Five Secrets of Central Park

Last Updated on: 16th December 2019, 08:41 am

Designed back in the 1850’s, Central Park often tops the list of places to see in NYC, with millions visiting each year. But if you’re the type who generally avoids crowds and touristy places, you may be wondering if there’s more to explore beyond the top highlights. Fortunately, there is. From the secluded Hallett Nature Sanctuary to a hidden cave to an ancient Egyptian obelisk, Central Park still contains plenty of secrets. And many of them were never even part of the park’s original design.

In early 19th-century United States, the idea of a spacious, green park in the heart of an urban center was largely unheard of. A few decades earlier, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery had set the precedent, quickly becoming one of the most popular tourist attractions in America. And prominent members of New York’s elite felt that Manhattan ought to have its own park, too.

At the time, New York’s population was largely concentrated in lower Manhattan, while the central portion of the island mainly consisted of sparsely populated farmland. And so the State of New York designated a huge rectangular area of over 800 acres to be the location of what would be Central Park. City officials even held a contest to see who could come up with the best design.

The winners, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, came up with an elaborate plan to landscape the large space, complete with artificial lakes, gardens and bridges. Work on the park began in 1857, with construction lasting through the 1870s. Thanks to regular maintenance and refurbishments, Central Park is arguably America’s most splendid public park to this day. But nowadays, some of its most interesting landmarks are those which predate the park’s foundation.

New York City Central Park
NYC Central Park The Blockhouse

The locations featured below stretch from the park’s southern end near 59th street, all the way up north to 110th street, bordering Harlem. The very first and last destinations are separated by around 4 km, or 2.5 miles. While you can visit the first four destinations mentioned below on foot in a single outing, you may want to save the northern end of the park for a separate visit.

Hallett Nature Sanctuary

Central Park was meticulously landscaped to be a place where New Yorkers could take a break from the chaos of the city. But oddly enough, one of the park’s best places to forget that you’re in the heart of a bustling metropolis is an area that Olmsted and Vaux never touched.

Hallett Nature Sanctuary covers an area of around 4 acres near ‘The Pond’ in the park’s southeastern corner. The area was deemed too rocky for landscaping and was left alone by the park’s designers. With the plants able to grow freely, the area soon became a popular hangout for birds. And in 1934, it was officially designated as a bird sanctuary, named after George Hervey Hallett, a civic leader and avid bird watcher.

NYC Central Park Hallett Nature Sanctuary
NYC Central Park Hallett Nature Sanctuary

The natural zone remained unspoiled for decades until park officials started adding some walking trails in 2001. But still, for years, the sanctuary could only be accessed as part of a special tour. It wasn’t until 2013 that the area opened up to the general public.

Unlike the rest of Central Park, Hallett Nature Sanctuary can only be accessed during designated opening hours, which are from 10:00 to sunset. While open daily, you may find it closed during special events.

Though some sections of the sanctuary really do resemble a dense forest, the edge of the path offers a clear view of Midtown’s towering skyscrapers, reminding visitors of where they really are.

The Ramble Cave

When designing the park, Olmsted and Vaux wanted a large portion of it to resemble a natural forest that one might encounter in the wilderness. The 38-acre area, known as the Ramble, was meticulously landscaped, with various plant species carefully chosen by experts. Large rocks, meanwhile, were deliberately placed to appear as natural as possible. 

And in contrast to the Hallett Nature Sanctuary mentioned above, park designers didn’t need to wait decades to let nature take its course. This manmade forest, stretching from 73rd and 78th streets, was one of the first parts of the park to be opened to the public. But while doing the landscaping, there was one part of the Ramble that Olmsted and Vaux weren’t too pleased with.

NYC Central Park Ramble Cave
NYC Central Park Ramble Cave
NYC Central Park Ramble Cave

Just north of ‘The Lake,’ they discovered a natural cavern situated below the Ramble’s main walking trails. It didn’t quite fit in with their artistic vision, but they figured out a way to make it work. They added some additional large rocks around it to help it better blend in with the surroundings. And they also added a staircase that visitors could use to access the cave from the main trails.

Before long, the secluded cavern became a popular hangout spot, but all too often with the wrong crowd. Over the years, teenage runaways took refuge there while numerous men committed suicide in the cave. Sexual harassment was also rampant in the area.

