What happens when a park ranger who is used to hikes and digging into the history and geography of a place moves to New York City? The world turns upside down—and sometimes the favorite part of my day was my commute into work. Yep, I know that seems weird.
Until this past spring, I lived and worked in New York City. I lived in New York’s most populous borough, Brooklyn, and commuted by subway into Manhattan every morning, joining more than a million and a half people who did the same each day (pre-pandemic, that is). I was a bit of an oddity in that my destination was the ferry in Battery Park that would take me to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, not a tall office building, but otherwise, my commute was pretty average. In fact, between the time needed to walk to and from subway stops and the time on the R train, my commute was—if all went well—27 minutes. It turns that 27 minutes was the average commute for an American in 2019, though considered short by New York standards.
I was new to a big city, and the novelty of taking a subway, people watching, and seeing the patterns and changes in the same city streets each day didn’t wear off in the two years I lived in New York. The R train I took spoiled me in that the ride would almost always be happily uneventful and rarely crowded and I’d get a good 20 or 25 minutes of reading in before we’d cross under the East River and the doors would open at Whitehall Station, the first stop in Manhattan. Thus began the Choose Your Own Adventure that was the part of my commute I’d look forward to every day.
I would always leave my apartment with an extra thirty minutes for the commute, advantageous on those days where the trains were running on a “modified schedule,” to make sure I didn’t miss the ferry. Most days trains would be running on time and I’d have twenty or thirty glorious minutes to walk wherever I wanted in Lower Manhattan.
Depending on what time it was when we left Whitehall, I’d wait to get off for one, two, or three more stops. Most commonly, I’d emerge from underground at City Hall, with the green of the city park and historic City Hall on my left and the towering Woolworth Building on my right.
From here, I could head in three general directions. Would my morning consist of a left turn into the quiet meandering streets of eastern Lower Manhattan? Or would I head west to the upscale neighborhood of Battery Park City along the Hudson? Or would it be straight down the busy sidewalks of Broadway?
Left would take me to the winding historic street to oldest part of New York, much of which is now part of the Financial Districct. Much older than the city grid of Midtown, this part of Lower Manhattan was laid out by the Dutch, which means it careens and winds to get around old windmills long since torn down, streams long since dried up, and patches of forest long since chopped down. Once in a blue moon I still got lost.
What walking through streets—some familiar, some new—meant for me is that I felt instantly rooted in the land I walked on. The daily routines and buildings and types of people that find themselves on these streets added to this unique sense of Place, yes, and also the history of these places and the fact I was on an island, part of the eastern woodland ecosystem that’s been not quite obliterated by concrete and steel. My explorations soon meant that I was reading books on the history of the city and was drawn to exhibits at museums about the city. Maybe it was my years of park service training or the fact that I too was working at a museum and monument in New York, but my commute soon became to be about Place. How these neighborhoods and business are all inter-tangled in history and the present.
In Lower Manhattan, many streets still bore the names from colonial New York, reflecting early New Yorkers (Fulton, Cliff, William) or what use to happen there: Maiden Lane was where Dutch women would go to a stream to get water, Pearl Street is where piles of mother-of-pearl oyster shells were piled in the days of abundant oysters, Bridge Street is where a Dutch bridge once crossed a small canal. Today’s Stone Street was New York’s first paved street, covered with cobblestones in 1655. The most famous street, if I chose to pass it, was Wall Street, where a fence-like wall was constructed in 1653 by the Dutch in anticipation of an attack from England (the war didn’t come until much later, by which the wall/fence had already proved insufficient during skirmishes with American Indians).
These winding, historic streets were mostly empty in the morning. One block I might pass a woman with a cup of coffee in her hand walking a tiny white fluffy dog, another, I might pass a nurse in scrubs likely getting off her shift at nearby New York Presbyterian Hospital. A couple people including a security guard headed into a Dunkin’ Donuts—were they starting or ending work shifts? A few shops on the narrow streets might be open—a café that always smelled of frying bacon, the CVS pharmacy—but the lunch spots, electronics stores, and stationary shops would usually be shuttered when I walked by.
