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Onetime West Village resident Edna St. Vincent Millay said that city trees sound as “thin and sweet” as those “in country lanes.” (At least when you’re not hearing “the traffic and trains” she mentions in the same poem.) As New York’s arbors wear their lovely summer linen, why not revisit Millay’s old neighborhood and go off the grid—literally get off of Manhattan’s planned streets—for the desultory, tightly knit lanes of what still feels like old New York? While you’re there, bring a book (we’ve suggested a few), a magazine or an e-reader, as you’re bound to find yourself near one of the many quaint public parks to read in. Locals and tourists alike know of Washington Square Park and the High Line, which tend to be crowded, so we’re recommending a few choice spots that many New Yorkers often overlook. Some provide a communal feel, others afford a rare sense of isolation. All of them offer a retreat into nature—and an escape from the often consuming pace of ordinary Manhattan street life.
RECOMMENDED: West Village neighborhood guide
Note: For exact hours and directions, visit nyc.gov/parks.
James J. Walker Park
In view of a playground, a large baseball diamond and the small but picturesque Hudson Park branch of the NYPL runs a corridor of benches that enjoys abundant shade. You won’t have to fight for a seat in this reading area, as the park is located off the beaten path and seems to be area residents’ well-guarded secret. A sweeping row of gorgeous 19th-century townhouses faces you from across the street, bestowing a sense of history and grandeur on this little enclave. Out of deference to authors Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser, who once occupied numbers 12 and 16, respectively, you might dip into one of their American classics: the beautiful linked stories of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; or perhaps Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, a powerful, naturalist novel about a young woman’s move to the city. If you’re at a loss, the library next door will provide a title, or you can download e-books from nypl.org. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s own former domicile—a narrow, Dutch-looking façade at 75½ Bedford Street—is just a few blocks away, as is the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St), which Millay helped found in 1924. St. Luke’s Pl between Seventh Ave South and Hudson St
On one of the Village’s most celebrated streets sits an unlikely, surprisingly cozy, spot. Benches, picnic tables and smaller individual tables rest in a tiled, open plaza filled with shade trees. Though there’s a crosswind of shoppers and pedestrians from nearby stores and restaurants, there’s still a chance to find serenity here. Since the park boasts an intriguing bronze sculpture called The Family, by Chaim Gross, in its northwest corner, you might consider two inspiring novels about family life and coming of age, both set in and around New York. James Salter’s Light Years is a multifaceted portrait of family members as they grow a little older, and a little further apart. E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair presents a young boy living in Depression-era New York, in anticipation of the great exhibition that would end the decade. The park also happens to be catty-corner from Magnolia Bakery (401 Bleecker St at 11th St; 212-462-2572, magnoliabakery.com), should you want a guilty snack while flipping pages. Bleecker St between Hudson and W 11th Sts
Abingdon Square Park
This lovely gated park feels reminiscent of the elegance found in Washington Square or even the upscale Gramercy Park, only with a smaller footprint. A perimeter of tall trees keeps the area nicely shaded throughout the day. Lots of benches ring the wide walking path looking in on a knoll that’s part lawn, part garden. An even larger bounty of flowers lines the gates behind you, creeping out between benches and catching the eye with a multitude of colors. Because of the park’s stately feel, you might decide to read a classic like Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; or, if you prefer something more contemporary and avant-garde, try reading Cuban-American writer María Irene Fornés’s play Abingdon Square—in which the park itself plays an interesting role. 12th St between Eighth Ave and Hudson St
The Gardens at St. Luke in the Fields
The north and south gardens beside this nearly 200-year-old church are idyllic treasures that most people walk right by without realizing it. At first glance, the grounds may appear to be private courtyards behind the narrow openings in the brick wall, but in fact they are open to—and extremely welcoming of—public visitors. You may feel closer to nature here, and perhaps more secluded, than in just about any other park on the list—almost as if you’ve landed in a townhouse garden imperceptible from the street. The south garden is slightly larger and more landscaped, its brick pathways dotted with benches that take shelter among plantings of rose, lavender and many other bright flowers. In one corner, there’s an allée of cherry trees. Birds frequent these grounds, and it’s not uncommon to see butterflies alight. Within the serene, cloistered environment, you may feel a desire to go the other way—toward irreverence. Try a mystery, such as Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, set in 1896 New York; or perhaps read Jonathan Lethem’s surrealist, comic portrayal of contemporary Gotham life, Chronic City. Hudson St between Barrow and Christopher Sts. Check stlukeinthefields.org for visiting hours.
The Jefferson Market Garden
At the foot of a gorgeous Manhattan landmark—a stately Victorian courthouse that’s now a library—sits a lesser-known but equally remarkable sight. Upon entering this gated enclosure, you’ll immediately feel worlds away, wowed by the expansiveness of this immaculate lawn and its surrounding gardens. The scale of the park, and its variety of landscaping, gives it the character of a well-groomed English estate. Along the main circular path you’ll find wonderful little offshoots: a reading nook among the flowers, a goldfish pond, even a babbling stream. You’re also likely to stumble upon a couple holding hands on the romantic grounds, so it might be fitting to read a contemporary love story. A few good choices include David Schickler’s linked stories, Kissing in Manhattan, or a couple of NYC novels that explore relationships between younger artists and students and their older mentors: Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening and Jessica Lott’s The Rest of Us. As with the Hudson Park Library, Jefferson Market provides a big selection of new fiction and nonfiction, plus downloadable e-books. Greenwich Ave between Sixth Avenue and 10th St.
This is one of those places where you can experience nature while still appreciating the city’s presence. The triangular park feels like a hub for the rest of the Village, with three arched entrances as a convergence of diagonal streets emanating in all directions. It’s the kind of park more common to Paris than New York, and that European feel extends to the park’s classical decorations. The centerpiece is a majestic three-tiered fountain in black cast iron, companion to three similarly designed black planters in each corner, looking like oversize washstands swimming with flowers. Benches lounge within the square’s interior but are even more plentiful along the perimeter greenery. Glance at the nameplates of the plants and you’ll be surprised by such titles as “Ambition,” “Success” and “Displacement,” part of an installation by Kenneth Pietrobono that offers a social commentary on the city’s divergent forces. In that spirit, consider a couple of books that reveal the hunger, perils and excesses of New York life. Jay McInerney’s popular ’80s novel, Bright Lights, Big City, showcases the work-hard/play-hard world of self-indulgence and burnout through an unconventional second-person narrator. Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker is a nonfiction narrative that provides an entertaining and informative account of some of the players, traders and personalities that made a ton of money on Wall Street, and then lost it. Horatio St between Eighth Ave and Greenwich Ave