But Margie reminded me that this was all totally above board – the Parks Department runs a program called the Urban Park Rangers, which offers camping experiences in nearly all the city parks during the summer. The camping is totally free, but due to the demand, slots are awarded by lottery. Margie’s roommate Johanna had put her name in for four slots, and she won – a Friday night in Central Park’s Great Hill. The Parks Department provides you with a tent and dinner, so all you need to bring is a sleeping bag, flashlight, and whatever else you think you might need for a night in Central Park.
So we loaded up our packs, and Cindy and I were headed off to our campsite by subway. Though it’s billed as “family camping,” there were only three or four children in the entire group of 30 campers. The rest were made up of couples without kids or groups of young people (like us) out to experience the city in a new way. First step – set up our tent. We may have been the fastest setting up, but by no means were we the most effective. During the night, one of the stakes holding down our rain fly came loose; when heavy rain struck, water began pouring into the tent, leaving me, sleeping next to the wall, in a rather unpleasant puddle. In my half-awoken state, I thought it better to simply roll away from the rapidly accumulating water than to get up and fix the problem, and I eventually fell back to sleep, sopping wet. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After dinner, we waited a while for the sun to set completely so that we could embark on a nighttime hike with a park ranger. I was pretty unfamiliar with the northern potion of Central Park, but the hike convinced me it’s a place I need to return to in the daylight. I can’t recall the exact route of our hike (it was pitch dark, after all), but we walked along the Pool and the Loch – a series of ponds, waterfalls and archways that evoke incredible seclusion – and out to Lasker Pool. Along the way we encountered a raccoon (which I didn’t see) and a screech-owl (which I only heard).
One of the intriguing things about Central Park is that the landscape at once gives you a sense of what a wild Manhattan may have looked like, yet at the same time it is an entirely artificial creation. The northern reaches of the park were hilly, and streams flowed through it, both of which are absent in the surrounding streetscape. One stop on our hike was the Blockhouse, a redoubt dating to the Revolutionary War and the park’s oldest structure, which still sits on the original hill it did back then. Yet so much of the landscape is manufactured. Hills were plowed down and built up; streams dug and waterfalls formed; trees planted and meadows cut. The park’s architects wanted visitors to have a transcendent experience of the natural world, but the slice of Manhattan they carved out offered insufficient majesty and diversity of features in its natural state for their liking. The park has also changed greatly since it opened and adapted to meet the needs and tastes of the city around it. Rather than “a retreat as completely rural in character as circumstances would admit,” as its chief architect Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned it, Central Park is a recreational and cultural resourcing serving far wider functions – and a far wider public – than Olmsted ever imagined.
It is in these spaces, I would argue, where one can still experience the “retreat” that Olmsted was aiming for, and in fact, they are as much a part of the resurgence of the natural in New York as our parks. Deindustrialization has opened up new spaces for habitat, and when combined with an already extensive network of parks and a commitment to cleaning up the city’s air and waterways, it means natural diversity is returning to New York in a big way. Sometimes this comes as a pleasant surprise, as when beavers reappeared in the Bronx River, or a seal lumbered up on a Manhattan beach. Other times, we find it less convenient, like yesterday, when a bale of turtles invaded a runway at JFK Airport, or when a flock of geese put a passenger jet in the Hudson. Author Robert Sullivan wrote last year in New York Magazine:
But back to Central Park. After the hike, we retired to our tents around 11, earlier than we would on most Friday nights, and judging by the sounds around us, earlier than most people in New York City. Throughout the night we could hear the rumble of traffic on Central Park West and the clatter of the Metro-North trains on the Park Avenue Viaduct to the east. The park does not close until 1 a.m., and people seemed to take full advantage of this late curfew. Between the traffic noise and a nearby drum circle that started up around midnight (not to mention the small flood that would come later), it was a somewhat restless night for me. But we could not sleep in because we had to be packed up and off the lawn by 8 a.m., when the sprinkler system is scheduled to turn on. Soon after that, our little campground would turn back into a field for children playing games and Saturday picnickers.
By 8:30, I was back home in Brooklyn, hanging up my pack and sleeping bag in the shower to dry, and thankful that, in this city that can seem so impossibly crowded, so removed from natural beauty, you can still experience at least a taste of wilderness.
If you would like to participate in the Family Camping program, online registration takes place throughout the summer, and there are upcoming programs in nearly all the participating parks, including Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Click here for registration deadlines, program dates, and other details. Nate Kensinger recently wrote about his own urban camping experience, and the piece includes photographs of the campsite at Staten Island’s Wolfe’s Pond Park, as well as a lot of useful information about camping opportunities in New York City. If you would like to see more work by Kristen Brenneman Eno, visit her website.
For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson or leave a comment. If you would like to follow this blog, subscribe to our RSS feed or sign up for the Urban Oyster email newsletter. All photos by Andrew Gustafson unless noted.