BY Lauren Dockett
I am in the realest place in Manhattan. A spot at the absolute top of the island where landscaping and development stop and in a dissonant fusion, city and wild world meet.
This place is home to a living Native American history and to Manhattan’s only primeval forest, a raw and honest northeastern wood that rises over the Hudson. Beyond the forest there is a wide meadow and a thriving salt marsh, untouched by developers so intent on rounding off the rest of the island’s shores. Wildlife scuttles through the meadow grasses and into the forest’s brush. There are muskrats, rabbits, brown bats, blood-red salamanders and white-footed mice. Herons and snowy egrets touch down in a tidal estuary, where mute swans, mallards and canvasback ducks paddle in wide circles and sleep under dim lamps alongside bordering chunks of grey gneiss and glinting schist rocks.
This is Inwood Hill Park, my favorite place in the city. The parkland borders Inwood, one of the last of the island’s neighborhoods. I lived here at this city’s end as a small child, and it’s where my parents were born and raised. Leave Inwood and you’re crossing the Harlem River into Marble Hill or the Bronx. In fact, the park is so far north that most city maps slice it right off. It may only be steps away from Fort Tryon Park—with its popular medieval museum and frame-ready views of New Jersey’s Palisades—but most New Yorkers have never advanced those extra steps to see it.
Today, I’m walking the park with my infant son strapped to my chest and his father, an Inwood Hill virgin, taking big gulps of fresh fall air ahead. Inwood Hill Park is a modest 196 acres and has an unwieldy shape, looking from above like the head of a fish with a pronounced underbite. We’re walking the length of the park from its forested entrance above Dyckman and Payson Streets to its final flat jutting into the Harlem River’s ship canal—a course that takes us from the back of the fish’s skull to the mouth. The forest is, as usual, nearly empty of people, and the November leaves have piled a loose, fiery carpet onto its paths. Stephen, who grew up in the wide-open Midwest and circles Central Park with our kid every morning, turns back to us, smiling. “This feels like Ohio,” he says. “Or Maine,” I say. “It’s like nobody’s messed with it,” he says. “These are actual woods.”
A low hum of parkway traffic accompanies us on our first hundred yards in, but then all becomes footfall silence or birdsong. We are surrounded by tulip trees, maples and sweetgums, and a natural understory where fallen branches are left to tangle with new saplings. There are spots along the main trail to peak over to the Palisades and up the opening length of the Hudson. When we wander off trail and kick enough leaves away, crumbling rectangles of concrete appear. These are remnants of the foundations of rich homes from the 1800s and long-gone institutional buildings: an orphanage, a home for unwed mothers, and a tuberculosis sanitarium. The city only designated the park in 1916.
We’re out of the forest trails in less than twenty minutes, and since we took a back loop we descend from the river side into a crystalline scene of sparkling, shallow marsh waters pooling along a meadow. Behind these and beyond a natural, grassy berm, more water glistens as the Harlem River flows along the canal into a confluence with the Hudson.
On the last yards of the trail I pull my son’s hood back and point out the baby blue, arching underside of the Henry Hudson Bridge. I tell him this is where his grandfather and a pair of scrappy friends with troublemaker nicknames—Soapy (for the swearing) and Squeegy (for the wedgies)—used to monkey scramble along the crossing bridge beams, then race atop the great, grey sheets of gneiss rock on the other side of the canal. Columbia University had painted a giant “C” on the cliff rock—it’s still there, their crew and football teams compete nearby—and the boys would double-dog-dare or finally just shove each off the cliff to flail down in front of the “C” into the drink.
Stephen shakes his head and we agree not to repeat this particular story until the baby is grown and living in another state.
As we leave the tree cover behind, we take a path that circles the marsh. Now we can see the far walls of apartment buildings and the park’s playground, baseball fields, and handball and basketball courts. At this point we’re retracing steps my mother took when my sister and I were small. I can see her, late as always, hurrying with us past the playground and along these paths to meet a friend at one of the marsh benches. She’s in her black flats and pedal pushers, overnight curlers shed in a tumble in the bathroom sink. My older sister, with a tiny hand on the cord-thin wheel brace of the pram, is running alongside. Stephen and I pause in front of one of the benches to adjust the baby and I think how my mother would have chosen a spot just like this, where the cordgrass grows high all around—a natural screen for gossiping.
Past the benches and through the meadow, there’s a waist-high boulder ringed by a ground marker that is the circumference of a giant tulip tree. This is the spot where Director-General of the Dutch settlement, Peter Minuit, is said to have purchased Manhattan from Native Americans in 1626. There is some dispute as to which clan Minuit paid and what he used for payment. But he gave them the equivalent of between $24 and $38—a little over $1,000 today. At the time, the Lenape (an Algonquin word for “the people”) lived in the area in a large village of 15,000. They once numbered 50,000, but years of visits from English and Spanish fishing fleets had brought killer smallpox and influenza.
After Minuit’s purchase, the Lenape were not driven off the land. The Dutch appreciated their skills and wanted to learn from them. But once the Lenape realized that unlike the other, transitory European visitors, the Dutch were making a home of their forest and village, they slowly began to leave, moving to the Bronx and points farther north and west. A few remained until as late as the 1920s, and images of them cooking and working around their wigwams at 207th Street—now the site of a Pathmark—remain. Most resettled far from Manhattan, in places like Toronto and Nebraska.
I tell Stephen how we should come back in July, when the park hosts a popular pow wow in the meadow. According to urban park ranger Gerald Steigler, who staffs the park’s nature center, the clans that attend are drawn from other local Algonquin communities like the Brooklyn Canarsie and the New Jersey Hackensacks. The Lenape rarely return.
Seigler is an ever-present figure in the park. He’s held his post at the nature center for a few years now and is given to playing a cherry wood, Native flute on informational hikes and strolling ahead of his attendees like a uniformed pied piper. A main stop on Seigler’s hike happens along the dramatic Cove Road. I take Stephen up this wide path, where the branches of the tulip trees lean in to form a dizzyingly high canopy, their bright yellow fall leaves also covering the ground and giving descending hikers the look of tiny, fairy tale characters, captured in a golden globe.
On the west side of Cove Road, grey boulders of schist jut out of a steep hill. These are the remnants of the Lenape’s caves, which date back 7,000 years. In the 1930s safety concerns prompted the city to fill in the deep network of the caves, which ran east, west, north and south, and the Museum of Natural History put arrowheads, tool and craft shards, and bones discovered in the caves behind glass. Still, the cave’s faces remain and are large enough for children and flexible adults to sit inside.
Both of my parents and various older cousins claim to have found arrowheads in those hills and Seigler likes to carry around dish-size mollusk shells he dug himself out of the hillside’s dirt, which are, according to him, “very, very old.”
As we exit Cove Road and point ourselves toward the apartments and the trains on Broadway, I explain to the baby that my family left this neighborhood and the park over thirty years ago. They and other Irish and Jewish renters moved upstate or to Jersey or New England or finally—why not, it’ll happen eventually anyway—to Florida. They, like the Lenape before them, never came back. But online comment boards about Inwood are full of reminiscences from these older folks about the caves and the wildlife and the breathtaking height of the tulip trees.
I hope that one day our kid will share this reverence for the park. Stephen hands me a red, five-pointed sweetgum leaf that’s floated down onto a bench and we agree to press it for the baby for that day when we too are likely somewhere else. When we take it out we’ll tell him that like the leaf, a part of him belongs to this park, to the magical, tip top of Manhattan. We’ll teach him that the city’s first two hundred blocks are OK, but it’s in those wilds north of the city streets that where things really get interesting.