Shelter, below and above ground

is fundamental on this Grand Concourse construction site, where I am the resident arborist.

I’ve always had a penchant for the plywood trenches built for the crew to go down into the bowels of the earth to repair the sewer pipes.

They look so much like upside down houses, and the carpenter on this crew, Joseph, builds the house as the men proceed with the work, not before. People are always scrambling down long ladders to get to the pipes below.

It would be like living in a house as you construct it. This one is so deep that the walls have to be immensely sturdy and perfect – a person could easily be squashed in a collapse. It has happened.

I remember as a child building tiny dream houses in trees out of acorns and twigs. I climbed the apple tree sometimes but was more drawn to creating a home at the base of an oak trunk in the front yard.

Same, a little later, when I fell in love the The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, the novel which portrays a family living in a cigar box.

I would have given anything to do that, live in miniature, especially since I loved the smell of cigar tobacco.

I can also relate to that other essential element in construction – tree guards.

What is their purpose exactly? Someone who has gone down a street lined with them might inquire. Of course, they are created to protect the tree during construction, in particular to protect the critical root zone so that it doesn’t get trampled or mashed (compacted) in the course of the work, impairing the health of the tree. They’re also great for making sure a piece of heavy equipment doesn’t knock the tree over. Trees are perishable and need this protection. When the tree guard gets mangled by heavy equipment, you can knock the box back into shape pretty easily.

But who’s got the time to set them up straight the way they should be? Eventually, the foreman orders one of the crew to do it.

I’ve seen neighborhood people make tree guards a part of their lives, ornamenting them. These ribbons wind up from the tree guard.

Or using them in some kind of stunt, like hanging a chair over the top, ha ha.

Or just making use of them in some fashion. Mop drying.

They are inherently house-like, the perfect temporary home for a tree under assault by forces engaged in making roads and sidewalks.

So you may find their orange snow netting unsightly, but it serves a crucial purpose.

Tree protection–as the trench is person-protection.

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Dollar coffee

is a bodega staple I’ve always thought is among the best things in the Bronx. Hot, strong, milky and cheap. It’s universal in the borough, along with the chopped cheese sandwich (also known as a chop cheese), a mess of ground beef, melted cheese, tomato, lettuce, a mystery sauce and some other things on a Kaiser roll, guaranteed to drip down your chin.

Within this little microburst of a neighborhood, just a few blocks of the Grand Concourse, I’m beginning to scratch the surface of its foodways.

There is the grocery I park my car next to–onions out front– which features floors cleaner than mine at home, a full butcher counter, a sandwich maker, iced coffee, a spic and span bathroom (with toilet paper!) and a tiny litter box, presumably for a tiny cat. And at the cash register the loveliest woman, whose brother owns the place.

Searching in another greengrocer for a bathroom (It’s in the basement! Headshaking no) I’m in a quandary. This place has a dozen varieties of tuber but no public bathroom.

An elderly gentleman wearing a kerchief directs me to Lulo, a restaurant across the street.

It is the official house of goats. A guy on the sidewalk yesterday told me I look like a horse. Could have been worse. Anyway, I don’t eat horses, and I don’t eat goats, I like their Satanic eyes too much. Lulo is also immaculate, all of its furniture covered with slick, easy to wipe down plastic.

Home to the dollar coffee, the Grand Concourse is also home to The Real Coffee Man.

And, shock, the dollar slice.

I thought that was obsolete. And I’ll give it a try one of these days, coffee on the side.

There is such careful attention given to selecting among the fruits and vegetables on the little produce stands on nearly every corner. The proprietess tenderly chooses the perfect tomatoes for a man on a bike.

Kennedy Chicken, Popeye’s and Dunkin may have a foothold here on the GC, but as long as chop cheese reigns, they will never push off the mom and pops.

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Outside of NYC

you wouldn’t guess we have

native plants


towering old trees (this one a kentucky coffee tree)


magical floating spheres amid reeds

more wildflowers

But we do.

When you come to New York, go to Times Square or the Statue of Liberty, by all means, but visit the Botanical Garden in the Bronx if you want to get your green on.

