War Games in Van Cortlandt Park



Van Cortlandt Park, ny

Neighborhood: Bronx

I was waiting at the doorstep of the Ranger station in Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx. I had been an Urban Park Ranger for about three months now, and this was going to be my first tour of the Croton Aqueduct Trail. I was leading the tour with my fellow Ranger, Rich, who was a neatly groomed man with sharp black eyes and a strong square face. He was also a history buff. He was always telling me about the Revolutionary War, how our “American forefathers braved the mighty British to fight for their ideals.” He belonged to a Revolutionary War reenactors group, spending his weekends dressed in ornate war gear, traipsing around as a soldier. “Right here on Van Cortlandt Park’s soil,” he would say to me, “Washington fought part of the war.” (It was alleged that George Washington had stayed with the Van Cortlandt family three separate times during the span of the Revolutionary War.) The park was very much living drama for him. And he loved taking people on tours, getting them to walk back through time.

The sky was a slate gray with a mid-January heaviness, and the air was cold and piercing. The geese honked on the nearly frozen pond, the leafless trees swayed in the wind, chickadees and tit-mice flittered, and the cars on the Major Deegan Expressway, just up the hill from us, rushed violently by. Soon, a group of about twenty people gathered for the tour. They were amixture of families and people who liked to hike and local folks who loved Van Cortlandt and spent endless hours in it. (The Rangers got a kick out of these local naturalists. They were a quirky bunch, attending just about every Ranger tour – lots of times they were our only audience–and latching onto the Rangers as if we were family.)

A small twitchy man with blond hair and eyes burning with obsession – probably the most eccentric of the bunch – asked how he could travel the park from west to east. He was always asking this question, on every tour, which he attended almost every weekend. He was bedeviled by the fact that you couldn’t travel the park from west to east except by taking a dark dank tunnel underneath the Major Deegan Expressway. Because of this, we called him East/West Man.

However crazy, he was responding to a modern phenomenon: ecosystem fragmentation. The first roadway to cut up Van Cortlandt Park was the Mosholu Parkway, which extended west the great long boulevard of the Bronx called the Grand Concourse. Next, in the 1930s, the Henry Hudson Parkway, part of Robert Moses¡| West Side Improvement Project, sliced the park north/south. Moses, for about thirty years, was the most powerful man in New York City. Although in title he was only the Parks Commissioner, he oversaw and commanded the building of the infrastructure of present day New York. He was belligerent and arrogant, and brilliant. He foresaw a world of cars, and wanted to connect the Mosholu and Henry Hudson Parkways. Ignoring local protests, he constructed a cloverleaf of roadways on marshland that a local biology teacher had called, “one of the most beautiful spots, a riot of plant life and birds.” Moses snuffed the habitat out with blacktop. In 1956, the Major Deegan Expressway, named after the man who was City Tenement House Commissioner and state commander of the American Legion, gashed the park again on its north/south axis. Like the protests against the Henry Hudson parkway, there wereprotests against the Major Deegan. A portion of the roadway ran through a swamp rich in bird life. Local naturalists and birders filed an injunction, but Moses said, “We just filled in a little faster.”

The park now was a randomly incised pie. Species that needed deep forest or swampland migrated out of the park to points north. Species that adapted to survive in smaller tracts of land–squirrels, raccoons, crows, sassafras, to name a few–proliferated. This phenomenon was not localized to Van Cortlandt Park – it was national, forcing our bigger and more delicate animals and plants, into smaller and smaller corners. I told East/West Man this tale of human aggrandizement. But his focus was on the present, and he insisted on a path that went east to west. I shrugged my shoulders and we began the tour.

