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
In recent years, many rural experiences have come into the city -- farming, bee
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.
According to William
Cronon, a University
of Wisconsin-Madison historian who wrote the provocative but influential essay
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.
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
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.
It is also one of several parks where the city offers free family camping nights. Sites are reserved throughout the summer through a lottery.
“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.”
Hiking through that forest, I trekked to the banks of the Hudson River.
From there, I could see the lush cliffs of the Palisades across the other side
in New Jersey, a green shelf where the continental US begins. Road noise from
the Henry Hudson
Parkway made it too overwhelming to set up camp there, and closer toward the
park entrance, the lights from Seaman Avenue shone too brightly. But in the heart of the park, the lights and
noise diffused, and I found a fallen tree with rings three to four feet in
of encountering animals or anyone other than rangers on patrol — who, along
with the police, tend to keep a close watch over the park after dark — seemed
more minute than ever. And while it was a city park in Manhattan, the natural
forest offered a surprising amount of calm and isolation.
In truth, I was probably not too far off the delivery range of
restaurants on Dyckman Street or Broadway, which was not necessarily a bad
thing. In the middle of the night, when I unexpectedly ran out of water, I did
what any sensible New Yorker would do. I left the wild and strolled to the
corner bodega for more.