The Big Apple’s great outdoors
A marker of urban surroundings at Inwood Hill Park. (Eugene Reznik)
As persistent rain fell on a cold night in New York City, my tent protected me from the moisture while I camped on a weedy patch of grassland surrounded by miles of concrete on an old airstrip, not far from the city’s John F Kennedy Airport (JFK).
In recent years, many rural experiences have come into the city -- farming, bee keeping, raising livestock and foraging -- yet New Yorkers are still looking out of state, out west or abroad for that quintessential wilderness camping experience. But thanks to a few urbanists and environmentalists who are actively re-imagining and repurposing city spaces, this may be changing.
In our own backyard
According to William Cronon, a University of Wisconsin-Madison historian who wrote the provocative but influential essay “The Trouble With Wilderness”, our definition of the word “wilderness” changes from century to century. The modern conservation movement in the US, he wrote, which was founded at the turn of the 20th Century on a romanticized ideal of nature, has often led Americans to valorize a pristine “out there” and neglect the ecology of nearby surrounds.
The Sierra Club, a US-based conservation organization founded in 1892, has been running the Mission Outdoors program since 2011 to introduce kids to “nature that is close to home”. They have helped bring upwards of 10,000 young urban dwellers into the outdoors, with outings that include camping in city parks and green spaces.
“Kids felt that the ‘great outdoors’ were out there in Yosemite -- places that are less accessible,” said Jackie Ostfeld, the Sierra Club’s national representative. “Now there’s a real effort to get people to recognize the nature that’s around them.”
Wilderness, it seems, is now right outside our front door.
A different kind of night out in New York
Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field Campgrounds, a part of Gateway National Park 13 miles from JFK Airport, is the only charted-off, planned campsite in the city. Formerly New York’s first municipal airport, the US National Park Service turned Floyd Bennett Field into a 387-acre recreation area in 1972. Now, it is well on its way to becoming the largest urban campground in the country.
Tent site number 20 looked like any other around the country — a clearing, a picnic bench and a fire pit. Trees and brush around the periphery blocked the glass and steel skyline from view, painting a picture of a campsite that could have been anywhere. But as darkness fell, the drone of road noise, sirens and low flying air traffic became more apparent.
The next morning, the park ranger Pat Newman asked if I had seen any raccoons. “Rrrrrp, rrrrp”, she mimicked. “You hear any of that?”
Unlike camping in wilder surrounds, raccoons, squirrels and possums – common rodents from any suburban backyard -- are the extent of the fauna in Floyd Bennett Field. A short bike ride or drive away, hawks and falcons can be seen at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.
Currently, there are 40 campsites at Floyd Bennett Field that can be reserved year-round for $20 a night on Recreation.gov, and summer weekends tend to fill up quickly. By 2013, the federal government plans to expand the number of campsites to 90.
Wilderness at the end of the A line
While Floyd Bennett Field could be considered a fairly tame camping experience, it is due north that New York actually does transition into untamed wilderness.
Renzo Bidal, an urban park ranger at Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Nature Center, said Inwood Hill Park is the only natural forest with public access in Manhattan. There are no planted trees and no imported topsoil.
“We don’t manicure it as much as say, we would Central Park,” he said. “It has more of a nature feel because it looks like a real forest, as if you were upstate or something. Or out west.”