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The crater was there

when we arrived at Jones Beach. Could this be a more perfect beach day?

I commented that if the deep azure of the sky had a few puffy clouds it might be even more perfect.

It was wonderful, though, getting on the sand so early that the crater was just feet away from our chairs. It would keep pesky beachgoers (just like us) at a distance, and yet afford us entertainment throughout the morning.

Someone had worked hard at digging it, that was for sure. How deep did it go? I imagined an underground grotto populated by hibernating seagulls and some of the sharks the lifeguards warned us against as they hurriedly blew their whistles and hustled swimmers out of the drink for about half an hour.

Little kids and parents approached the side of the crater. Parents, one after the other: Don’t touch, someone else made that, its theirs. Ever vigilant. We thought children would defy their mothers and fathers, but they all seemed too shy or intimidated to jump right in, as we thought at least some would.

One girl drifted all around the crater’s edge, touched the sand, drifted some more, while mom waited impatiently for her to come down to the ocean. (Note: thongs are the suit du jour.) The daughter peeked over the side, took a handful of sand, followed when her mother beckoned, then gravitated back to the crater.

It was a little like that psychology experiment with the kids and the marshmallows. They’re given just one and told that if they wait to eat it they’ll get three. When we watch through the hidden window, they almost all stuff their faces immediately. In this case, delayed gratification, or no gratification, seemed the rule of thumb. I did see a boy burying himself in sand. Maybe he would brave the crater?

In all the sand-and-surf delight and bonhomie that seems ever present post-Covid (post- in our hard fought corner of the country, New York), something stood out. The ice cream vendor was back – Chipwich! Frozen milky way bars! Frozen fruit bars!

Jorge hadn’t sold on the beach last summer during the pandemic. Now he was back, and a coconut Froz Fruit never tasted so good.

Those puffy clouds? They arrived as we got ready to go. What is more perfect than perfect? 

I don’t know, you tell me.

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Birds to wear and to eat

I heard a lecturer today refer to birds whose populations had been depleted at one time because people chose to hunt them in great quantities, often to eat. Robins, he enumerated specifically. A recipe for robin pie was printed in Wehman’s Cook Book, in 1890: “Cover the bottom of a pie-dish with thin slices of beef and fat bacon, over which lay ten or twelve robins, previously rolled in flour, stuffed as above, season with a teaspoonful of salt, a quarter ditto of pepper, one of chopped parsley, and one of chopped eschalots, lay a bay-leaf over, add a gill of broth, and cover with three quarters of a pound of half puff taste, bake one hour in a moderate oven, shake well to make the gravy in the pie form a kind of sauce, and serve quite hot.”

In the 1800s, species that went extinct included the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, and the Heath Hen. Today, many birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

John James Audubon, for whom the Audubon Society is named, painted wonderful renditions of birds and sometimes snakes. See his Ferruginous Thrush, from Birds of America.

What is less well known is that once he had shot and posed his subject out in the wild in order to paint it, he would roast the carcass for his dinner. I wonder how the Ferruginous Thrush tasted.

Audubon’s appetites existed on a very small scale compared with Americans’ relationship with the passenger pigeon. Masses of them appeared in the sky and communities would gather to shoot them down. John Muir recalled having “seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.”

In 1871, one nesting area in Wisconsin., measuring 850 square miles, contained more than 130 million pigeons. The last two passenger pigeons we know of died in a zoo in 1914. There is currently a genome project attempting to bring back these magnificent birds.

These weren’t like the city pigeons we disdain now, they were bigger and multicolored, more like a tropical bird. They would be transported from the wilds outside of NYC by barge to make New Yorkers’ pot pies.

Birds provided the decoration for hundreds of thousands of women’s hats, beginning to appear as high fashion in the nineteenth century. Feathers, whole birds, heads were proudly worn.

Would you prefer to eat your robin in a pie or wear it on a hat? Neither one, thank you.

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The grand dame

that is the Grand Concourse in the Bronx has certainly seen better days.

But there is still an awful lot of life there. Crews are installing new sidewalks and new medians separating the wide boulevards (2 lanes and a service road in each direction). They need a tree inspector to make sure no harm comes to the gingkos and zelkovas lining the avenue.

