I mentally map each city I live in to the places I have lived before. Here in New York, Manhattan’s Riverside Park is the equivalent of Nashville’s Shelby Park and Indianapolis’ Monon Trail: the close-to-home greenway. It’s more than a neighborhood playground, but not the city’s crown jewel, and to non-New Yorkers all that matters is that Riverside is Not Central Park and therefore irrelevant.
In my time in Nashville, I found that my neighbors treated Shelby Park like an outpost of a chain gym: a place good for exercise, if short on the finer amenities such as juice bars. Tired of walking on unshaded pavement, I sought out the spaces beyond the paved greenway and the baseball fields, looking for little gems that had disappeared from the maps and contributed little to the park’s efficiency. There was the short path that ran from the dog park past the roadside pagoda to the manmade grotto, a treasure in its own right, even if the water running from it was more often than not fetid. Another path of crumbling pavement was only ¼ mile in length and connected nothing to nothing else.
These were hard-fought discoveries, valuable because of their rarity, even if in truth they weren’t difficult to find. Not many were looking.
In Riverside Park, these prizes are everywhere, yet somehow no less thrilling for their ubiquity. Some of them are obvious – the hippopotami and dinosaurs on the playgrounds are known to every dog-walker and jogger. I love dinosaurs as much as the next six-year-old-at-heart, but my real weakness is for the abandoned and forbidden spots: the cordoned-off stairs leading down to a small patio with grass growing up between the flagstones, the glimpses of the Freedom Tunnel running under Riverside Avenue, or the cracks in Employee Only doors.
Best of all are the smallest of discoveries and the happy accidents. The way the light hits the ceiling of some of the tunnels between levels of the park, reflecting off the peeling paint or through the metal grate. The subtle differences in each iron fence and stone wall. And then, on a narrow dirt path running parallel to one of the park’s promenades, there is a brass arrow embedded in the ground like a physical map of pirate booty. Yet it points no place in particular, making it the treasure rather than the map, for anyone paying attention.
This density of discovery is what I love about New York. There are more interesting things in any modest east-west residential block in Manhattan than in a square mile in most cities, and that’s without looking at the, as the cliché has it, “colorful people.”
To say these are “discoveries” is not to suggest they were heretofore unknown; at best, I get to play Columbus, discovering a land the inhabitants knew was there all along. Certainly there are history buffs, explorers, and even keen-eyed children who know all of these places better than I; many of them have websites to document their finds. Looking at these sites overwhelms me, like trying to decide what to eat a dessert buffet, or flipping through a ludicrously expensive catalog. It’s not just that my eyes are bigger than my stomach; I see their photos and think, that’s not how I would have taken it. I’m no ace photographer, but no one else’s eyes see the world quite the same as your own do. When people encounter something for the first time, without having been taught how to see it before, they’ll bring to it a diversity of interpretations that is impossible at major tourist attractions. (Try taking a novel photo of the Statue of Liberty!)
No, these are discoveries only in that I found them on my own rather than reading about them in a guidebook first. It’s hard to see Grand Central Station except through the lens of a hundred movies. Perhaps the child who grows up passing through the station sees it with fresh eyes – at the cost of being too young to remember that wonder later on. These places that live in our collective imaginations feel familiar, and thus disappointing, but they allow us to agree on rough outlines of the world we inhabit. Everything else, we find on our own, and these personal maps are what make spaces meaningful to us.
Thus while my Riverside Park shares some names and coordinates of each other person’s Riverside Park, giving us a common universe, we are on very different journeys through it.
I get to pretend I’m the only one here, that this is an undiscovered country. I get to pretend that this city, the living creation of millions of people, is a natural phenomenon. It’s not used, “pre-owned,” or, Strunk and White forbid, “pre-loved.” I can pretend I have a right to it even though the wheels on my luggage have barely stopped spinning.