Discovering a Hidden Gem Right in Our Neighborhood Backyard
March 2, 2014

 

Sometimes, it takes an out-of-town visitor to help you discover your own neighborhood. Such was the case on a recent weekend when our dear friend Robin visited with her 7-year-old son, Max. Growing up in Connecticut, Robin and her family would regularly visit the city, and the massive nineteenth-century gothic Cathedral of St. John the Divine was among their favorite sights. She hadn’t been in years and had never taken Max, so since it happens to be a mere thirteen blocks south of us on Amsterdam Avenue, we strolled on over. 
 
While we do visit St. John the Divine periodically, such as for holidays or the awesome Feast of St. Francis which takes place every October, we hadn’t explored its extensive grounds. (Put a placeholder in your calendar: the Feast of St. Francis, which is billed as a “celebration of fur and feathers,” features a lengthy parade of animals—from dogs and cats, to kangaroos, camels, and a bald eagle—making its way down the sidewalk on Amsterdam Avenue, up the cathedral steps, and down the aisle to be blessed at the altar. It’s incredible.)  
 
What Do You Mean, Peacocks?  
 
At just over 11 acres, the cathedral grounds truly are a sprawling oasis in a tightly packed neighborhood—even in the winter. The Pulpit Lawn is its centerpiece, featuring a 40-foot tall gothic spire where services used to be held during the cathedral’s construction. A few yards away is the equally tall but far more massive Peace Fountain, which melds together various representations of good and evil—a conversation starter with the children if ever there was one!

  

A network of paths surrounds the lawn, leading visitors to smaller gardens with stone pathways overlooking 110th Street from a considerable height. Here, the children—Max and our own kids, Riley and Halina, ages 11 and 8—were occupied for a half hour making snow sculptures, writing messages with sticks in the gravel, and excavating hidden treasures. Using sticks as make-believe pick axes, the children dug up what Max—who’s very much interested in rocks and minerals—thought was fossiliferous mudstone. Back at our apartment, he looked it up in the rocks and minerals guide he’d packed for the trip (just in case), and indeed, their find seemed to fit the bill: a gray or black stone formed from mud that contains carbon-rich matter. 
 
After wandering around for nearly an hour, we decided to head home but before doing so, we asked another visitor (who somehow looked like a regular) whether there were any more paths or gardens to explore. Turned out to be a very good thing to ask as we had not yet encountered the three resident peacocks—two highly colorful and one pure white—who grace the grounds! 
 
“It’s one of the biggest sources of pride in this neighborhood,” explained our ad-hoc tour guide. Indeed, we are as much from Morningside Heights as she is, but in fifteen years we had never heard about the peacocks. They are obviously used to being around people, and especially young children, as they pranced comfortably around us as the children thrilled to their existence. 

Phoenix Exhibit
 
We also ducked into the cathedral and were thrilled to see that Xu Bing’s Phoenix installation was open for viewing, even ahead of its official March 1 opening. Two massive yet graceful birds weighing 12 tons apiece and stretching 100 feet long hang from the ceiling in the nave. Made from construction debris—shovel spades, hard hats, tubing, saws—that Bing collected around Beijing, they sparkle with tiny lights and the twinkle coming through the massive stained-glass windows behind them. Phoenix will be on exhibit for about a year.
 
Logistics
 
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is located between 110th and 113th streets and Amsterdam Avenue. Take the 1 subway to 110th on Broadway and walk one block west, or the B or C lines to Central Park West and walk one block east. The gardens and grounds are open during daylight hours. 
 
What is your neighborhood's best-kept outdoor secret?
 
 

 

 

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