The largest park in New York City is more than three times the size of Central Park and you’ve probably never heard of it. You might not even know where to look. On most days of the year you’ll have vast swaths of it to yourself if you go there. There are endless forests, empty coves, and miles of trails. And if you walk far enough through it, you’ll stumble over a bridge and into a fishing village on an island that, like the park, you’ve probably never heard of. All of this is a train ride a way, and all within New York City limits.
Growing up, I devoured books for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I dreamt of one day having the entirety of The Encyclopedia Britannica and The World Book neatly organized along a withered shelf that would line my future home (which was, I was 110% positive, going to be a six-bedroom on the beach in Australia with a rocket launch pad and inside would have a mini train track system suspended from the ceiling with open-basket carts that would chug from room to room at the touch of a button...the vision was that I could then throw my laundry or anything else I’d like to pass on from one room to another without having to get up and leave the room, even pass notes to my sisters down the hall [somehow in this fantasy I’m an adult but my sisters still live in perpetual childhood down the hall]...naturally laundry chutes hadn’t yet made their way into my nascent mind but such is the blissful ignorance of a childhood imagination). The centerpiece of the whole house would be a dusty and enchanted wardrobe just like the one in Chronicles of Narnia. As a Californian whose understanding of seasons was reduced to a binary division of days that are above 75 F and days that are below it, the idea that I could step out of my beach-centric sunny life and into a magical, ice-filled, and dead-quiet winter forest was the ultimate dream (nowadays the dream of an Australian-beach-house-with-custom-laundry-train-system-slash-private-rocket-launchpad has been reduced to hoping that one day I’ll have a one bedroom of my own in New York, arguably far loftier than the original plan).
How else would I get to Narnia that with a fantastical port-hole? To a forest of silence, an endless maze of dead trees and frozen ponds, of desolate trails and cloudy skies and no sounds of traffic, of tourists, of even the waves? (when you grow up with eternal sun, you sometimes dream of gloomy weather and darkness….humans are never content I suppose...I bet I would’ve loved wintering in Cleveland as a child)
Can only one doorway take us to places like Narnia? One magical cabinet? Or do such places exist at all in a city? Is quietude reserved only for those willing to jump in a car and drive far beyond the boundless reaches the urban landscape? Or is it right there, under our noses, hiding in plain sight? And if so, how in the hell do you get there?
You take the Uptown 6 train to the end of the line.
I’m talking about Pelham Bay Park and City Island. Both of these places could not feel farther from what most consider “New York”, making a walk between them, in my opinion, a must-have experience for anyone living or visiting the city. That’s exactly what I did on a surprisingly balmy February day this past week and I’ve never felt more transported in my endless number of extraordinarily random trips around NYC.
The most common argument people make for not wanting to live in a city is the lack of proximity to Nature, and I get that. It’s not an entirely wrong assumption by any means and the vast majority of American cities lack significant open space. When you see photos of Midtown or Wall Street, you’re fairly led to the impression that New York is the epitome of this problem.
In a place where buildings block out the sun, with rats of such girth that they could be excusably mistaken for hideous puppies and the most significant topography is the mounds of trash bags that lay exposed in the street and sometimes freeze together to create small mountain ranges not bound by the limitations of plate tectonics….one can be forgiven for forgetting that the Atlantic Ocean is a couple miles away and old growth forests abound within a half hour’s distance of Times Square. And worst of all, most folks think Central Park is really all there is to work with.
Many, very fairly, also think Central Park is the biggest in NYC.
It is America’s most visited public park, it is massive, it is the most filmed park in the world, and it is incredible, end of story. It is the golden standard of landscape architecture.
I love it.
You should absolutely go if you ever find yourself here.
It’s not, however, even in my top five within the city. (which are, for those of you who’ll hound me: Prospect Park (Brooklyn), Inwood Hill Park (the best place in the city on a rainy summer afternoon and last remaining old growth forest in Manhattan), Van Cortlandt Park (Bronx, NYC’s third-largest), Sunset Park (Brooklyn, for its mind-shattering views), and Pelham Bay Park (Bronx), with a notable mention of Fort Greene Park due to its role in Walt Whitman’s writing of famed poetic epic Leaves of Grass that in turn birthed a genuine American literary identity, also it’s seven blocks from my house so I’m unabashedly biased here, and lastly when the leaves fall off you get an epic view of the city through the trees).
