I want to be alone. Not surprisingly, in Manhattan I crave occasional solitude now as I did growing up a middle child in a midwestern family of twelve; back then my refuge was our backyard where, under an Ohio sky, I’d read in the shade of my mother’s rosebushes or unearth insects from the moist soil. It was the perfect escape from the chaos of family life, a wonderland suitable for dreamy introspection.
My desire to play with insects left me long ago, but as an adult I still seek that elusive backyard or some intimate setting where my mind can succumb to a tonic of trees and grass. While few of us can claim access to Gramercy Park, in lower Washington Heights isolated spots provide a respite from the chaos of city life. Some are community gardens, former vacant lots taken over by residents of the neighborhood, while others adjoin such established institutions as churches or historical landmarks. Their survival can be attributed to civic organizations like Greenthumb, the New York Parks and Recreation Commission and hard-working individuals committed to the idea of a little green.
At the Morris-Jumel Mansion (65 Jumel Terrace at 160th Street, one block east of St. Nicholas Avenue, photo above), the approach signals the ground’s secluded aura. The streets surrounding the estate are the antithesis of the worn shops and the Bronx housing projects visible from the grounds; beautiful 19th century brownstones reinforce the out of time/place sensation. Upon entering the estate’s gates, one encounters to their right an unfolding slope of lawn; at left, a lush garden spills. Here, life is made in the shade thanks to the diverse array of trees that frame the 1765 mansion.
The sounds of the city fade to nothingness, due to the property’s position atop a veritable mountain (during the Revolutionary War, this perch was George Washington’s headquarters, so chosen for its commanding view of Central Manhattan). On weekends, not even tourists mar the solitude. Strolling the perimeter, their voices instinctively drop to murmurs, no doubt awed by such artifacts as the colonial-era sundial enclosed within an octagonal hedge. Summer concerts (usually string quartets) complement the gentility of the place, making it a backyard for grownups starved for a hushed, lulling experience.
It’s hard to miss Convent Garden (492 Convent Avenue). This triangular swatch of park is the fork in the road at which tony Convent Avenue begins. Designated a public park by the Board of Estimate in 1909, the property has had many lives: at one point it was the site of gas station. The Greenstreets Program adopted it and the result is a veritable Sugar Hill (one of the neighborhood’s nicknames) country club. The sense that I’ve left the maddening crowd begins tactilely, for as you step inside the ground appears to give way. “It’s the sod,” crows Juliette Davis, an Alabama native who is the designated caretaker. “People come in just to walk barefoot in the summer months.” Davis’ hand is everywhere; the gazebo is a gift of the Marriott Corporation, but Davis herself salvaged the charming statuaries, the birdbath and other trappings from various sources. Nestled among the shade of the magnolia and willow trees, the eccentric figurines heighten the English garden effect: no wonder this spot is popular, hosting either holiday barbecues or wedding photo ops. The pokeberries and rose bushes glisten with the dew of a fresh watering and something else: pride.
A graveyard as a contemplative garden? It may sound perverse, but the Trinity Church Cemetery Mausoleum (entrance at Amsterdam Avenue and 154th St.) radiates a seductive placidity. Arguably the largest site of internment on the island of Manhattan, this property stretches downhill from Amsterdam to Riverside Drive (divided by Broadway), and south to north from 153rd to 155th Streets. Walking up 154th Street from the east, the mighty gates beckon like a movie set. Once inside, serpentine pathways weave in and out of crypts and monuments that date to the mid 1800s. Gaze up and take in the immense oak trees that obliterate the outside world, or read the headstones with antiquated names like “Garrit Storm” or “Virtue S. Harm.” Perusing the dates etched on the stones (what short life spans they had back then) provide a humbling reminder that in the end we’re just specks in time; it’s a cool drink of perspective, though not to everyone’s taste.
Considering that it was once farmland owned by the naturalist/painter James Audubon, how ironic thatAudubon Terrace (155th and Broadway) isn’t really a garden at all, unless you count the sprig of a willow tree blowing in the rear. Regardless, the outdoor plaza is quite a show, a long multi-leveled terrace of zigzagging red brick. Most people come for the stunning examples of early 20th Century Beaux-Arts architecture variously designed by Charles Pratt Huntington, Stanford White and Cass Gilbert. These are actually museums that house The Hispanic Society of America, The American Numismatic Society (the “money museum”) and The American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. A section of the plaza drops down a level, revealing a fountain crowned by a statue of El Cid. This spot holds personal resonance: years ago, cowed by a devastating breakup, I’d often come here to submerge my pain in the music of the trickling water.
Looking down on the plaza are reliefs of Boabdil (the last Moorish king of Granada) and Don Quixote, while the names of Cervantes, Pizarro, Velasquez and others float above the Ionic capitals like a mantra, apt for the surrounding neighborhood whose populace is largely Hispanic. Enhancing the brick face are some lovely stanzas courtesy of the institution’s developer, Archer Milton Huntington. One is titled España, and as the sun rains down, it’s clear that the poem’s majestic imagery speaks as much to this secret place as that European land—or perhaps a country that lives in the minds of all men:
Land of the winds and promise of desire
Land of ethereal distances and dreams
Land of the song of battles and of love
High, high, above
Each silvered height in magic moonlight gleams
O haunted land of mystery and fire!