You’ve got wonder about people in the city, the way they love to lean things up against trees. Why? They can be told again and again not to and still you find a clutter of debris around the base of a tree. In this case it’s actually condoned. Huh?

But if you’re in the neighborhood, why not enjoy the local scenery?

I like hand lettered wall art.

Bronx residents love fruit, judging by the number of produce stands, including this one that has the owner peeling your orange for you.

There is still some of the past. The Grand Concourse was built in the late 1800s to rival the great boulevards of Europe, and it soon became a middle class haven, before the advent of white flight and the deterioration of the Bronx in general. Once in a while you meet someone who tells you their old Jewish granny used to live on the Concourse.

Glimmers of the past exist.

And most amazing, a  hulking, barely visible grand building.

Behind the scaffolding stand, the Paradise Theater, built in 1929 and used for various types of entertainment since, even since it fell on terrible times – supposedly a church holds forth there now, though that’s hard to believe.

The ticket book evokes times gone by, as does the ceiling above it.

But really, the Concourse is contemporary.

Concerned with the important things.


And the home of thousands of grand pit bulls. This one snarls, then comes in for a pet.

I’m not sure about his manners, but he’s a handsome devil.

I wonder if pit bulls were the breed of choice at the turn of the century? Helen Keller had a pit bull named Sir Thomas. She was born in that era, so maybe the Grand Concourse was teeming with them.

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What on earth?

Actually, not earth at all, but the Hudson River at Pier 55, now a surreal topography of walkways, views, plantings and trees.

After Superstorm Sandy, Barry Diller decided he might as well plunk some of his millions into creating this new park, named Little Island. Two hundred sixty million dollars. Would it be boon or a billionaire’s boondoggle, we often wondered as we drove past the construction site just off the West Side Highway. It took four years to plan and three to build this 2.4 acre park with its 132 tulip-pot modules, each one of them unique in form. The park itself is a perfect square. It has just opened to the public, right as the population is exploding with post-Covid energy, vitality, euphoria.

As any place in New York, the people are the real attraction.

But I marveled at the landscape, created by Signe Nielsen at MNCA. I saw an interview with her in which she discussed the five different soil types that were used, and how the engineers had to face off against the gardeners to make sure that none of the tulips would drop into the drink.

Soil is heavy. Plantings carry weight too

Heavier still: trees. And this is the most remarkable thing about Little Island, the sheer number of mature trees planted by crane all over the park. This dawn redwood would be at home in an arboretum.

The root balls were huge. The trees are anchored by 4-10 steel straps, guy wires, atop the root balls, where they can’t be seen by passersby. It all looks impossibly natural and easy but is terrifically engineered. There are 114 trees, 35 species, from kousa dogwood to cedars of Lebanon, including 19 of what the planners are calling “hero trees”—the mammoth specimens. All of them ranged from 10-12 DBH at planting and were in the neighborhood of 30-40 years old. Diller has said something to the effect of he hopes Little Island will last forever, and with the sprinkler systems and hand watering going on behind the scenes, the landscaping just might survive through the next hurricane, as they hope.

The trees were glossy, healthy.

It looked like they’d always been there. It reminded me of Central Park, totally contrived in the nineteenth century to look totally natural. Little Island reminds us that at times contrivance can be fun.

But back to the people. As Gil’s mother would marvel when she visited the City, “The people! The people!”

There were guides on call in case you had a question. Meet Saul and Turow.

Polka dots.



I don’t know if anybody really noticed the girth of the trees around them, they were so engrossed in the views – all the way down to Lady Liberty. Or New Jersey, in this slightly more mundane view.


And if you need a breather and a snack, there are those too. I’ll try one next time I go.


