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Where I find outdoor calm and solitude in New York City

Green-Wood Cemetery has always been more than just “a sacred city of the dead”

For the past 15 years, I’ve been documenting the most isolated parts of New York City: abandoned buildings, empty brownfields, fenced-off forests, hidden rivers—the kinds of places where you don’t expect to see another person, and if you do, you might just head in the opposite direction.

There are hundreds of quiet corners in the city where you cannot see another human for hours on end; places like South Edgemere, where 30 blocks of Rockaway waterfront have grown wild since the 1960s, or the Sharrotts Shoreline, where 33 acres of forests and streams have been left to the ticks and deer. Sometimes, walking around Coney Island in the dead of winter, it can feel like you’re the only person in the world.

So it’s strange to see much of New York City now closed, with thousands of shops shuttered and sidewalks emptied out. Along the busiest avenues, just a handful of cars pass by. Broadway has dimmed its lights and Times Square is a ghost town. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where I live, the BQE has never been quieter, and the bird songs are startlingly loud.

The isolated parts of New York City were once an escape from the hectic streets. But it seems like the entire city is silent, except for the sounds of passing sirens.

In this new version of New York City, any sort of private outdoor space has become a cherished luxury. Once-neglected backyards are now oases, barren rooftops have become playgrounds, and stoops are having a moment. For some of the city’s 8.6 million residents, these spaces are a safe haven to practice social distancing.

But for many others, these kinds of spaces have never been available. Thousands of us live inside small apartments that have just a few windows looking out onto the world. With no roof access or balconies, the entire city was our backyard; now, from inside our anxious rooms, we gaze out on the distant world and watch spring unfold.

New Yorkers are still allowed to leave their homes for walks and exercise, and a short trip outdoors is often necessary for personal health, especially for those of us with small children confined at home. Fresh air is more than just a luxury, according to the regulations from New York State Office of Children and Family Services; daily outdoor play is a requirement for all children in daycare.

While the city’s parks are still open, all of its playgrounds are now closed, and like many cities, our neighborhoods don’t have enough open space for millions of people sheltering in place. But almost every neighborhood does have its quieter areas, whether it’s a shuttered industrial block, an unpopulated forest, or a sleepy stretch of coastline.

In my neighborhood, there is a good-sized park at the end of the block. But since we’ve been avoiding any space that might have crowds, we’ve sought out less populated areas for a daily walk. Sometimes we go down to the industrial part of the waterfront near Bush Terminal, where the wide streets are completely empty. But most days, we go to Green-Wood Cemetery. Though it’s only a few blocks away, it is an entirely different world from the densely populated streets of Sunset Park.

At 478 acres, Green-Wood is one of the largest and least populated green spaces in the city. Primarily known for its famous New York residents, including Basquiat and Boss Tweed, the cemetery is also an impressive arboretum, housing 7,000 trees. During the current crisis, it has remained committed to keeping its gates open to the public, “not just as a place of remembrance, but one of solace in an ever-uncertain world.”

Entering Green-Wood’s campus causes an immediate physical and emotional change. For me, there is a sudden silence as my ears adjust to the sounds of nature. Spring is almost at its peak, with shocks of color from the fresh blooms of magnolia trees. The winding pathways are largely empty. As the city disappears behind green hills, worries and concerns fade away.

For someone who is used to roaming across all five boroughs, being contained inside a single open space might seem like a hindrance. But Green-Wood has always been a special haven for me. During the 15 years I’ve been exploring New York’s empty places, I’ve walked many of the cemetery’s footpaths, finding inspiration in its layers of history and natural landscapes, which were shaped during the last Ice Age.

During the last few weeks of self-isolation, furloughed and not able to safely wander far from home, I have found myself in parts of Green-Wood that I’ve never visited before. The winding trails here circle each other in mysterious ways, constantly opening up new vistas. During this time of isolation, I have also visited many of my favorite places in Green-Wood. Here is where my wife and I had one of our first dates, where I proposed, where the wedding reception was held. And here is where the baby saw their first cherry blossoms and took their first steps, just last week.

It might seem odd to find solace in a cemetery during a global pandemic, but Green-Wood has always been more than just “a sacred city of the dead.” Since its founding in 1838, it has served as a vital outdoor escape for generations of New Yorkers. At one point, it was even the nation’s second most popular tourist destination after Niagara Falls.

The cemetery is quieter today, although its paths are dotted with new visitors taking contemplative walks (while keeping at least six feet away from one another). All the stages of life are represented here. The other day, two swans appeared on a quiet lake, courting each other near an island where ducks were hatching their eggs. On another walk, I found the ground freshly disturbed underneath a grove of white magnolia trees as the cemetery welcomed several new permanent residents.

As New York waits for the COVID-19 pandemic to peak, and the current disaster to pass, Green-Wood is a reminder of the millions of New Yorkers who have come before us, who have lived their own colorful lives in the city, and who have moved on to a place in our collective history. Scattered among the graves are are dozens of memorials to firemen, soldiers, and veterans. These monuments honor all of the past crises the city has faced and survived, and the sacrifices each generation has made. They are a reminder that this too shall pass.


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