Sheep Meadow is for the riffraff. Discerning peace-seekers know that the north end of Central Park, and the surrounding neighborhood, is the best place to recharge.
Thu Apr 30 2009
Start: Fifth Ave at 104th St
End: 1047 Amsterdam Ave at 112th St
Time: 3.5 hours
Distance: 2.5 miles
1 Ahhh, the park. No, those aren't the gates of Heaven in front of you (they're actually from the Vanderbilt mansion that used to stand on the current site of Bergdorf Goodman). But they do lead to something heavenly: Central Park's Conservatory Garden (enter Fifth Ave at 105th St, centralparknyc.org), an exceptionally well-manicured Eden divided into three parts. The Italian section is spread before you now, crowned by a wisteria-covered pergola. An English garden lies to the south, and a French one to the north. Be careful not to accidentally invade any weddings; there's one almost every weekend here.
2 Trek west across the East Drive into the Ravine (midpark between 102nd and 106th Sts, centralparknyc.org). You'll pass Lasker Rink (midpark between 106th and 108th Sts; 212-534-7639, centralparknyc.org), the lesser-known stepsister to the south park's Wollman Rink. In the summer, Lasker becomes a pool with free admission. Perch on the hill overlooking the '60s-modern edifice to watch young teenagers as they figure out how to flirt, or move on, listening for the sound of the Loch, a narrow stream dotted with five waterfalls. Walk south along the path next to it until you spy a wooden bridge. Cross it, admiring a small cascade, and continue north on the other side deeper into what looks, smells and feels like a real forest.
3 Do not be afraid. Nature will ease your mind and take away the strain and stress of the urban chaos beyond the park. Wait, did you just hear that? It was a black warbler, spotted by pro bird watcher Isaiah Wender, age eight. "It's not the best part to find birds," he says of the Ravine, "but it's the best part to find warblers—and the most prettiest." His father, John, agrees: "Everybody goes to the Ramble, and the birding there can't be beat. But here, it's better walking, and there's less people. It's the most beautiful part of the park." Continue north through Huddlestone Arch (which looks like what it sounds like) and you'll eventually come out by Harlem Meer (midpark at 110th St, nyc.gov/parks), where you're allowed to fish...as long as you throw your catch back when you're done. Alive. For those too squeamish to handle both a worm and a wriggling fish, enjoy the lakefront slime-free at the Harlem Meer Performance Festival (centralparknyc.org), a series of Sunday afternoon concerts that kicks off June 19.
4 Emerge from the park, relaxed and ready to reintegrate with the real world. Walk north on Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue) to 116th Street, then turn right. Stop in at the Sea & Sea Fish Market (60--62 W 116th St between Fifth Ave and Malcolm X Blvd [Lenox Ave], 212-828-0851), where you can revisit your feelings about fish or buy live crabs for dinner tonight. A few steps east, you'll see the entrance for the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market (W 116th St between Fifth Ave and Malcolm X Blvd [Lenox Ave]). Browse tables of African-imported jewelry, crafts, toy instruments and trinkets—or pick up a free condom from Apufia Beko's booth, Sidamo Borena Corporation. During the week, Beko (who hails from Ethiopia) works for the Department of Health (hence the supply of condoms), and on weekends she sells bright scarves and soapstone chess sets from "Obama's land," as she calls Kenya.
5 Two buildings down, note the Stars of David carved at the top right and left towers of the Baptist Temple Church (18 W 116th St between Fifth Ave and Malcolm X Blvd [Lenox Ave])—just one clue to the area's prior life as a Jewish enclave. Perhaps the most incongruous remnant is at Mount Neboh Baptist Church (1883 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd [Seventh Ave] at 114th St, mtnebohbc.com). Peep just above the banner announcing the church's name and you'll see the Ten Commandments etched in Hebrew. And look for the cornerstone that announces the building was built in 5668, which is the Hebrew calendar's way of saying 1908.
6 Back in Harlem's present, grab a red-velvet cupcake (small $3, large $4) at the Grandma's-kitchen-cute Make My Cake bakery (121 St. Nicholas Ave at 116th St; 212-932-0833, makemycake.com).
7 If you'd rather go with a Senegalese lunch, stroll 116th Street, Harlem's Little Senegal, stopping at Africa Kine (256 W 116th St between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd [Seventh Ave] and Frederick Douglass Blvd [Eighth Ave]; 212-666-9400, africakine.com). Wolf down the national fish-and-rice dish, thiebou djuen ($10), while trying to recall enough high-school French to decipher the francophone programs playing on the homey, wood-trimmed restaurant's televisions.
8 As you continue walking west on 116th Street, you can chart the neighborhood's gentrification by the change in buildings and lampposts—both of which start to develop "historic" wrought-iron details once you pass Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
9 What's this? More nature? The slim swath of green you see before you (as well as the huge rocky cliff) is Morningside Park (enter at 116th St and Morningside Ave, morningsidepark.org). Walk south—don't attempt to scale the rock just yet—and you'll come to a neatly trimmed pond tucked up against a steep waterfall. In 1968, that wet hole in the ground was where Columbia University started building an extremely unpopular sports complex. Student protests raged, university-building takeovers ensued, local history was made, and the gymnasium was not built.
10 At the south end of the pond, you'll see an intimidatingly long and perpendicular set of stairs. That's where you're going. Take it slow, turning around frequently to stand in awe (i.e., catch your breath) and comment on how high you've risen over East Harlem.
11 Last stop is, like the first, a possible entryway to Heaven: the infamously unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Ave at 112th St; 212-316-7540, stjohndivine.org). Whether or not you're on the guest list at the pearly gates, you certainly don't need reservations here, where the basic Highlight Tour (Tue--Sat 11am, 1pm; 212-932-7347) is just $6. But you should call ahead to reserve a spot for the awesome Vertical Tour (Sat noon, 2pm; $15, seniors and students $12), which takes you up spiral staircases, on top of buttresses and to the roof, from which you can look down on the heathens below who are still wasting their time in the well-trodden southern stretches of Central Park.