had stepped out into the world as a married couple, and across the street Morningside Park was there to greet them!
Fred, thank you for the great memories and perspective! I hope I haven’t contributed at all to the “dangerous” mythology of Morningside Park. It’s one of my favorite places to walk, exercise, and think about NYC. I’ll be picturing your parents next time I walk past there!