I’m ashamed to say I stumbled upon it. The Hudson River Park, that is. Living as I was on New York’s iconic 34th street, sharing pavement space with the Empire State Building, I had simply failed to walk down to the bright, sparkling body of water visible at one end of the street whenever traffic eased up.
So, when I finally came upon the waterside park — stretching from 59th Street south to Battery Park in the borough of Manhattan — I knew at once what idiots must feel like on a daily basis. How could I have missed this? Why had no one mentioned it before?
To be fair, it must be hard for any traveller in New York City to stray from its iconic architecture and take time out to walk alongside a river. I wasn’t the first dolt either, considering the Hudson valley was discovered by accident. In 1609, an Englishman called (what else) Henry Hudson, was sailing along America’s north Atlantic coast, looking for a quick passage to China. He thought he had found one when his ship, called the Half Moon, sailed into New York Bay. Only after travelling 150 miles upriver did he realize it didn’t lead to the Great Wall. How could I — familiar as I was only with the sailing terms ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ — hope to do better?
Stuffing cold, gloved hands into the deep pockets of my overcoat (it was January, not an ideal month for river-walking), I stared across the expanse of water to the garden state of Jersey, and sympathised with the geographically-challenged sailor Henry. Behind me lay the many gems of Manhattan, from Battery Park to the World Trade Centre. Alongside stood historic Chelsea Piers — once a passenger ship terminal destined to welcome the Titanic, now a sports complex. Before me were famous Jersey towns like Hoboken, Fort Lee and Tenafly, their names as much a part of popular culture as Frank Sinatra, Jay-Z and Yogi Berra, all of whom had once called these places home.
At that moment — caught between two world-famous cities, the chilly air sweeping in across the waves — I had little to complain about. Stopping by a railing, ignored by bored seagulls, I pulled out a little book on New York’s history. It told me that Henry Hudson had, interestingly, been hired by the Dutch East India Company.
Who would have thought this place once inspired the writer Washington Irving to create The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle? It was all a far cry from the landscaped gardens I was currently in, flanked by the concrete fortress of NYC. So, putting aside facts and figures, I simply walked.
Only in America could one find an imposition of such order on what was once chaos. Only in America could little streets look familiar to those who had never seen them before, except on big screens a few thousand miles away. Only here could one step outside an apartment and brush past Hollywood star Christian Slater, or find actress Jessica Lange looking for directions, or step out for coffee and run into Colin Firth shooting for a film nonchalantly on the sidewalk.
By now, I was in Donald Trump territory, which brought a bit of a smile to my face. Speaking about the real estate developer, the New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin had once allegedly observed, ‘Trump owns an estate in Palm Beach called Mar-a-Lago. Perhaps his new development (18 buildings, 6,000 apartments, and 3,000 parking spaces) on the Hudson River should have been called Mar-a-City.’
As I strolled past the water, world-famous neighbourhoods unravelled alongside: Midtown West (home to the Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall), Chelsea (centre of the New York art scene), Hell’s Kitchen (once overrun by Irish-American organized crime circles), the Meatpacking District (former home to 250 slaughterhouses, now host to the hottest nightclubs), Greenwich Village (birthplace of the beat movement), and Tribeca (abbreviated from ‘Triangle below Canal Street’ and birthplace of the Tribeca Film Festival).
My thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a massive luxury cruise liner on the river — another indication of how things had changed since the invention of the steamboat in 1807. By 1850, there were approximately 150 steamboats making their way up and down the Hudson, carrying as many as a million passengers.
Designated one of America’s heritage rivers in 1997, history was clearly alive and well on the Hudson, the past blending neatly with the present. Proof of this lay in the presence of a float transfer bridge I passed, now open to the public. Once lining the riverbank, float bridges had enabled train cars loaded with animals and supplies to be transferred to and from train tracks on both sides of the river.
From humble beginnings like these, with the sound of fog horns and wail of livestock as a backdrop, arose the mighty United States. As the sun began to climb down, I reached the edge of the park. To my left lay Lady Liberty, a familiar silhouette standing tall in the watery distance.
I took a deep breath and tasted what was, for millions, a sense of freedom.