Central Park, as I’ve touched on before, is in fact only New York’s 5th largest park. Many more believe it’s the largest park in the country, when it’s not even close. Pelham Bay is only the 38th largest city park in America.…Central Park is meanwhile the 134th American largest park within a city’s limits. That honor goes to Chugach State Park in Anchorage, Alaska, at 490,125 acres. Other notable parks in cities outside New York still crush Central Park: LA’s crown jewel, Griffith Park, is the 22nd largest, while one of my personal favorites in the strange realm of urban oases, Chicago’s Lincoln Park, is 94th in size.
With my vomiting of park acreage ranking statistics now out of the way and cleaned up off the floor, we can finally move on to the reason why you should take the journey there.
But first, more on the journey itself. There is always, at least for me, a sense of wonder around what lies at the end of the line. In New York the vast majority of folks never go to these places. The NYC Subway reaches out like giant sea kelp from the dark ocean floor, with most people down so deep in the urban darkness of Lower Manhattan that they never follow the algal thread outward to where they’ll reach the light.
This metaphor might sound like a stretch (and many of mine are) but I’m of the opinion that its strikingly relevant, both experientially and geographically. In most of Manhattan (until you get north of Central Park) and some of Brooklyn you’ll spend the entirety of your time underground if you take the train, down “below the surface”. As you travel outwards, to the farther reaches of Brooklyn, uptown in Manhattan, east into Queens or most of the Bronx, you’ll eventually rise out of the depths and see the (cloudy) light of day. It’s always an incredible experience, suddenly gaining your bearings after miles of travel below the tallest buildings in America. Travel along elevated track is my favorite type of travel period, even more than flying (looking at you, Chicago, you sexy beast of a town…God I love the L). You get a surreal perspective on a city without losing the fidelity you would from the height of an airplane: you whiz by people talking in the streets, kids throwing the ball around, dogs peeing on things, taxi drivers screaming at each other, random parades celebrating a cause you’ll never know and all else that comes with being here. You are at eye level with or just above the sea of buildings, eliciting a visceral understanding of the imperial scale of the city in a way that is paradoxically lost on you when you walk through Midtown and simply forget to look up.
The ride on the Uptown 6 is one of the purest embodiments of this dark-to-light transition. Unlike other lines that immediately emerge to elevated track upon entering their respective outer boroughs, the 6 actually stays submerged for awhile within The Bronx...meaning that when you do finally shoot up for air, you are IN IT. Be sure to look out the right side of the window at Whitlock Ave station to peer out over the Bronx River and down onto an abandoned station that looks to be straight out of I, Robot (did anyone actually watch that? Can I admit that I liked it? Also, right now, while writing this sentence at Stumptown Coffee Roasters at 30 West 8th in Greenwich Village, a jaded nano-influencer / part-time NYU student with bleach-white Balenciagas and multi-colored eye shadow just looked over and in seeing that I was reading the I, Robot Rotten Tomatoes reviews page, cringed with an un-fakeable disappointment).
This part of the Bronx is as good as it gets for voyeuristic train riding. Similarly to how I described the perspectives from the B/D/F in South Brooklyn in last week’s article about Coney Island and Brighton Island , the views of The Bronx from the uptown 6 are nothing short of incredible. Many people fail to realize how urban it is, when in fact much of the West Bronx is as dense and sometimes even denser than Manhattan and puts much of Brooklyn to shame. These are some real-ass urban neighborhoods, my friends. Towers upon towers upon towers, each with thousands of people living in them, all with their own story. Bodegas for miles. Art Deco apartments as far as the eye can see.
I love coming up here.
Eventually the buildings thin out and given way to more open “vistas”, though they never quite subside. After many more stops, you’ll eventually, if you’ve held on strong, reach the end at Pelham Bay Park station. It’s a great station, mainly because it has a bathroom (a HOT commodity in a city lacking public restrooms...I’ve at times gone a mile or more past my destination to pee at the rare stops that do have them and you’re flatly mistaken if you think I’ll ever reveal all of their locations as my running database of their coordinates is the strongest intellectual property I’ve got these days).
When you walk out of the train you’ll cross over a freeway on a bridge and into a gigantic park. Within the span of 1000 feet, one transitions from the utter chaos of urban life into a land of lonely trails that feels more like Upstate than what comes to mind when people say “The Bronx”. But this is The Bronx...a borough whose geography is in fact dominated by gargantuan expanses of open space.
I encourage you to wander without a plan around here. Come here with time on your hands and get as lost as possible.
It is a New York Narnia.