If it was an especially nice morning and I had more time, from Wall Street I’d head left towards the East River see the rising sun behind the stone towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. A nice walking path took me underneath the busy FDR Drive along the East River looking across at Brooklyn and back to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. If it were a weekday, the city would finally feel busy with all sorts of office workers, construction workers, and joggers, plus many of New York’s homeless moving around the sidewalks and streets.
I miss seeing what changed over the weeks and months I walked these streets. The Stock Exchange would hang a new banner for whatever company was going public that day. The annual Christmas tree, giant menorah and Kwanzaa decorations got prepped, put up, and then taken down. One morning on a small concrete wall there was a glass of what looked like it might have been whiskey and ice a few hours before, sitting next to an abandoned black sweater. Another time I passed a black feathered boa lying on the sidewalk. One Saturday morning there were a half dozen roses lying scattered in the street.
The streets continued to create stories.
If I headed to the right from City Hall instead of towards the Financial District, I would be heading through the very southern part of the neighborhood of TriBeCa into the upscale neighborhood of Battery Park City (BPC). This route would take me by the site of the Twin Towers and I would try and walk by the 9/11 Memorial, sometimes pausing, sometimes just letting my gaze linger on the thousands of names, remembering. One morning a man in a black T-shirt caught my eye. His shirt read Paradigm Shift.
Soon I’d be in Battery Park City and no longer on original Manhattan Island land. It was during the digging out of the Twin Towers in the 1970’s that Manhattan expanded to the west, the earth moved to create the landfill that the neighborhood of BPC now occupied. In contrast to my walk to the east side of Manhattan, no buildings on this route were older than fifty years and many have been added and repaired since the damage done by the September 11 terrorist attacks. While old Dutch Manhattan and the Financial District have few apartments, BPC is mostly residential. I’d pass some fancy hotels, tall glass apartment buildings, a community garden, and small dog run and ball field. There were two fancy Gristedes Foods markets where I could get a quart of strawberries for $7 or $8 dollars (they were $2 in Chinatown), a scattering of bars and cafes—Inattesco Café, Miramar, Ningbo Café—and a few schools and daycares.
I’d usually cut through the neighborhood, wait for the long light to change to cross over the busy West Side Highway, and catch up with the Battery Park Esplanade, a pleasant pedestrian and bike path along the Hudson River with views of Jersey City and the Statue of Liberty.
On the Esplanade, I’d usually share the path with a few joggers and dog walkers, though depending on what time I was there, parents walking their kids to school might join as well. This route was where I’d head if I needed a little nature as I’d pass under young trees that turned a brilliant orange in the fall and past garden planters sporting tulips in the spring. Birds twittered in the bushes. In summer leaves of the planted trees would rustle in the wind while in winter chunks of ice would occasionally drift past in the river.
The path curved sharply in to the left when the 1970’s landfill ended and I’d soon pass the Museum of Jewish Heritage before entering Battery Park by a 1909 gigantic bronze statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano, looking incredibly heroic. In 1594, Verrazzano was the first European to see what is today New York Harbor, and Verrazzano most famously is honored by the bridge that bears his name and connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island. If the day was clear, I could see the tall gray towers of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge as I rounded the corner past the statue and a large pink sandstone War-of-1812-era fort today known as Castle Clinton.
By the afternoon, Battery Park would be full of vendors selling sunglasses and handbags, a group of hip-hop dancers putting on a performance, caricature artists walking around with signs that said in large letters “$5” and in small letters “per minute,” illegal ticket sellers creeping in from the park’s edges to try and sell bogus Statue of Liberty boat tickets, a man standing on a box dressed turquoise sheets and a Statue of Liberty rubber mask soliciting photos, and groups of tourists wandering through the whole melee. But in the morning, it was usually just a few joggers, a tourist or two taking photos, and Battery Park gardeners. I might pause to check out the changing colors of maple leaves in November, or take an extra loop past daffodils in March. One morning there was some strange fluff floating around on the ground and I looked up to see a red-tailed hawk in the tree above having his morning breakfast of pigeon.
All this was also New York.
