A City in a Thousand Steps

A City in a Thousand Steps


March 30, 2019


If you can make it here

Getting to Fort Tryon Park isn’t easy. The park sits on one of the highest points in New York City, and even neighbors who live nearby must walk uphill a few blocks. For others coming from further (perhaps on the M4 bus) the voyage from the glossy contentment of Fifth Avenue to the bustle of Harlem to the bodegas and beaux arts buildings in Hamilton Heights, past the hospital at 168th street and up Ft. Washington Avenue, makes arriving at the park feel like the end of an epic expedition.

We find ourselves in a stately circle outside a massive stone gate. Sycamores standing around the edge of the circle frame views into the park, like the Manhattan skyline that gave immigrants their first view of America.  We’ve arrived somewhere grand, but welcoming, a haven, a golden door.

The world comes to Fort Tryon Park

Tourists arrive in the circle facing an unexpected ramble through the park on their way to the Cloisters Museum. They stop the dog walkers and power walkers to ask for directions. The tourists are seasonal, as are the medievalists who invade the park wearing halberd, hauberk, stomacher and wimple for the Medieval Festival each September.

The neighbors–walkers, runners, perambulators, rovers–are perennial. Sauntering in their marathon shorts or millennial athleisure or jeans and a tee or business casual. Neighborhood girls in their Quinceanera dresses descend from limousines, gathering up their froth of white tulle and their giggling gaggle of besties, shy in their grown-up finery, to pose for photos. We are all drawn through the gates together, regardless of the formality of our attire.

On the Promenade

Through the gates, a row of the city’s last remaining elm trees arch over a long promenade that curves into the distance. With oblong, serrated leaves on gently spreading branches, these trees feel like a platonic form, the way a kid would draw a tree. The elms guide us along the promenade as the view to the west opens up.

Fort Tryon Park sits on a long bluff three hundred feet above the Hudson River. Across the river are the cliffs of the Palisades Park, sheer basalt rising from the shore in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. Beyond the palisades is America, an endless plain crashing into the wall of the Rockies, and then down and out to the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles away.

We need a moment to catch our breath. To our right hides a bench in a raised stone nook guarded on three sides by branches. We see commuters inching home to New Jersey on the George Washington Bridge, which looms far enough away to be silent, but close enough to be seen with tail lights sparkling red and white as the traffic stops and starts. 

Eyes on the promenade

Peering across the promenade from our perch, we watch the neighborhood pass by. The nearby elementary school’s outings are strict affairs: the children walk in rows like Madeline, working hard not to antagonize their exasperated teachers. Limber-limbed runners bounce downhill as they enter the park and trudge more slowly back uphill, stopping for water at the monumental stone plinth perfectly placed just inside the gate.  Parents and dog owners try to prevent their small charges from rampaging in the Heather Garden, just below.

A wooded path under a Fort Tryon cloister. Image by NYC Parks.

The garden that never sleeps

The garden blooms year-round, and a February glimpse of bright magenta winter heath blooming in sprays along the center of the garden will carry anyone through to spring. Low bushes of mint green flaky juniper and red-berried Carolina hemlock flank the heath and heathers, which turn shades of chartreuse, verdigris and purple, offering relief from the perpetual gray of the muddy snow and wet pavement of a New York City winter.

The heathers that dominate the garden — over 50 varieties in all — came with New York’s early immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Putting down roots in New York City’s drier, clay soil takes work, but they’ve thrived, thanks to constant attention from the park’s horticulturalists (1). Other transplants don’t need as much tending: tiny crocuses and snowdrops creep out from beneath the snow in April to make a shy announcement that spring is near. A dizzying rush of daffodils and tulips follows as spring takes hold.

At the height of summer, when the bees drown out the distant whoosh of traffic, we can hear the heather garden before we enter it. Impossibly adorable grape hyacinths and bluebells bloom haphazardly at the foot of a finely branching Siberian elm, with mosses adding a carpet of vivid green along an outcropping of Manhattan schist that shimmers with veins of quartz and mica. Stone walls and parapets throughout the park, constructed with stone excavated on the site, share this shimmer, catching the light from different directions as the sun moves overhead. Amid this embarrassment of riches we might give the city’s nine-to-five and our place in it a glancing thought, but it’s mostly irrelevant in that moment.

By early fall, the garden is starting to retreat.  The velvety-silver lamb’s ear, planted low so children can caress its long ears, start to look a little worse for wear as fall arrives. Slightly battered cabbage roses and Japanese anemones in pale shades still scent the path even as they begin to droop. But on a sunny afternoon in October, in the hazy gold light streaming through fall leaves blazing away across the garden and across the river, all we can see is promise. What more can we possibly ask of a city?

The top of the world

At the end of the heather garden path we encounter the Linden Terrace, a massive stone rampart circling the highest point of the ridge. The terrace seems carved from the bedrock, discovered rather than built. A forest of tall, slim, smooth-barked linden trees keeps the air sweet even on the hottest days of summer.  From the benches along the western wall, we take in the full sweep of the Hudson River, from the George Washington Bridge to the white peaks of the new Tappan Zee Bridge twenty miles away, the headlands of the palisades almost uninterrupted by evidence of human habitation. The view is expansive, endless, but we are protected from the elements, enclosed in safety among the lindens. It’s a plutocrat’s view, the view from the top floor of a skyscraper, except we didn’t have to climb the corporate ladder to get there.

The streets are paved with diamonds

Fort Tryon Park is a fantasy of New York City, the city as lived by John D. Rockefeller, who donated the park in 1935.  We stride along the sparkling walks as though we ourselves are benefactors, framers of this burnished, timeless, prosperous city. Parks everywhere are therapy, solace, but that’s even more true here.

Here, in the dappled light of a warm afternoon, we feel more than a simple respite from our afflictions: the high prospect out above the river, eye-to-eye with a tremendous bridge, makes the city feel legible, tractable, firmly under our control. Here, dozens of workers toiled together, carving water fountains from great blocks of stone and then rigging and lifting them into place, exactly where they would be most welcome. Here, our life is as we always imagined it would be, glorious, redolent, glimmering with possibility.

HK Dunston is an M.S. in Urban Planning Candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

  1. Fort Tryon Park Trust. “Heath and Heathers.” https://www.forttryonparktrust.org/heath-and-heathers/ (accessed October 10, 2018).


“Fort Tryon Park Trust.” Accessed October 17, 2018. https://www.forttryonparktrust.org/.

“Fort Tryon Park – Flower Capital of Manhattan – Fall & Winter.” Accessed October 7, 2018. http://www.forttryonflowers.com/forttryonflowers4.html.

“Olmsted–Designed Parks : NYC Parks.” Accessed October 7, 2018. https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/olmsted-parks.

“The Heather Garden. Fort Tryon Park | The Urban Fuchsia + Blog.” Fuchsias in the City. Accessed October 7, 2018. https://fuchsiasinthecity.com/blog/files/the-heather-garden.php.

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