Every summer, children free their pet turtles to live in the lake, where dozens of the little creatures paddle alongside walkers on a nearby foot path and crane their necks to plead for food. The turtles then retreat to a reed-covered island by the waterfall, where they pile up on rocks under weeping-willow trees to bask in the sun. They share their weeping-willow island with graceful, snow-white egrets and tiny mud-brown sparrows, a flock of mallard ducks which aggressively patrols the lake, and a fat herd of Canada geese which protective local residents visit every ten minutes throughout the day with loaves of bread, crackers, and cake. After all, no one else will remember to feed the geese if they don’t. No one else loves the pond like they do.
“I told you to wait and eat slowly,” a lone bookish man in gold-rimmed glasses scolds at an eager goose padding behind him, wagging his finger at it. “Now you have to wait.” The walkway by the lily pond is thick with discarded bread crumbs, and a surrounding field is filled with placid strolling birds, baseball games, barbecue picnics, elderly bench sitters, bounding dogs and playing children.
In fact, the lily pond resembles a Central Park miniature, in which many of the best aspects of New York City’s grandest expanse are recreated on a neighborhood scale for personal enjoyment. Like New Yorkers who spend up to $25 million for a brownstone on Central Park West, the Harlem residents who live near Morningside Park can walk one block from their doorstep to a place of maintained retreat and contemplation. Landscaping signifies luxury, the power to create an idealized environment, and on its best days, the lily pond imparts a sense of New York abundance, a private pavilion for those who have earned their place in the city through extraordinary determination. It also has an unmistakably challenging undertone—the lily pond landscape suggests that a ghettoized lifestyle is not some eternal byproduct of urban existence, a ubiquitous condemnation of city dwelling that must always accompany industrialized life or technological dependence, but one of many potential outcomes arising from choice and circumstance.
The reason for celebration at the sight of a successful waterfall pond arises from the former reputation of Morningside Park, which has still not completely disappeared. This peaceful lakeside valley lies at the heart of a park once considered one of the most lethal in Manhattan, if not America, in the 1970s and 1980s. It was well-known throughout the country among college students and tourists alike as a symbol of New York City’s irreversible urban decay. Terrified students of Columbia University, an Ivy League bastion of perceived white educational privilege built just one block away in a gated community, were warned that just a few steps into the park would surely be their last, and that imminent attack by Harlem neighborhood gang members and drug addicts lurked within. Some New York residents blamed local drug and alcohol use for the park’s deterioration. Others believed a 1968 battle with Columbia, in which student protests derailed their university’s attempt to build a neighborhood gymnasium whose separate entrances for students and black residents had racist overtones, left a permanent pall of racial tension over the area. Few on either side of this racially charged neighborhood conflict could easily forgive this clash. The university waited for a new generation of students to erase the protests’ painful memory, and bitter resentments still simmer in a neighborhood which was permanently radicalized by the event.
Columbia students tear down gymnasium site.
The lily pond was built on the site of this old gymnasium project in 1989, one of many restoration attempts started in 1981 by a group of Columbia students. Some Harlem residents did express anger that such a newly planned landscape, however beautiful, would be built in the park with funds that could be spent restoring what already was there. The lily pond project seemed yet another symbol, like the Columbia gymnasium, of the City’s assumption that black and Hispanic Harlem could not be entrusted to maintain a landscape of valued beauty, and that only white upper-class Manhattanites could gradually replace the hopeless site with something more genteel, and therefore worthy of maintenance funding. Today, Morningside Park is surrounded by multimillion-dollar brownstones and condominiums, its nearby train stations and foot paths are safe enough for daytime use, and the park has a steady stream of visitors. Because of these significant numbers, an army of volunteers is needed to keep the lily pond free of debris, but the ongoing fight against this deterioration is a predictable one of sustaining functionality in a crowded New York setting, rather than one of abandoned despair at broken race relations.
As such, the lily pond landscape holds a certain nostalgia for the past—of the Jazz Age becalmed, of radical politics reduced to a square of green earth and bland rituals of seasonal recreation. But it also demonstrates the fulfillment of ownership, as the residents of Harlem descend on the park and wrest it from the clutches of its formerly dangerous reputation. On a given summer Sunday afternoon, there are picnics by the lily pond crammed so close together they overlap, children with new puppies chasing geese and turtles, serious bespectacled teenagers discussing their latest homework on a site known as the Peaceful Dale by Dutch settlers in the area over three hundred years ago.
Perhaps it already evokes nostalgia to some present-day visitors, as they imagine looking back in time, decades from now, on the gracious New York hideaway where they lived their most lighthearted moments, which their neighbors worked so hard to recreate in the image of a lost New York ideal.