We hugged the pond until we got to the entrance of the nation¡|s oldest municipal golf course, started in 1895, just a year after the Van Cortlandt estate was sold to the city. Next, we walked up a chipped stone staircase littered with car parts, abandoned strollers, beer cans, and graffiti to the Major Deegan Expressway. We hiked along the Expressway for a moment, the bridge and its moorings rattling with every car that zoomed by. In the cracks of the pavement were tough redoubtable plants that could survive in just a speck of degraded soil. These plants ¡V mugwort, ailanthus trees, Japanese knotweed, and many others, most of them introduced from abroad ¡V had come to mark our inner city habitats, out competing native plants and dominating wide swaths of land. This mixture of litter and uber plants was integral to our modern urban landscape.

We left the Expressway, hiked down a patch of land where car thieves stripped their merchandise, scrambled back up a little hill, and then, all of a sudden, we stood in the forest, the tall trees blocking our view of anything resembling the city. Walnuts from black walnut trees lined the trail, American elms stood bolt upright, not yet crippled by Dutch Elm disease, sugar maples, shagbark hickory, and red and white oaks filled out the canopy. To the west was the golf course. To the east was the Major Deegan Expressway. We were in a tunnel of forest, a rich but skinny slice of wild, home to great horned owls, turkeys, downy woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, andeven foxes (whom I had seen late one night on an off-duty nocturnal patrol). We could hear neither the cars nor the smack of golf balls. We were far away from cosmopolitan things, even though the city loomed just behind us.

We walked along the Croton Aqueduct Trail, which started in Van Cortlandt Park and snaked 41 miles north, ending at the New Croton Reservoir in Westchester County. The trail was a result of the city¡|s desperate need for water in the 1830’s. Fires and disease, in particular, made an outside source of water necessary. Construction began in 1837. The design followed Roman principles, a gravity-fed stone and cement tube, which dropped a gentle 13 inches each mile. To maintain this grade, the aqueduct was cut into hillsides, tunneled through rock, carried over valleys and rivers. Like the city¡|s subway system, the extreme points of the landscape were circumnavigated where the more malleable points were reconfigured.

Water first entered the aqueduct on June 22, 1842 at 5 a.m. To make sure the water ran its whole course, an intrepid crew in a small boat sailed the distance, much of it underground and dark, popping out successfully at the Harlem River. Water then flowed into the city, over the High Bridge at 155th Street, into Manhattan, filling up a reservoir where the Great Lawn of Central Park now sits, and then funneling into the large space of today¡|s Bryant Park at 42nd Street. Soon, however, the system was not enough to provide for the city¡|s needs. A new one, triple the size, was built in 1885; it too was ultimately inadequate for the greatly swollen city. Now there exists in Van Cortlandt Park¡|s northeast section, a modern water system, mammoth chrome pipes 25 stories underneath the ground.

We continued north towards Yonkers. A crow cawed and a lone jogger ran past us. A woodpecker hammered at a dead hickory tree. One of the naturalists, a tall bald man who came on every tour, asked me what bird it was. I had seen it many times before, but my birding skills were primitive, and the name did not leap out at me.

“Come on Mr. Ranger, what is it?” he teased me. I knew that the other naturalists could identify the bird, but were not going to bail me out. Everyone waited for my answer. It was either a hairy woodpecker or a downy woodpecker, the downy being more common. I looked for a give-away, but I couldn’t pick up on the subtleties. So, the seconds running fast, I guessed.

“It’s a hairy woodpecker…I think.”

Everyone laughed, and then congratulated me on my correct answer. We watched black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice flit about searching for food. Squirrels raced around. Someone spotted a red-tailed hawk soaring above, reconnoitering the landscape for food. One of the naturalists pointed out the tree that used to house a great horned owl¡|s nest. We flushed out a pheasant and ran our hands over the soft luscious mullein plant. We then reached a stone building, covered in graffiti, which was the aqueduct¡|s weir, from which the water flow was regulated. Next to the weir was a manhole with its cover uncapped. You could look down into the old aqueduct, outpaced by the city¡|s modernity, and see tires and garbage. It smelled of age and mildew.

