By Tanya Silverman
It’s easy to dissociate nature from the island of Manhattan. It’s crowded; it’s cultured; its steep skyline hosts the country’s tallest tower. But buried under the concrete streets, lodged below the skyscrapers and between smaller structures, the natural environment is still part of Manhattan’s ecosystem.
There are trees. There are rock formations. There are rivers. In fact, there are even a number of thriving hawk pairs that fly around the city’s parks.
Some living remnants of natural history also exist at the island’s northernmost tip: Inwood Hill Park hosts Manhattan’s last natural forest.
Manhattan’s last natural salt marsh and the Henry Hudson Bridge.
Most hikers might not think to venture somewhere on Manhattan when they wish to walk through the woods. However, there’s an extensive trail system that carves throughout the 196 acres of Inwood Hill Park. Some paths swerve by imposing products of civilization (like alongside the West Side Highway or underneath the Henry Hudson Bridge) or lead to striking environmental views (such as Manhattan’s last natural salt marsh or into New Jersey’s Palisades cliffs).
However, if hikers ascend the wooded hill, they can escape into a serene deciduous forest–one that buffers out the audio effect of traffic noises and the visual distraction of urban development.
“The forest in Inwood Hill is representative of our natural history,” explains Bram Gunther, Chief of Forestry, Horticulture, and Natural Resources for the New York City Parks Department.
Gunther adds how “the forests in the other parts of the island of Manhattan have been directly impacted by development and landscaping.” He clarifies, “the north end of Central Park in its way too is representative of our natural history–although it’s a much smaller slice.”
Gunther tells BTR that even though Inwood Hill Park’s forest is considered “native” and “natural,” we should still acknowledge the fact that the location has experienced centuries of human disturbance. No tree there today is older than the Revolutionary War. During that time, he says, Hessian soldiers occupied what was then Inwood Hill Park and they chopped down every tree to use as firewood.
“Now, that’s still a long time ago and there are trees from that time,” he explains, “and trees in this area don’t necessarily live that much longer than that time period from then.”
Gunther is also President of the Natural Areas Conservancy, an independent nonprofit which works with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.
Clara Pregitzer, who also works for Natural Areas Conservancy, informs BTR that Inwood Hill Park is currently considered to have the largest “forever wild” natural area in Manhattan. Last summer, the Conservancy dispatched a team of specializing biologists to determine the state of Inwood Hill Park’s forest and see how it compares with the health of other city parks. They assessed the trees’ canopy, understory, forest floor, soil, as well as woody debris.
“We did find that Inwood Hill Park does primarily have a native forest canopy which is great news,” Pregitzer illustrates. “You can experience that when you walk through the park with giant tulip trees, oak trees, and hickory trees.”
The team also discovered that Inwood Hill Park holds one of the densest layers of spicebush in the city, which provides habitat for wildlife. However, when the biologists assessed the forest floor and the levels of regeneration, they found that there were not as many young versions of tree species that thrive in the canopy–meaning that the future of Manhattan’s last native forest may not seem so promising.
Pregitzer says that the Natural Areas Conservancy is now partnered with the US Forest Service to work on a social assessment that studies how NYC park visitors interact with the space and understand the forest.
In the meantime, positive human reception to Inwood Hill Park is exhibited by individual accounts. Cole Thompson, a local writer and real estate salesperson, maintains a website devoted to the Inwood neighborhood, a page which chronicles the park’s history.
“Basically, I went through everything I could find on the park from the Parks Department,” Thompson tells BTR. “I went through their minutes and budgets through the years, various histories that have been collected over the years.”
The timeline compiled by Thompson cites Henry Hudson’s sail past the park. Legend has it that Inwood Hill Park was the location where Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Lenape Indians, so naturally its 1626 date is marked. Thompson’s site also portrays historical characters like Princess Naomi, a Cherokee woman who lived in a cabin beneath a tulip tree in Inwood Hill Park during the 1920s.
Considering the current-day state of Inwood, Thompson agrees that the forested hill serves as an important resource to local inhabitants.
A view of the West Side Highway from Inwood Hill Park.
“In this part of Manhattan–at the Northern End–about a third of the area up here is green space and it really adds a lot to the neighborhood,” Thompson says.
Geologist Phil Stoffer offers some prehistoric perspective on Inwood Hill Park dating back to the Early to Middle Ordovician Period. The rocks that lay there presently, Stoffer explains, suggest that 440 million years ago, “it was a warm, tropical, shallow ocean that was teaming with life–but fish as we know them had not evolved yet.”
Stoffer adds, there “probably were some tasty cephalopods (squids with straight, long shells), but I doubt you’d want to eat the brachiopods, trilobites, or other critters back then.”
Moving forth thousands of years, the geologist reports that after the last continental ice melted, “humans were probably among the first creatures to walk on [the] dry land of Inwood [Hill] Park.” Clearly, a long legacy of human interaction with the nature has taken place since.
Manhattan (and greater New York City) is an inherently metamorphic place. A bustling international hub and fast-paced crossroads of culture for centuries, change is inevitable to the island’s character. For whatever the future may hold for the city, at the present day, an undeveloped forested enclave at its northern limits offers visitors perspective of our dynamic Earth and environment.
All photos by Tanya Silverman.