We’re back. And we’re a little homesick for the mountain and the Sentiero Francescano della Pace. So what do two people who live on a mountaintop criss-crossed by great hiking trails do when they’re back in New York City? They go hiking in the hills of New York City. The Japanese call it forest bathing, which is a pretty neat term, I think.
Let explain. Take a look at this satellite map of Staten Island.
See all that green stuff in the middle? That’s the Greenbelt, an inadvertent gift from none other than Robert Moses, that enemy of open green spaces. He planned a parkway right through that green north-south belt, the Richmond Parkway. It would have run from the Staten Island expressway in a southwest direction. And it would have run through and destroyed hundreds of acres of virgin forest. But that was no obstacle to Moses; he usually got what he wanted.
What the great builder and destroyer didn’t count on was Todt Hill. The neighborhood, smack dab in the middle of his planned road, happens to be one of the wealthiest in the city. Back then, we’re talking about the 1960s, it was an enclave of discreet wealth—nice big Tudor homes, tasteful mansions, fieldstone farmhouses with ponds, that sort of thing. If you’d taken photos of the area at that time and said it was New Canaan Connecticut, no one would’ve challenged you (except for the denizens of that exclusive community). Today, Todt Hill is rather less tasteful (see the monstrous McVersailles below), but I’ll leave that for another post.
The route also would’ve run alongside the Richmond County Country Club, golf course and watering hole of said community, as well as Moravian Cemetery, where generations of Vanderbilts are buried. Yes, those Vanderbilts. They came from Staten Island, of all places.
Now it’s one thing to ram a highway through the South Bronx. Sure, people opposed the notorious Cross-Bronx Expressway, but they didn’t have much clout. It’s another thing to wreck a wealthy wooded enclave. The good people of Todt Hill organized and fought Moses. After a struggle, helped along by the support of Jackie Onassis, the highway never was built. But what’s left is a fabulous green swath of land in the heart of the island, which is public property and which features terrific hiking trails and nature preserves.
So, in search of some quiet and green space, we took to the hills. We parked our car across the street from a couple of monstrous McMansions, one of which is big enough to be a hotel, checked out the map, and went hiking. First, accidentally, we went through the St. Francis/San Francesco woods—you may remember this post from a quite different Francis forest—and then decided to hang south
The path took us along the spine of the hills. At one point we could see the ocean, and according to the map, we walked alongside and above the country club fairway. The trails are well-marked and not too challenging–there’s enough variation to keep you entertained, but it never feels like you’ll fall off a cliff. But with the thick early autumn foliage, all we saw were trees and shrubbery.
One of these days, I’d love to walk the whole length with a naturalist. But this wasn’t the time; we had to get back to the car before it got dark.
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