If one choice from my subway stop was to turn left and the second to turn right, I had a third option of heading straight. The fastest option from City Hall would be to head down Broadway, a walking time to Battery Park of about 15 minutes. It was the busiest route for both cars and people, not matter how early my shift was. Most people seemed to be on their way to or from work, but it was likely I’d have to maneuver around a slow-moving couple or family with luggage struggling down the sidewalks, likely just off their red-eye flights from Los Angeles or Minneapolis. They teetered a bit as they stared at their smartphone, trying to discern where their hotel might be.
This was the very last part of Broadway, one of New York’s oldest and longest streets. Its slant likely follows the original Wickquasgeck Trail, the route Lenape Indians used to traverse the island of Manhattan. The Dutch named it De Heere Straat, or the “Gentleman’s Way.” It was the widest street in town and many Dutch colonists also called “brede weg,” or Broad Way, which the British simply translated when they took over in the 1600’s. Today it is around 13 miles long, pausing for just a moment as it cuts through Union Square in Midtown before continuing through not just the theater district, but the entirety of the island.
If I was feeling like I had time, I might get off at Cortlandt Street, one stop before City Hall and get a little extra exercise as I would walk down a flight of stairs just to walk up three flights inside the Oculus, the train station/shopping center at the World Trade Center. At $4 billion dollars, it was the most expensive train station ever built, opening in 2016. And it was always a fun place to watch the waves of people in dark coats moving in tandem on the white floor, through turnstiles and soon to be out into Manhattan streets (or vice-versa in the afternoon).
Outside on Broadway, I’d pass St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest church in New York and the site of a relief center during the September 11 attacks. Across the street, the large glass façade of Fulton Street Station revealed the mall-like atmosphere inside as people rushed around to catch a train or catch a cup of coffee. Advertisements on the screen outside flashed for Hulu, The NYC Marathon, or the newest show on Amazon, though one day the screen showed the blue screen of death PC users know well and instead of “Try Oat Milk,” it said “A problem has been detected and windows has been shut down to your computer… Collecting data for crash dump…”.
Across the way was privately-own park space that provided some breathing room in the narrow canyons of the Financial District. The sounds of traffic and, inevitably construction, continued but here also was the more subtle sound of gas generators. In suburban neighborhoods, the sound of generators might come from a power washer or a power outage or leaf blower. Here the exhaust from the generators mixed with the smell of chicken and lamb from halal food vendors, in the morning mostly with stacks of bagels and pastries on display behind Plexiglas windows.
Having already eaten my breakfast back at my apartment, I’d continue walking down the sidewalk. Underneath my feet were (from my north-to-south perspective) upside down plaques inset into the sidewalk, noting what seems like a random series of events or people: “July 7, 1952 – U.S. Olympic Team Send-off to the Helsinki Games,” and “October 17, 1949 – Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India.” First put in the sidewalk in 2003, the markers commemorate every one of the more than 200 tickertape parades down Broadway, starting with the very first on October 28, 1886 for the opening of none other than the Statue of Liberty.
As I followed the granite markers back in time, soon the tall Gothic spire of St. Paul’s sister building, Trinity Church, would appear, for years the tallest building in New York. While I could wander left to Wall Street if I had extra time, most days it would be straight down Broadway, the end of the street in sight, past the large bronze statue of the Charging Bull, and New York’s oldest park, Bowling Green and its original iron fence from 1771, and across the street to the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian and to a monument commemorating the site of Fort Amsterdam and into Battery Park, ready to start my day at work.
I moved from New York City this March, accepting a job at another national park back in my home state of Washington weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and started to shut down the city. My commute is now a gorgeous five minute walk along the shore of a lake, with 6,000 foot mountains rising steeply into the sky. But I think about my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan often, missing the history and humanity. Perhaps when I go back for a visit someday (post-pandemic) I’ll try and retrace my steps, but I know that will be impossible. The streets and my morning rambles won’t be the same.
For this park ranger in New York, at least, my morning commute meant the opportunity to walk through history and nature as part of a morning ritual. A pattern of life, ever different, ever the same on streets that are in some ways famous and known the world over, and in other ways, the humblest of paths between home and office.