Raising Rippers

Green spaces or no, outdoorsy families can find pockets of adventure in New York City.     Photo: Santos Gonzalez/Flickr

Finding Adventure Beyond Nature

Enveloped by New York City's concrete jungle, a family finds its perception of adventure and the outdoors irrevocably changed.

"One need never leave the confines of New York City to get all the greenery one could wish..."

Well, that's arrogant, more than a little myopic (have New Yorkers ever been accused of that?). These words are welded into the railing surrounding the World Financial Center harbor in lower Manhattan. 

Recently, I found myself in New York City, the city where I was born, though not raised, and to which I returned in my twenties. I found myself thinking about several earlier trips to the city with our kids and, oddly, I found myself trying to define adventure. 

Oddly, because I tend to think of adventure as heading into the wilderness, but maybe that's because of where I came from. New York is closer to the environment I was used to as a child than is the vast outdoor childhood of my kids. Maybe adventuring just means exploring an environment that's unknown to you. As it turned out, for my Montana-based kids—kids for whom a half-mile-high mountain was a familiar playground by the time they were ten, who could paddle rivers, and hike forests—heading into the urban tangle, navigating subways, streets and avenues, was an adventure. But when we first took our kids to New York City we were worried. What exactly does one do with energetic, physical, adventuresome kids in a big city?

To New York's credit, the city is trying hard to create "greenery," to make sure leafy, open spaces are available to people all across the city (not just for those living near Central Park). And they're succeeding. The spaces are beautiful. The adventure is finding them.

When I'm alone in the city, I just wander, look at the architecture, visit museums, find my old haunts. But ambling walks were not going to cut it with our kids. Unless...we could make it a game.

In my twenties, I discovered a network of "pocket parks," mostly in midtown Manhattan. So on one of our first trips, my husband, Peter, and our kids, Molly and Skyler, and I set off on a scavenger hunt. Our goal: to find as many pocket parks as possible. Like coming on a secret glade in a tangled rainforest, these tiny parks tucked into concrete canyons are magical refuges; several have walls of water, effectively replacing the sound of car horns with a steady, soothing whoosh. Our kids were enchanted. We found four before we retired to the Plaza Hotel in search of food and the mischievous, storybook character, Eloise.

The bellhop looked regretfully at Molly. "She's just stepped out," he said, absolutely straight faced.

For our kids, everything about that trip was new and exciting, from staring out the front window of the lead subway car—watching the tracks curve and straighten, the subterranean stop lights change from red to green—to riding the elevators up to the observation deck of one of the original World Trade Towers to peer down at the tiny toy cars one hundred and ten floors below.

From the World Trade Center, we headed a few blocks west to the Hudson River and our favorite park, the Battery Park City Esplanade, a 36-acre complex of riverside gardens. (It's also a popular site for Saturday afternoon wedding photos. On our very first trip when Molly was one, she got scooped into the arms of an Asian couple, posing in white gown and tux. Nothing like a strange blonde toddler in your wedding photos for a conversation starter.)

She was too young that first time to do more than walk or ride piggy back, but with older kids if you pack rollerblades, a skate board, or a fold-up scooter (which also serves as camouflage if your child wants to pass for a Manhattan school kid) you can keep your children occupied for hours, winding through open lawns, past fountain-sprayed ponds, whimsical sculpture parks, beach-volleyball courts, skate parks and mini-golf greens. And now, if you don't want to pack your own wheels, you can rent a Citi Bike from ubiquitous rows of blue bike stands. Strolling along the esplanade you'll pass a floating origami-like glass pavilion, the New Jersey-bound ferry terminal.

It reminded me of taking the ferry to Staten Island, which you can catch at Manhattan's southern tip. One of the five boroughs of New York City, Staten Island is a 25-minute, boat trip away. I used to go with my father when I was the kid visiting the city, just for the fun of the ride. It's easy to forget, amid the skyscrapers, that New York is a city of islands and waterways, on the brink of an ocean. But looking out over the river, at the widening harbor, at freighters and barges, tugboats and ferries, one can really feel it.

Returning to the Battery Park City Esplanade this time, I discovered something new, lodged at the end of Vesey St.: the Irish Hunger Memorial. It commemorates the potato famine that first sent the Irish to our shores and urges us, today, to consider modern issues of hunger. Probably doesn't sound like a prime destination for kids. But it would be for mine. It's a "wild" hill, built on a frame of glass and limestone. Embedded at its foot are the remains of a nineteenth-century, Irish, stone cottage. From there paths meander upward through an overgrown-grass-and-rock landscape, a "fallow field." At the top, one hovers over New York Harbor, where, still thrusting her torch in the air, is the Statue of Liberty, as commanding a presence as ever. Beyond her are the immigrant-clearing houses of Ellis Island. You can't get a much more visceral connection to the metaphor of America.

Turning around, one's eyes follow the sleek, faceted sides of the new World Trade Tower rising up to its sky-piercing spire at the top. The 9/11 Memorial is still under construction at its base. At this point, had my kids been there, at that cusp of past and future, it would have been a provocative moment for a conversation.

New York is fabulous for this—for provoking the conversation. The conversation about the relationship between man and nature, between man and man; the conversation about what man can create—you're surrounded by it and it's magnificent—but also what man can destroy. These are the conversations we often have with our kids, but for "wilderness" kids, the city gives these discussions a whole new spin.

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