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You couldn’t tell if it was little-leaf

or not, the canopy was so far overhead. Tilia Americana or Tilia cordata? I stood in the Bronx next to a playground on on Gouveneur Avenue, marveling at the height of these monster lindens. The smallest of them had a DBH of 7 inches while the largest ran to 40 DBH. (DBH equals Diameter at Breast Height, the standard way of measuring trees’ height.) How tall were they? I could make out the heart-shaped leaves, all slightly asymmetrical, and the bracts that always remind me of pieces of cream-colored silk woven in someone’s hair. They carry the linden’s fruit so it will reproduce. But they must have been 40 feet tall. I am notoriously bad at heights, heights of trees, and just multiply my own height (generally) with how far up the tallest branches seem to be. I know there is a trigonometric formula I can invoke, but as I said I am bad at heights. (h=TanA x d)

People don’t normally think of New York when they think of shade. But it’s all around, chilling out people and homes and schools, in a fortunate neighborhood. Two men came by and spoke to be as I was juggling paper, pen and DBH tape for a survey of the linden trees on this block. A milling machine was going to come through soon, before the street was repaved, and the contractor wanted to prune any trees whose branches would get in the way of his 14 foot unit. I was to identify those trees in need of pruning. The two guys lived there, in an apartment underneath the mesh of branches and leaves far above. One said the tree we stood beside had “been there since before I was born”. He was about 60. The other said, “These trees shade everything, they make it all so cool, it’s so nice.” He was nice, too.

I had seen lindens pruned to within an inch of their lives and they could look beautiful like that.

Two allees of little-leaf lindens stand in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There has been a lot of study recently about the importance of shade in cities. Health suffers without trees there. The difference between shaded and nonshaded areas is something like ten degrees, enough to kill someone in southern climes without air conditioning, which not everyone can afford. This falls under the general rubric of environmental justice.

The canopies of these giant lindens on Gouveneur Avenue offered a generous helping of something little else could provide – coolness on a hot day. With the health changes come changes in mood, also. Maybe that’s why these guys were smiling so much. It’s a womb of cool. Shade that helps you live. I always thought that lindens were beautiful. On Gouveneur Avenue I realized they were life-giving as well.

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This is how you do it

when you plant a memorial tree. The Awards Committee of the New York State Urban Forestry Council sought applications last fall to reward communities that had been a Tree City USA for at least the past five years. I went to Glen Island Park in New Rochelle to celebrate one of the winning entries. Competitors had to describe why they deserved what we were calling a “big tree”: “a large specimen tree in a prominent site within the community, accessible to the public.” This effort was made in conjunction with New Rochelle’s 28th year as a Tree City USA.

There is a beautiful beach on the Long Island Sound that opens officially for the season tomorrow.

The application from the Westchester Parks Foundation had really pulled at my heartstrings. Submitted by Erin Cordiner, it talked about the time of Covid, how it had affected New Rochelle in so many ways. Erin has just been promoted from volunteer organizer to director of philanthropy, and I’m sure she’ll do a bang up job. The first Covid sufferer in New York state, a lawyer, lived in New Rochelle . After being put in a medically induced coma, Patient Zero survived. After that a perimeter was set all around the area of the city deemed at that early moment the most contagious place in America. New Rochelle took a punch to the gut.

Westchester County has 50 parks. In her application, Erin talked about how important the county’s 18,000-acre park system was during the pandemic, when people desperately needed the wellness benefits of being outside because they couldn’t go to ballfields, restaurants, concerts, you name it.

The Park was being spiffed up for its opening.

A throng of volunteers arrived and were instructed by volunteer coordinator Adam Lippman.

Dignitaries arrived – from County Executive George Latimer to the Parks Commissioner and the chair of the Westchester Parks Foundation’s board.

The Foundation used its grant money to select a three-inch caliper ball-and-burlap tree. It would stand across from New York’s first COVID testing site, an imposing series of white tents. Today it was being dismantled. Hope!

I shook as many hands as I could, still relishing being able to reach out and touch someone after our long journey.

The tupelo is healthy and beautiful.

The tree and the memorial will last years into the future, when we are telling our grandkids about the nightmare of the pandemic.

I am going to quote from Erin’s eloquent application

“Let us stand together now, through this memorial and remember that parks have been here for us when we needed them most and reminid decision makers of the critical role that parks continue to play in our lives. Let this memorial serve as a reminder, when this crisis passes, that parks played a role in our healing, and the importance of parks related to the well-being of our community. Parks have the power to transform lives, to save lives, and to heal lives. Let us never forget this.”

