Monday, July 18, 2011

Urban Gadabout: Hiking Highbridge Park -- you might think terror of heights wouldn't matter much to an urban gadder, but you'd be wrong


Once upon a time the Polo Grounds sat at the foot of Coogan's Bluff.

by Ken

For your avid urban gadder, does this sound fabulous or what?
Highbridge Park Hike with Sidney Horenstein
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.

Highbridge Park is situated at the edge of a Manhattan cliff that overlooks the Harlem River and the western edge of the Bronx. Vistas from the park reveal topographic features that provide insight into the areas underlying geologic structure. The park is also the home to a segment of the old Croton Aqueduct Trail which you will traverse. With Sidney Horenstein as your guide, discover these fascinating artifacts as you learn about the Harlem River and some historical features adjacent to the park.

Sidney Horenstein is a geologist by training and Educator Emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History. His geology and history walks in Northern Manhattan Parks garner rave reviews from neophytes and veteran rock hounds alike.

Because there are staircases on the route, the program is not wheelchair accessible.

This program is made possible by the generosity of the Greenacre Foundation.

West 155 Street & Edgecombe Avenue (in Highbridge Park), Manhattan

Location Details:
Meet at the northwestern corner of 155th Street and Edgecomb Avenue.


Event Organizer
Northern Manhattan Parks

I'm looking forward to it, and by this time tomorrow should have the walk under my belt. Or else I will have fled in terror, or maybe not fled, because when I find myself in places -- a steep hill, a bridge, an elevated subway, a steeply raked theater or stadium -- that the pit of my stomach and especially the balls of my feet tell me are too high for the likes of me, and I'm caught between the seemingly equally fraught options of moving forward or retreating, my locomotion tends to be in increments of a fraction of an inch.

Maybe I'll write about this at greater length some other time, though my experience is that the only terrors people tend to have interest in, and patience for, are those that they find personally terrifying, and non-acrophobics probably think we sufferers are just wusses.

I'm really hoping to be able to do this walk with the apparently eminent geologist Sidney Horenstein, much as I was looking forward to a scheduled walk a few weeks ago in Fort Tryon Park. Since I live in Washington Heights, at the northern end of Manhattan, Fort Tryon Park to the north and west and Highbridge Park to the east are more or less my "neighborhood" parks. Somehow, though, even though I managed to make it all the way from the southern end of Manhattan to the starting point of the Fort Tryon Park tour by about a minute after 6pm that evening, I found no trace of Professor Horenstein or the tour. So tomorrow, assuming I can screw up my courage, I plan to leave early enough to be at the northwest corner of 155th Street and Edgecomb Avenue in plenty of time.

The thing is the northern end of Manhattan is, shall we say, highly vertical. When I missed the Fort Tryon Park walk, instead of just making the 10-minute walk home, I did some wandering around the park, and frequently found myself in icky height-challenging situations. I don't know if it would have been better or worse if I'd been with the group. On the one hand, the need to keep up might simply force me to gut it out; on the other hand, it might simply amp up the humiliation quotient without in any way impinging on the terror factor. (The photo shows a tiny bit of sample terrain from Highbridge Park.)

In my advancing years I've gotten a little better in some ways. Last month when I did the Municipal Art Society walking tour of Newtown Creek, knowing in advance that a central feature was walking across the Pulaski Bridge over the creek from Brooklyn to Queens, while it's true that most of my thoughts for days ahead involved incipient terror at crossing the bridge, I did in the end actually manage it -- though there were times when it was close. Our access to the bridge roadway was a four-flight staircase, and the transition from the second to the third flight left me feeling so exposed that for a couple of minutes I just didn't think I could make it. But as the elderly and infirm tour members sauntered on past, eventually I sucked it up and did it, and then shuffled my way across the bridge, even managing occasional quick sideways glances for bits of the wonderful views. Still, I was so relieved to make it to the Queens end -- also aware that I now had to get down those four flights of stairs -- that I foolishly forgot to look out for what should have been a splendid view of Hunters Point, the southwestern tip of Queens, where Newtown Creek empties into the East River.

As I say, in some ways I've gotten better than I used to be. I can now sometimes force myself to accomplish a feat like the above. A couple of weeks ago I was seriously tempted to attempt my second-ever crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge, understandably one of New York City's most famous and beloved walks, but for me one of the more nerve-wracking experiences of my life. Can I maybe do it now a little less stressfully?

I haven't tested it yet, because in some ways I'm worse now. I'm much more aware of height-frighting situations, like elevated-subway platforms, where I never used to pay much attention to the height.

And I'm expecting a lot of verticality in the Highbridge Park walk. At 155th Street, for example, the park's southern edge, its eastern edge is Coogan's Bluff, which to me is not a Clint Eastwood movie but the site of the old home of the New York Giants and Mets, the Polo Grounds -- except that the stadium sat at the foot of the bluff. Not that many years ago I unintentionally found myself attempting to negotiate what I eventually figured out was Coogan's Bluff, and I can still remember the terror I felt even when I was safely at the top of the cliff.

TUESDAY EVENING UPDATE: Back from Highbridge Park

The path along the edge of Coogan's Bluff overlooking the Harlem River brought us out from the right to the Manhattan end of the High Bridge, built in 1848 to carry water to Manhattan as part of the Croton Aqueduct system.

Well, I made it! We had a swell walk through the path in Highbridge Park along the upper edge of the bluff -- and I do mean the edge, with a pretty steep dropoff much of the way which forced me to edge as far away as the not-especially-horizontal path allowed. Luckily for me, there's enough growth on most of the cliffside to block the view. I had my rough stretches, but hey, I'm here to tell the tale.

And it's always an incredible treat to be guided by someone who knows so much about the underlying geology of the area as well the history. And even I was able to enjoy some of the views across the Harlem River to the Bronx. Luckily again, Professor Horenstein was there to lift our gaze to the farthest distance over the Bronx to a ridge in the farthest distance: the Terminal Moraine that divides northern and southern Long Island, marking the farthest reach of the same glacier that shaped the geology of Washington Heights, where we were.

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