In being home with kids all day, one of the things that I have found to be the easiest thing to do is to take them to the park. Ideally, this is the place where they can run around and make new friends, while I sit on a bench and chat it up with the other parents/caregivers.
Well, at least that is how it is on those band-aid commercials. You know the ones? Where the moms are talking and laughing, when suddenly, one of the kids falls down and without fits or tantrums he/she runs over to their mom who then reaches into her readily available first aid kit and cares for her child? Yeah, well, like that.
In the few months that I’ve been home with the kids, connecting with other parents has yet to be. I don’t really have time to sit on a bench and relax because I am always running after one toddler or another, neither of which ever want to play in the same area. Most of the parents have their little groups going on and aren’t always the most welcoming bunch, and few have ever greeted me, let alone acknowledge my presence. And I have never, ever had a stash of band aids or Neosporin with me, no matter how many times I tell myself that I will pack those things in the diaper bag. Instead, I often have to wipe blood off with spit in my hand, while my child wails at full lung capacity over the sight of his bleeding ouchie.
As a resident of the Washington Heights area in Manhattan, one of the parks I most frequents with my little ones is Fort Tryon Park on Ft. Washington Ave. and 190th St. The park encompasses 66.63 acres of land extending from Riverside Drive to Broadway, West 192 to Dyckman Streets. moved back to NYC to find that this area had changed after 911 and renamed Hudson Heights, though long time residents still know it as Washington Heights. I find this annoying, elitist,and exclusive, and definitely a way to separate the neighborhood and increase rents.
The truth is, Washington Heights has been changing throughout the years. A lot more downtowners in search of bigger apartments and affordable prices have ventured and set shop here. Most of them closest to the park, from 181st St and Ft. Washington avenue on. One could say that the border dividing the neighborhood is Broadway. Separating the East from the West, with West being the Hudson Heights everyone keeps moving into. The East side of town is, well, loud. My Irish-American husband once described it to me as “lively” as he stood waiting for a realtor to show him one of what must’ve been a handful of available 3 bedroom apartments in all NYC (under a million dollars) which we desperately needed to all move back to the city. Of course, I knew better.
One morning, as I sat in my bedroom, I could hear a vendor outside my window yelling out “pastellitos! pastellitos!”, which are Dominican empanadas that he was selling out of his shopping cart. This is where she lives. In the “lively” part of the neighborhood.
Which is why my 5 minute walk to Fort Tryon Park is often such a welcoming relief. It is beautiful there. Quiet, uncrowded, with tree lined streets that lead up to its lush entrance and peaceful surroundings. As I make my way closer and closer to the park, I often feel the tension releasing from my body and while my breathing relaxes at the same time.
The park has two playgrounds (Jakob K. Javits and Anne Loftus), and beautiful green areas overlooking the Hudson River for picnics, playing, or morning and afternoon strolls. Though I do not have a dog, the park has an area that caters to dogs and their parents, and is often a fun distraction for my kids.
The picnic area is next to a busy street, one lane each way, for cars and public buses that cross the park. There is definitely room to let the little ones run around, but it isn’t fenced in at all, so if you have more than one child to watch and don’t have help, it might be best to avoid this area and stick with the playgrounds on the outer skirts of the park.
I have visited Jakob Javits playground the most. The kids like it, referring to it as the “orange weeee!” (“orange” because of the huge looping slide they have, and “weeee” is what they call playgrounds). It is a pretty large playground and keeps me on my toes, since it is next to a basketball court and weight training area where grown men often commune for a good ol’ game of b-ball, push ups, and cussing, something which often annoys me, but is really more of a problem in the afternoons.
The social groups I’ve met are often made up of moms (and a few dads) with small children or nannies on weekdays, with weekends and late afternoons consisting mostly of dads who are off from work.
There is a social categorization in NYC playgrounds I haven’t quite figured out, a certain sense of ownership or “members only” feeling I get from most moms who frequent the playground the most and who all know each other. Membership into this club is not easily accessible, sort of like in high school, and especially when you’re the mom who lacks the sense of daily structure and military style organization most others seem to have mastered (again, I’m the mom who forgets diapers, or snacks, and whose boys are bigger than most kids in the park and louder). I figure I don’t make it easier for them either. I am a woman of color with green-eyed, white babies. They may wonder: mother? nanny? kidnapper? I understand, it’s tough for them to grasp. But I enjoy watching the moms, often in awe of how clean and quiet their often one kid is, how they manage to organize all of their child’s toys into the back of their single stroller, toys which the kid doesn’t want to share, but will flaunt, or doesn’t want to share, but is forced to, and how they manage to get their kids to eat raw broccoli, dried papaya, or seaweed, without any hesitation, vomiting, or disgusted looks in response. My kids, however, are muffin-bread-strawberry-banana-eating freaks.
When the kids were smaller and easily pushed in a stroller, I would jog around one of the loops in the park, but on lazier days they would be content just taking in the beauty of Heather Gardens. Heather Gardens is also often where I go to recover from the insanity of the playground and its frequent visitors, and where the boys chill out before taking going back home for naps (if I am lucky). In the summer, spring and fall, it is a breathtaking display of botanical beauty that I think everyone should experience.
The park is also home to the Cloisters Museum, and though I have decided to wait till the little ones are bigger before entering it I have been there many times before and it is a wonderful, beautiful collection of Medieval art. I have managed to convince my boys that a dragon lives in this former monastery, thus encouraging absolute silence when we pass by it on our walks with the hope of hearing if only a whisper of the dragon’s roar.
Path in the park on a Winter day.
I decided that we will soon be trying out the New Leaf Restaurant and Bar, brought to us by the ever fabulous Bette Midler and located on the Southern end of the park. Though I admit that I am scared to go in there with my two Tasmanian devils. From the outside it doesn’t seem very child friendly, and certainly not Tasmanian devil friendly, but I will soon find out.
The New Leaf Restaurant and Bar
In the meantime, we are content with walking to our favorite grocery store, Frank’s Market on 187th St., where we often stop in to treat ourselves to some of their fresh-baked goodies. My favorite are the baguettes, the boys love the muffins, especially the double chocolate ones.
It’s a routine of sorts for us, but a happy way to start our days.