Which, of course, means the occasional piece of trash or token guy doing drugs but hell that’s what NYC parks are all about, yeah? For the most part, though, it’s clean and beautiful. When I went this past week, the snow was gone but ice remained in the many marshes and ponds hidden beneath the thick woods. I walked, or sauntered as Thoreau would have me say, for hours, enjoying the serenity of a forest all my own. I can’t imagine what this place looks like in summer, undoubtedly it’s gorgeous. But I actually like it in it’s brown and grey take-me-as-I-am state: it exudes a raw honesty and authenticity that, despite a bucolic setting, still oozes the New York in-your-face-ness to which I’m drawn. It’s beauty is not immediately handed to you, making long walks here all the more rewarding.
I made my way roughly northeast, over the Hutchison River with views of Co-Op City, the largest cooperative housing development in the world (read this fascinating 1994 article about in from the New York Times, titled, fittingly, “A City, Bigger Than Many, Within A City”), and Eastchester Bay to the east. Once across the river you enter more woods, rolling hills and one of the city’s last remaining stables. Follow the signs to City Island and along the way you can dip in and out of the forest with views out onto Eastchester Bay.
This is no short walk from the train the City Island, mind you. It’s around 3 miles each way. I later discovered that there’s a bus that runs between the station and the island (see below, I took it on the way back), but such is the risk (and adventure) of traveling around New York with your phone turned off. But it’s a walk worth taking. It’s just the right distance to let a moderate weariness and frustration set in. Just as you’re about to pull out and call an Uber or turn around, the bridge to City Island appears as you round a corner. It makes no sense that this place exists and I’m so glad it does.
Before I traversed the bridge, I took in the view of Long Island Sound. This’ll sound stupid, given that I’ve worked as a cartographer in the past and literally have a degree in geography, but I totally forgot that I’d be seeing the Sound. I’d never seen it, and in a similar vein to the first time my naive West Coast eyes witnessed the infinite plane that is Lake Michigan, I stopped dead in my tracks. It opened up and reached out to the horizon with towns along its banks in the distance and a spattering of small rocky islets in the foreground. Having never experienced this formidable body of water I thought it prudent to wander off the road to its shore.
I stepped my way over there in a clumsy stupor, my feet taking irregular steps as my gaze refused to break contact with this lake-looking-thing that was somehow filled with seawater.
City Island is an island within the city limits of New York that is 1.5 miles long and about a half mile across. It sits in the very back of Long Island Sound, hidden away from the rest of the city. It’s history is bizarre as well, and since I’m already apologetic for dragging you through tangential trenches of fact-barf to get this far in the article, I’ll gloss over the nuts and bolts in brief:
Lenape Indians inhabited it until the area was settled by some English dude named Thomas Pell in 1654. A super famous chick in the history of religious freedom and colonization in the Colonies, Anne Hutchison (for whom the Hutchinson River is named), settled there at one point too. It passed through other dudes’ hands for like a century or whatever. Then some genius named Benjamin Palmer bought it, convinced he could turn it into a city and port that would rival, get this, rival New York City. Well, plot twist, it didn’t. But rather than failing, or succeeding, it kinda just moseyed on. Basically the Revolutionary War came along just as he was about to make the vision a reality (or at least he thought) and totally blew it for our guy Palmer.
A true urban planning tragedy. The full history is amazing in terms of the scope and grandiosity of Palmer’s vision and you should read about it.
What’s grown in its place, however, is far more interesting to me. The island is, essentially, a largely forgotten fishing village in both aesthetic and culture. I do not at all mean “forgotten” in a bad sense. Quite the contrary. This place, at least from what I could gather, enjoys its seclusion. I saw tons of people who ran into friends on the street. It’s the sort of place where everybody knows everybody, something refreshing coming from the core of Manhattan just 14 miles away.
The island centers on its main street, City Island Avenue, and most of its businessss run along its end-to-end-of-the-island length. There are tons of seafood restaurants, bait-and-tackle stores and mom-and-pop establishments. I waited awhile until I found somewhere that fit my vibe and City Island Diner ended up being just that.
If you’ve read any of my posts you already know that I’m obsessed with diners. They are one of America’s greatest cultural contributions to the world and I’ve juggled the idea around of requesting in my will that my funeral be held in one with free reuben sandwiches handed out at the door and a eulogy printed on laminated menus left at every table. Read my “LA by Train” and “Pico-Robertson” articles if you want more diner poetry. City Diner is a place most worthy of my ongoing list. I felt like the only guy in there who didn’t know everyone. The décor is a total throwback in the best way possible. The waiter and waitress were as welcoming and as kind as you’ll ever find on the East Coast. Nautical themed touches gave the place a nostalgia that can’t be replicated. My time in there transported me to a small fishing village, not New York City,
as I discovered on this trip,
the two are not mutually exclusive.
If you want to walk through Narnia and end up in an East Coast fishing town without leaving the biggest city in America,
just take the Uptown 6 to the end of the line.