Authorities eventually had enough, and the cave was sealed off for good in the 1930’s. They also disguised the staircase, though they didn’t destroy it. In fact, it can still be easily climbed down today, as long as you know where to look. 

NYC Central Park Ramble Cave
NYC Central Park Ramble Cave

Of all the locations mentioned in this list, the Ramble Cave is the only one that’s truly hidden. It’s located west of the Ramble Arch and north of a small bridge over the water. On the west side of a small bay, you’ll need to step through the metal railing (pictured above). And only then will you detect the descending staircase.

Arriving at the lower level, you’ll see where the cavern was sealed off by officials in the 1930’s. The cave entrance provides a great view of the water and it remains one of Central Park’s most quiet and secluded areas. But as more and more visitors learn the secret, don’t be shocked if you’re not completely alone.

Following a visit to the cave, a walk through the scenic Ramble area itself is well worth it for anyone visiting Central Park.

The Egyptian Obelisk

Being the oldest manmade object in the park by thousands of years, the towering Egyptian obelisk has, as one might expect, a fascinating backstory. Today, it’s commonly known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needle.’ But it was actually commissioned in the 1400’s BC by 18th dynasty Pharaoh Thutmose III. 

Thutmose was the son of Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most well-known female pharaoh, with the two ruling as co-regents for much of Thutmose’s reign. And following his mother’s passing, he expanded the Egyptian Empire to its greatest ever size.

From the early days of Ancient Egypt, obelisks were associated with the Sun and the Sun god Ra. And the most sacred site for sun-related rituals was a temple-city known as Heliopolis. That’s where Thutmose III had this obelisk erected, but the tradition had already been in place for thousands of years by the time he took the throne. 

While this obelisk had a twin standing right beside it (currently in London), the pair would’ve been just two among dozens around the temple city.

It was also at Heliopolis that, according to Egyptian mythology, the mound of creation first rose out of the primordial waters. And it was also considered to be the birthplace of the gods. Yet, strangely, despite its longstanding importance for over 2,500 years, we know relatively little about Heliopolis today.

NYC Central Park Egyptian Obelisk

For whatever reason, the Temple of the Sun was already largely deserted by the time Greek historian Strabo visited around 2,000 years ago. And the Romans later plundered much of its limestone for construction in Cairo. 

Presently, much of ancient Heliopolis, situated just north of present-day Cairo, is buried beneath modern shopping malls and apartment complexes. Only one original Heliopolis obelisk stands in its original position today.

This particular obelisk was discovered by the Romans, already toppled over. They transported it to the northern coastal city of Alexandria, placing outside Julius Caesar’s temple, the Caesareum. And they even added bronze crabs for support and balance, which visitors can still see today.

NYC Central Park Egyptian Obelisk
Inscriptions praising the Pharaoh and the Sun
NYC Central Park Egyptian Obelisk
NYC Central Park Egyptian Obelisk
Bronze crabs added by the Romans

Much, much later, the Egyptian government offered the obelisk to the United States in 1869 as thanks for USA’s help with opening the Suez Canal. But much work was required just to receive the gift. 

After years of planning, the 220-ton obelisk finally arrived in NYC in 1881 following a year-long journey. A train trestle even needed to be built just to transport the obelisk across Central Park! Appropriately, it was placed outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which played a large role in its delivery.

Those with even the slightest interest in Ancient Egypt should also be sure to visit the Met, which has one of the world’s finest collections of Egyptian antiquities. It even contains the original, complete Temple of Dendur!

Ancient Egyptian antiquities at The Met

Seneca Village

As mentioned above, New York was largely concentrated in lower Manhattan at the time of Central Park’s creation, with the northern portion of the island consisting of sparsely populated farmland. But that doesn’t mean that no one was living there. In total, around 1600 people living in Manhattan were forcibly relocated upon Central Park’s creation. And one of these lost settlements was Seneca Village.

NYC Central Park Seneca Village

Located between 81st–89th Streets and between 7th and 8th avenues, Seneca Village was likely Manhattan’s first prominent African American neighborhood. It was difficult for African Americans to buy land in those times, and this area was one of the few places in New York where blacks could become landowners. 