Then we heard a rustle. A large abstract figure moved behind the shrubs. Down in the little pool below the weir, where due to intense soil erosion and compaction rainwater had collected and had not dispersed or percolated down, was an old red rusting car husk. Suddenly, the car door opened. Out stepped a young boy in army fatigues, face blackened with shoe polish, carrying a rifle. He waved it in front of him carelessly, the gun unwieldy. We all took a step back. When he saw us, he whistled, and out of the shrubs came an army of kids, probably ten to fifteen years old, perfectly blended into the forest ¡V all in fatigues, all carrying paint guns. They stood up above the plants like large animals on their hind legs and looked up at us in confusion.

Rich and I, the Rangers, stepped forward.

“Stop!” Rich yelled. “Get up here.” Thirty kids unfroze themselves and started up the hill, guns placed by their side. Their faces were streaked with dirt and black paint, their eyes white beams behind their darkened faces. Around their waists were utility belts, holding knives, pouches, canteens, and keys. The kids, it seemed, were practicing for the apocalypse.

They filed up onto the trail and huddled together. The tour group was bunched up behind Rich and me. There was a natural antagonism between the two groups.

The kids, in their games, chewed up the land, denuded it, turned it into a lifeless muck. Behind us was a pool of thick stagnant mud, perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes in the summer, which was the direct result of these kids practicing their army routines. We all hated them for this. But, I knew, the city was a violent place, and you had to have some way to let your aggressions flow, to drain the accumulation. The problem was space. Natural lands were scant in the city, and so many people wanted to use them, each group with its own agenda. In the summer, the Rangers were constantly trying to arbitrate between soccer players and dog walkers, mountain bikers and bird watchers, golfers and naturalists, barbecues and hikers, everyone wanting something from the park.

Rich yelled, “This is no game! War is real! People die! During the Revolutionary War, American soldiers were dying every day to make this country. Did you know that? They were driven by the dream of a free nation. Right here on this soil, Washington¡|s men stared down the British. Can you imagine real bullets whizzing by your head? I doubt it. Stop screwing around and leave this place alone. Stay in school, keep busy, but stay out of the park: you¡|re ruining it! And look at what you¡|ve done to the forest here. It¡|s disgraceful.” Then he asked, “Where¡|s your permit?”

The kids were intimidated, their eyes watery, resentful.

A woman with large oval glasses and fat cheeks, buoyed by Rich¡|s lecture, said, “You kids have no respect. This is sacred land, all we¡|ve got left, so treat it right or leave it alone.” There was a murmur of approval from thegroup, and she stepped back into their safety.

Meanwhile, I had called for backup. For a moment there was an awkward silence. Then the kids moved forward, taking a few steps in our direction as if to attack us. The tour group moved backwards, alarmed. But then the kids turned and ran into the woods, tramping over shrubs, kicking up soil. They shouted and screamed war cries, and a few obscenities. Then two Parks Enforcement Police officers arrived on horses. The horses towered over the shrubs, the officers high up in the air. They had wanted to catch these kids for a long time, but had been unsuccessful so far. They listened to our story for a moment and then turned their horses around and galloped down into the dense woods like mounted soldiers chasing their enemies. The games had become a bit more real for these kids.

Then we were left alone again, back in our secluded private forest world. This was not a rare, but also not a common, experience in a city park. If some wanted quiet and solitude, others wanted noise and communion. Both had to be balanced. But it didn¡|t lessen, or cheapen, Van Cortlandt¡|s nature. It was all around for those who needed its offer of rhapsody and nourishment. If the search for a connection to nature was a search for a connection to your place in the greater scheme of things, I discovered that you didn¡|t need to make it a foreign journey: the pilgrimage could be right here in the Bronx.

We were all a little stunned. A blue jay screeched and a squirrel hissed. East/West Man came up to me and asked, “Is this where I can go east?” We all laughed and continued on our walk.

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