Everyone knows it. “There’s nothing like fall in New York.” But why, exactly, do both visitors and lifelong New Yorkers always say it? Do we love the rains that accompany biting October? Or how about the rare smell of fresh air brought on by the changing November winds? Maybe it’s not the weather at all, but rather the scenic beauty of Central Park, often forgotten when the temperatures drop.
When we think of Central Park, what is the first thought that comes to mind? The sweeping lawn of Sheep’s Meadow or the ancient Polar Bears at the zoo. The Plaza hotel towering above the treetops or the Metropolitan Museum of Art nestled on the eastern edge. The last things we think of, perhaps, are the Adirondack trails cut into the landscape of lower Harlem.
Central Park is not a natural beauty, nor was it always beautiful. Famous landscape architects Fredrick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who secured the park project with their Greensward plan, designed almost every element in the park from rock formations to rolling hills. Construction began in 1857, and the park remained a destination for quiet recreation for a century. With economic downturns of the 1960s and ‘70s, Central Park, like much of the city, suffered great downfalls. That was until the public and privately funded Central Park Conservancy was developed in 1980, to the great benefit of the entire city. The Ramble was cleared of drug paraphernalia and lawns browned by poor care were green once again. Central Park’s facelift was complete by the mid-1990s and has since returned to the splendor envisioned by Olmstead and Vaux many years ago.
Compared with such attractions as the Pond or the Great Lawn, the Harlem Meer and Northern Woods receive relatively low traffic. Situated on the northeastern corner of the park at 110th street, the Meer (Dutch for “lake”) is one of the most serene bodies of water in all of Central Park. Before the integration of the Greensward plan, the park zone stretched from 59th street to 106th street. Harlem Meer, a former swamp, and its surrounding military forts were integrated into the plan for historical value. The northern border of 110th was born as a result.
A short walk through patches of Black Locust trees and past the Lasker Skating Rink puts visitors at the mouth of Huddlestone Arch, a freestanding rustic bridge sturdy enough to support the weight of rush hour traffic on the Central Park Loop. The arch, designed by Vaux, is one of hundreds throughout the park and acts as a portal to another dimension. Stepping through the cool shade of the rocks, another world can be found just beyond: The Ravine. This section of the Northern woods is the most natural-looking portion of the entire park. The Northern Woods and Ravine were designed to mimic the mountains of Upstate New York and accompany the flow of small streams. Though all the bodies of water throughout the park are connected and controlled by the city water supply, it’s hard to believe that they are not the product of rain collection or natural springs.
With many waterfall cascades, branch bridges and lush unkempt forest, Northern Central Park is truly an escape from the city. The autumn foliage envelops the rocky pathways and the sound of rushing water drowns out the sirens and horns of the bustling streets. The quintessential “Fall in New York” is all around us, waiting to be discovered.
Author’s Note: The factual information presented in this piece was gathered during Manhattan’s Adirondacks, a free tour led weekly by Central Park Conservancy volunteers beginning at the Dana Conservatory and Visitor’s Center. Find out more: http://www.centralparknyc.org/