When I think of New York City I think of the color green. Which is not how I saw the city on my first trip there. Then, it felt like all those gigantic buildings of glass and brick were looming over me, choking out the sky. I thought that the hurrying dark clothed masses would trample me to get to the next sidewalk. New York City seemed to perfectly fit my idea of Batman’s Gotham: dark and forbidding. If there was just a bit of green tucked away somewhere, I knew I could manage to find some peace in this urban jungle of metal and asphalt.
So I asked around, read up on the city’s storied past, and bought myself a subway map. I learned that long before New York City became a mangle of industrialization, it used to have carefully tended neighborhoods filled with gated courtyards and old stable yards. Little plots of grass, a lone tree, and a few strategically placed flowers turned urban decay into fashionable addresses like Washington Square, Waverly Place, and St. John’s Park. Behind these secluded houses were the rooms that gave refuge to the fantasies of novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton. Tramping amid the skyscrapers, I was able to discover some of these secret garden courts for myself in forgotten portions of the megapolis.
Not far away from Washington Square is the Mews, the backside of “proper” Washington Street. At one time this is where the stables of New York aristocracy were housed, but the cobblestone streets, the ivy covered brick and stucco carriage houses, and the inset Victorian doors speak of a time when social status and outward appearance meant everything. Today, this quiet back alley is a green corner in which I can be transported back to a time when New York City was less a mass of glass and steel. Standing on this forgotten corner, I imagine an era when neighborhoods were communities and where foliage and vegetation thrived. Secret gardens such as these are one of the reasons I can embrace serenity in the city that never sleeps.
In the Cloister
One of my favorite green spots is a diminutive herb garden inside the high walls of a medieval cloister. Yes, this is a sight in New York City, if you can believe it. This cloister was painstakingly built from various pieces of French monasteries and houses one of the ultimate collections of art and artifacts from Europe’s Middle Age. It is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is one of my favorite havens in the “Big Apple,” not just because of the delicate and orderly monastery garden hidden here. The Cloisters house a genuine chapel with gorgeous stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and even medieval armor. If I caught a glimpse of King Arthur parading around the covered walkway, or Brother Cadfael inspecting the daily herbs in the courtyard garden, or Robin Hood sheltering inside the chapel, I would not be surprised. The Cloisters furnish an ideal transport to a contemplative time and a journey here is a wonderful way to spend the day in the city, rain or shine.
The High Line
There is a modern green elevated parkway that runs amid the skyscrapers in New York City that I also love to relax in. In the 1930s, this verdant High Line used to be a set of railroad tracks that dropped off produce, like frozen turkeys, along the Meat Packing district. Nowadays, the tracks still exist but their grunge has been greened over with prairie clover, bluestem, and hemmed borders of petunias. Creeping vines of wisteria clamber along the chain link fences. With all of its plants and trees, the High Line in New York City provides me a stylish spot of green that transitions well from the historic greenery I usually seek out in Gotham.
New York Oasis
Eight hundred and forty-three acres of grass, shrubs, flowers, and trees can be found right in the heart of Manhattan. Central Park has been a place where New Yorkers could find open space and tranquility since 1857. As the city has mushroomed with industry and inhabitants, Central Park has become an essential respite at the center of a maze of gray buildings. To find my quiet patch in this popular playground, I head to the intimate Shakespeare Garden with its flower lined walkways and glimpses of Belvedere Castle. When I am in the mood for bucolic rambles I head to the Loch near the forty acre area of the park known as the North Woods. Here, every vestige of metropolis is shed in the shade of blooming trees and the gentle whisper of the cascades.
For me, there’s nothing better than discovering these bits of greenery in a city that loves to show off its glamour and polish. New York City may be sexy, sophisticated, and urbane for others, but to my eyes the city presents a network of secret gardens that provide peace, comfort, and a sense of belonging in a city that too often seems cold and harsh.
New York City is filled with farmers’ markets which provide fresh and green produce to locals and visitors. With over forty markets spread out through the city, there’s always a place to find a bit of green for your next meal. Most of the markets are open year round and have scheduled days and times when they are open.
Join us in our search for the hidden gardens of New York City in the Bespoke Traveler Journal: On Garden Paths.