A few weeks ago an old-timer whom I’ll call Bill struck up a conversation with me on a bench outside a laundromat on 116th street. According to him, the neighborhood is “gone” and will never be the same.
It’s the type of comment you hear a lot these days in rapidly changing places like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland.
But Bill wasn’t talking about the new lux apartments and throngs of moneyed and increasingly white restaurant-goers on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For Bill, the glory days ended definitively some 55 years ago.
In an exchange that began with some unsolicited advice on how to correctly hold my baby daughter, Bill revealed that he had spent the formative portion of his 73 years just a block from where we were sitting. The father of nine children, he had lived around the world as an adult and only recently returned to an apartment building on 116th. Continue reading →
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.