For many Upper East Siders the thought of going much beyond 86th Street on the East Side is anathema. Park Avenue drops off massively as it flows north through Manhattan and Fifth Avenue is a very different place once it’s not bounded by Central Park on its west side. The boutiques of Madision Avenue are long gone once you cross over 90th Street. This is Harlem. Harlem is full of amazing brownstones that, had they been twenty or more blocks south would be worth a small fortune. Here, around 125th Street they are unloved and empty.
I am here to explore Marcus Garvey Park. I spotted it on the map above the very top of Central Park and went to take a look. I had experienced 125th Street on the way to La Guardia a while ago: it’s a cacophony of street noise, buses, music, shouting and a major transport hub for the 4,5,6 trains and Metro North.
Here, below around 123rd Street is the park. Originally created in 1840 and called Mount Morris Park, it was renamed Marcus Garvey Park in the 1970s after a Jamaican political leader, active in New York politics but who died in London in 1940.
It’s a funny place. It’s 20 acres, so not huge. It contains an amphitheatre for open air performances; a large open air swimming pool and a vast sports area. It has a rocky hill in the middle made of Manhattan rock called ‘schist’. Looks pretty nice from the photograph below, eh?
I’m afraid the reality is rather different. On it’s northern side are two run down kids playgrounds. I take J in but only because I see another mother with her three little boys there too. She makes me brave enough to go in, past the milling people, hanging out on the benches in the morning. Why are they there? Some are from the old people’s home opposite but some are too young. They look bored and listless but they are uninterested in us.
I ask this mother how I can find the Fire Watchtower that I had read about. She points to an internal road sloping up but warns me about drug ‘transactions’ and I am conflicted about going up. I had come here to see it and she thought, as do I mostly, that people pretty much ignore women with kids and buggies, so I’d probably be ok. And I was. I saw the odd character milling about but no one bothered me.
We reach the top of the hill and the Fire Watchtower is run down and unloved too. It originates from the 1850s when Manhattan had eight volunteer fire districts and each one its own watchtower. They are vast iron structures with a bell in the middle. In their time, they would have been ‘manned’ constantly, with the watcher looking for signs of fire and ringing the bell to alert the volunteer firefighters down below. Later in the century the New York Fire Department was created with permanent full time firefighters and there was no longer a need for the watchtower as communications developed over time.
There is a lovely website all about this, but it really doesn’t tell you quite how sad it looks behind its high fencing with rubbish strewn around.
We wander back down through the park and into the noise of Harlem below. Watching over Harlem – at least it was quiet up there.