She could have been talking about trees. Like this ever-hopeful gingko at Glen Island Park.

Application are just going out for the next round of “big tree” grants. If your community might be interested, contact me here.

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The spiritual nature of Queens

becomes apparent when you step along any residential street in South Ozone Park.

Shrines in front yards rule.

The air is heavy with mysticism, and the population’s diversity puts it ahead of the other boroughs, with large Italian, Hispanic and Guyanese populations, among others. You have to think there are some druids among them worshipping trees.

Yet some people hunger to have their ash trees taken down. Grandchildren gamboling, twigs falling on their heads. We oblige.

Their tree is on a list we get from the New York City Parks Department.

Others want their tree, but please prune it. Could you?

Others are dying to keep their trees, for the shade, for the beauty, the familiarity. They grew up with it! They don’t understand.

How did this come to be? Why is this block, 117th Street between 49th and 50th Avenues, lined with a bower of only mature ash trees that we are now systematically dismantling?

Piecing together the story while observing the bucket truck and chipper at work, I find out from residents that these trees were planted 30 or so years ago. 1990? They seem older. I heard that developers bought up whole blocks of these neat brick homes, intending to flip them, and the city required them to plant a tree in front of every home. Dutch elm disease had long before decimated the city trees of the past, and the green ash seemed to be a great, fast-growing substitute.

The ash had a graceful canopy and seemed immune to urban stressors. It didn’t die.

Until it did. Waiting in the wings was an invasive assassin. Foresters, scientists, arborists first noted the dieback two decades ago, and discovered that the beetle we know as the Emerald Ash Borer was to blame. It came from China on a cargo ship, went the theory. In the past two decades it has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees across half the continent

It starts at the tips of the branches. The beetle lays its eggs in the fissures of the bark, then the inch-long larvae crawl inside the tree, allowing pathogens to follow after them, and make their way down the cambium, eating as they go, basically destroying the tree’s digestive system. Their movements create an unmistakable hieroglyphic if you see the infested wood with the bark pulled away, what those in the scientific world know as “galleries.”

The damage done (and it is always fatal eventually), the new generation matures, exits the tree and flies off to the next victim. On a street like 117th, planted monoculturally, that is, only with ash trees, they’re all going to get it. Ash trees can subsist for two to four years in this weakened state. They still provide shade, some compromised beauty, and a habitat for birds. I found this egg today which had fallen from a nest above.

There is an effort afoot to treat them with chemicals or larvae-killing wasps. Here, though, they were the perfect tree for this street for thirty years. Go give one a hug before it hits the chipper. You won’t see them any more.

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Nooks and crannies

pretty much define what’s so great about the Metropolitan Museum. Everyone who has gone there a lot has favorites.

It’s hard not to love the Atrium outside the American Wing. You can drink ridiculously overpriced coffee and gaze out the bank of windows at Central Park in its summer glory.

But your personal favorite might be the Rodin hallway, or the gallery with Vermeer’s Young Woman With a Water Pitcher.

Mine include the Astor Court, a Chinese garden inspired by one in China nearly four hundred years ago. Craftsmen travelled from China to NY to build it and did not use a single nail in its construction(gallery 217), a contemplative gem which you might be lucky enough to have all to yourself.

Or  the whole Luce collection. The Henry R.Luce Center for the Study of American Art occupies the mezzanine of the American Wing, and is sort of like the Met’s attic, there for scholars but for other culture grazers interested in not just the highest of high art. In perfect Lucite-boxed rows, dozens of versions of the same object are arranged. There may be 40 19th century green pressed-glass plates, for example. Or rare-vintage silver demitasse spoons. Or wackadoodle porcelain figurines like this deranged fawn.

When there is a major show, like the one that’s up now with Alice Neel portraits, you go.

It’s an amazing exhibit; visit if you’re in New York.

But there are still the nooks and crannies.

When I’m at the Museum I find that I must make a stop at the ancient linens. Hang a quick right coming out of the Temple of Dendur and you’ll find bolts and lengths of intact textiles from ancient times.

