By Yisroel Rosner
Washington Heights has a deep history of population change and demographic fluctuation. However, two things that have remained constant are Yeshiva University’s flagship campus and vibrant culture surrounding it. The primarily non-Jewish community surrounding us represents the bridge from our world to the greater outside. Whatever values we espouse from the Yeshiva University environment are ultimately meant to be applied outside our little bubble. Subsequently, it is important to learn about and explore other cultures so that we may relate to them. There is nowhere better to start than our university’s hometown, Washington Heights.
Congressman Adriano Espaillat remarked about the Heights at the recent Nosotros event, “I’d venture to say it’s the only neighborhood that still has a pulse.” Now, while Washington Heights certainly has no shortage of energy, it also has more subtle avenues of attraction. Fort Tryon Park represents one of the more overlooked aspects of the ‘pulsating’ neighborhood of Washington Heights.
Any true vibrant neighborhood cannot merely offer 24/7 stimulation and radiate cultural pride, but must also provide an ‘eye of the storm,’ a respite that allows reflection in order for the vibrancy to be focused. Fort Tryon and Fort Washington Parks serve this role in Washington Heights. Generally, when people are asked to think of an “urban retreat” in Manhattan, they are essentially being told to conjure up an image of Central Park. While it is true that the great green rectangle is synonymous with nature in the Big Apple, in my humble opinion Fort Tryon park captures the duality of NYC even better: the beautiful cohesion of the minutiae of busy day-to-day life amalgamated with rejuvenation. Due to the Manhattan Schist, Fort Tryon Park, along with its Fort Washington twin, exceed the elevation of the relatively lower, but still high in altitude, central Washington Heights, making the area the true natural summit of Manhattan. If one stops to contemplate the height even for a moment, they can’t escape the visceral symbolism of a personal dominion over “the big picture”, literally and figuratively towering over the city. Consequently, Fort Tyron is an ideal place for introspection.
As soon as you enter the park you are bombarded by many different varieties of deciduous trees, including the rare and conserved semi-deciduous American Elm. You feel as if you are more so entering a forest than an urban park. You notice that the trees stay concentrated on the slope as you walk up, and that when you finally reach the open area summit, you get a panorama not of the city-scape, but of trees. The knowledge that you’re above everything enters your mind, but you can’t see what you’ve left behind. You can only see what is ahead.
On the trail is The Met Cloisters, a Metropolitan Museum building, specializing in European Medieval Art, that loudly screams ‘We are not in NYC anymore.’ The architecture of the structure is full of dramatic, gothic, angular columns, Greek Pillars, and early Renaissance aesthetic streaks. Seemingly, Fort Tryon Park is a meta-anachronism, designed to take you out of your current place, present time. As you walk along the trails to the west side of the park, you are rewarded with the only real view within the park’s confines: the Hudson River, glimmering front, center, and below, highlighting the George Washington Bridge and the slightly elevated shore of the continental United States. It’s an idealistic image perfect for whom Kermit might say, “The lovers, the dreamers, and me”. The park also offers an assortment of majestic arches, sports facilities, and various trails, but ultimately Fort Tryon’s attraction is its fully immersive offering to retreat to nature. There is no appeal to an admittedly beautiful view of Midtown Manhattan skyline like Central Park, and no resort to gigantic zoos and botanical gardens like Bronx Park. Fort Tryon Park is by design a sleepy little, ancient hollow in the city that never sleeps.