November 28, 2008

An Autumn Walk Along the Hudson

It's the day after Thanksgiving. The stores are crowded, the movie you want to see is sold out, you've got enough leftovers for dinner, so what to do?

Put on a jacket, gloves and a hat and walk due west. Way west to the Hudson River! Down the stairs at 68th Street, look both ways before you cross the bike path, and you'll find yourself in a section of Riverside Park that extends Fredrick Law Olmstead's vision for 21.5 more acres and opens up a whole new venue for getting outdoors in the big city.

Let's go back to the beginning. In the 17th Century, the Riverside Park area was known as "Bloemendal", Dutch for "vale of flowers". By the mid 1800's New York's growing population had pushed north and the verdant countryside became more residential. A steam rail service that connected the city with upstate ran along the river's edge and in 1869 Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired the land on the water's edge and began to build the New York Central Railroad Yard.

This series of waterfront structures served as the main loading facility for cargo from ships and barges to be received or shipped out. A remarkable system of Gantry ramps allowed boxcars to roll on and off barges that traversed the Hudson River. The piers in the 60th Street Yard were angled to the southwest from the shoreline to allow trains to pull onto the piers from the north-south tracks in the yard. South of 59th Street, the piers were built perpendicular to the tracks.

With the decline of passenger rail travel and the shift of rail freight to trucks, the Penn Central Railroad (the successor to the New York Central) went bankrupt in 1970 and the yards closed. The next year a spectacular fire burned 4 of the piers and left nothing but a twisted skeleton of steel which remains to this day.

Since that time this area along the Hudson had been a sort of no-man's land until Donald Trump bought the rights to the property and began to plan a new residential and commercial development. His proposals were debated until finally an agreement was reached in 1992 that provided for several high rise apartment buildings, the relocation of part of the elevated highway and a new waterfront park.

The result is Riverside Park South - stretching from 72nd Street to 59th Street, this new section of the Park is an oasis from the hoards of people who converge on the more famous Central Park. Wooden walkways and concrete paths cut through grasses and wildflowers with plenty of benches and spots to stop and enjoy the view. A 715 foot long recreational pier is a haven for fishermen or anyone who just likes to watch the water traffic. And the hulking remains of the area's past remind us of the days before superhighways and jets when iron tracks were the city's lifeline. There is even an original New York Central steam locomotive, built in 1945 and identical to the kind that moved freight cars along these tracks years ago.

This is an amazing place to go for a walk and soak up a little history while you breath the fresh air. Sure, it's windy, but the pleasure of being outside and in a wide open space is intoxicating. The holidays are upon us. Take a little break and go! You'll enjoy it!

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