What really touched King Tutenkamen, and everyone else, was linen. People who lived in ancient Egypt believed that the Gods were clothed in linen before they came to earth. It was sacred and yet mundane. I always love historic textiles because they occupy a place so close to the human body. If you think about it, what other role do textiles play besides clothing and bedding and diapers (the old Dutch term for a type of linen, not just baby items)? Flags, maybe? This wool bunting is from an 1816 American flag.

Linen has been found in graves dating back to the Neolithic Period. And we all know that mummies are wrapped in linen. Actually, a mummy’s bindings are torn up linen bedsheets. Sericulture, the raising of silkworms, had not yet come to Egypt.

The Egyptians wore white linen because it was difficult to make a strong lasting dye, but they still loved color. They applied rouge to their cheeks, red ointment to their lips, and henna to their nails and feet. Ladies traced the veins on their temples and breasts with blue paint. They tipped their nipples with gold. A green eye shadow made from powdered malachite was paired with kohl. Worn above a sweep of white linen, what could be more godlike?

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“Everyone is an artist.”

So quoth Joseph Beuys, one of the most influential artists of the last century and German Green Party founder, and certainly the one who most used trees on such a grand scale in his work.

One of his best known pieces grows in Kassel, Germany. With the help of volunteers, he planted 7,000 oak trees over several years, beginning in 1982, pairing each with a basalt stone.

The effort provoked controversy at the beginning. People didn’t like the dark stones. A motorcyclist actually bashed into one and died. Kassel’s citizenry had been traumatized by its heavy bombing in World War Two, and this didn’t stauch the pain. He dumped the volcanic stones in front of the city’s public museum, and people didn’t like that. What a mess.

7,000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration has grown over time into something else. Citizens chose where to plant the saplings and developed a sense of ownership and pride about the trees. It was a proactive way of getting nature into our lives.

Here is Beuys: “I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places. I can see such a use for the future …. The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.” 

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Kissing and strolling

once went hand in hand on Manhattan, especially on bridges. For a long time iIt was even considered especially good manners for a gentleman to kiss a lady while on a bridge. (“What happened on the bridge stays on the bridge”)

Reverend Mr. Burnaby, quoted in New York’s Morning Chronicle on April 19, 1803, said, “it is the etiquette for every gentleman in company with a lady to salute his fair companion when upon it.”

There were multiple Kissing Bridges because there were dozens of springs and brooks all over Manhattan that people and coaches and horses and carts had to cross.

At one point in our city’s history, ladies could expect to fetch up a kiss at the bridge at 32nd Street just west of Fifth Avenue,at 33rd Street and Lexington Avenue over Kip’s Run, 54th Street and First Avenue, and 50th Street and Second Avenue.

The custom stretched back before the American Revolution judging by an advertisement in the Weekly Museum in 1797, looking for a tenant for the season of a 10-acre lot “through which the Kissing bridge brook runs.”

The well-researched Hidden Waters of New York City, by Sergei Kadinsky, tells us that in an earlier century, even, kissing bridges were common, over bodies of water that had names like Old Wreck Book, Sunfish Pond and De Voor’s Mill Stream.

Does anyone else have a “comfort century” the way people now keep “comfort animals”? Mine would be the seventeen century.

I think you can tell how verdant and stream-flushed Manhattan might have been in those days if you look at what’s called The Castello Plan, a famous copy of the first street map of the island, drawn in 1660. As the city grew more developed, it seemed, kissing on bridges grew less important. Perhaps with more buildings, people found more private places to smooch.

Let’s think. What bridges are there now in and around Manhattan? You can visit the many bow bridges of Central Park, over one hundred, every one of which was designed by Calvert Vaux. Walkers throng the Brooklyn Bridge, which the last time I was there seemed weighed down by the padlocks that were hung as amorous tributes, with the key thrown into the drink a gesture toward the infinity of the couple’s love, but since cut off by the City). There’s Brooklyn, George Washington, and more, and a little farther up out of town, where I live, the Tap. Each of these could be repurposed as a kissing bridge, if we only had the romantic will.

Let’s try.

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The life force that is Central Park

bubbles up out of the sidewalk even as you approach.

It is as if the trees and lawns and plantings can’t contain themselves. It’s all such a dream, especially when we are all in the throes of spring fever, that it’s easy to forget the Park was not always as it is now, grand and gracious and teeming. It may seem 100 percent natural, but it is as manmade as any skyscraper in Manhattan.

The prolific landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted described Central Park, which he had just then brought into being, as “the lungs of the city.” His voice rang with empathy toward the poor working folk, the hoi polloi who he hoped would share the green, landscaped precincts with the uppertens (referred to today as the one percent). Back then the monied classes liked to race their expensive carriages around the winding park roads. The Park was officially opened to the public in 1873, when green spaces were at a premium. The city had created a grid plan in 1811 that made right angle streets and 100 by 25 foot lots out of most of Manhattan. In the process, planners eliminated the forest that had shaded the island for time immemorial. Today’s residents would not recognize the city of the mid-19th century. Even as the new streets were carved out, there were still the remains of the streams, ponds, marshlands and hills and valleys that were the rich natural contours of the landscape. From early on, Manhattan was so thickly forested with oaks, walnut, hemlock, birches and chestnut among others that settling in took work. Visitors such as the English pamphleteer Daniel Denton praised the “sweetness of the air.”

A parcel of eight hundred acres was purchased by the city in 1853 and Olmsted along with his partner Calvert Vaux, was called in to work his pastoral magic and develop what was then called the Greensward Plan.

Between 1865 and 1873, one hundred sixty six tons of gunpowder blasted out rocky ridges and twenty thousand men armed with hammers, pickaxes and shovels dug up the existing soil, replanting 270,000 trees and shrubs. The designers eradicated swamps, fields, rocks and replaced them with lush lawns and winding pathways. Olmsted had lofty ideas for what his design would achieve. Rolling meadows, the Mall, Bethesda Terrace, the Ramble – what’s not to like?  Olmsted created something that millions every year take pleasure in.

And yet…invisible and overlooked today are the people who had to go to make Central Park the charming place it is now.

Central Park pre-Olmsted, as it had evolved over time, was home to sixteen hundred renters and squatters, mainly African American, some Irish. Seneca Village, as it was known, had three churches, a school, gardens and burial grounds. Residents’ homes, churches and farms were plowed under along with the natural features of the land. The residents themselves, finally subject to eminent domain, made themselves scarce in 1857. Some journalists at the time insulted their living circumstances. One observer wrote that residents “lived off the refuse of the city, which they daily conveyed in small carts, chiefly drawn by dogs.” That wasn’t true.

They were working people, and free, since slavery in New York ended in 1827. Seneca Village had grown into the most established black community in the city, and probably in the state, or perhaps anywhere else in the country, the “Tulsa” of Manhattan. You can visit Olmsted’s beautifully cultivated landscape today at 85th Street and Central Park West and see placards put up by historians working for the park. Archaeologists fought to dig up a scrap of Chinese porcelain, an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan. You can walk along a path that scholars think to be the settlement’s’ main drag.

You can visit Tanner’s Spring, where there was potable water. It still flows, or, rather seeps. You can see the rock that rises to the highest point of anywhere on Manhattan Island, that was impossible to blast away in the construction of the Park, and that served as a protective landmark for the community.

When I was a child, I visited my grandparents who lived a few blocks from here and we walked past this outcropping every time we visited the Park’s playground. The history was around us, as it always is, but I knew nothing of it. Now I can’t unknow it.

The Park is filled with placques and statuary.

There is even a bronze statue of a sled dog named Balto that brought diptheria serum to Alaska. As of 2020 we have likenesses of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

But no monument to the vanished souls of Seneca Village. Why is that?

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The Queens of kitsch

is known to all. In the sprawling borough where I spend time, people are houseproud.

They take their front yards seriously.

Though whimsy is welcome.

All kinds of wildlife reside in Queens. That’s a crab between turtle and owl.

Usually there is some kind of spiritual sentiment.

The holidays linger on.

For months.But give credit. Green thumbs thrive.

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