Many residents were members of the Africa Methodist Episcopal Zion and African Union Methodist churches. And in the mid-19th century, numerous people of Irish and German origins joined the community as well. The village consisted of around 250 people at its peak. In addition to the churches, there was also at least one school.

NYC Central Park Seneca Village

As one would imagine, Seneca Village’s residents were not happy about the eviction. But due to New York’s ’eminent domain’ laws, there was little they could do about it. Property owners did, at least receive some compensation. But the community did not reestablish itself elsewhere, and what became of Seneca Village’s inhabitants remains unclear.

Seneca Village was largely forgotten about until excavations took place in the ’80s and ’90s. And today, visitors can catch a small glimpse of a few old building foundations, situated just across from the ritzy Upper West Side. While there isn’t much to see, it’s worth a peak for those curious about New York’s forgotten history.

The Blockhouse

NYC Central Park The Blockhouse

At the far northern end of Central Park, overlooking Harlem, is Central Park’s oldest manmade construction (besides the obelisk, of course). The Blockhouse predates the park’s construction by several decades, and it’s the only one of several military fortifications in the area to have survived.

It dates back to 1814 during The War of 1812 (which actually lasted until January 1815).  Upon learning of a battle against the British in nearby Stonington, Connecticut, New Yorkers started building forts in Manhattan in anticipation of an attack.

Supposedly, the Blockhouse replaced an even older fort from the Revolutionary War period.

NYC Central Park The Blockhouse
NYC Central Park The Blockhouse

But unlike the Revolutionary War, the Battle of 1812 would never make it to Manhattan, and the Blockhouse saw no action. Immediately following the war’s end, it was left abandoned.

Even after Central Park’s construction, the Blockhouse was left in place. Much like Hallett Nature Sanctuary at the opposite end of the park, its rocky location was unfit for landscaping. Nowadays, the old fort can still be accessed by hiking up a short nature trail.

NYC Central Park The Blockhouse

Unfortunately, visitors aren’t able to go inside, but one can get a good look at the grassy interior by peaking through the gate. The fort once contained a cannon which is no longer there, but you can get an idea of what the cannon would’ve looked like by visiting Fort Clinton nearby.

NYC Central Park Fort Clinton
Fort Clinton's cannon

All that’s left of Fort Clinton is the cannon – which was actually taken from a sunken British ship. Amazingly, it sat at this spot loaded with a cannonball and gunpowder for decades before conservators noticed in 2013! Even if you’re not a history buff, Fort Clinton is still worth a quick visit for excellent views of the scenic Harlem Meer.

Exploring Further

There are still a few more lesser-visited spots in Central Park to explore for those with some extra time. Some notable landmarks include the Huddlestone Arch, constructed in 1866 of large boulders and without the use of mortar!

There’s also the Arsenal, a Gothic-style building from the 19th century which once stored weapons and ammo for the New York State Militia. Located just by Central Park Zoo, the building is now home to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

Central Park Huddlestone Arch

Additional Info

Choosing where to stay in a city as vast (and expensive) as NYC is not easy. And the most desirable neighborhoods are often going to be off-limits for travelers on a budget. Ultimately, you should go with the most convenient area that you can afford.

But what exactly is ‘convenient’ in New York City? It’s going to mean something a little different for everyone, depending on what your interests are and which neighborhoods you plan to explore.

Many of the more well-known tourist attractions (such as Central Park, the Empire State Building, Chinatown and the MET, among many others) are scattered throughout Manhattan. If you can afford to stay somewhere in Manhattan, then you can’t really go wrong (except for the far north or East Harlem). The island is incredibly well-connected by subway and it’s overall quite walkable. And the downtown portion of the island is linked with Brooklyn at various points.

For those staying in Brooklyn, most of the borough’s trendy neighborhoods are situated at its western end, like Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg. These would all make good bases for your journeys throughout the rest of the city, as they’re all short rides away from Manhattan. Fort Greene is another area worth considering, while Bushwick has been undergoing a major resurgence as of late.

Farther north, Astoria in Queens is another neighborhood to consider. But it will take you longer to get to lower Manhattan and Brooklyn from there.

The safety situation in New York is a little bit strange. Most of Manhattan is quite safe, and so is the western portion of Brooklyn. But even as you head further eastward, it’s hard to categorize the different neighborhoods as either entirely safe or dangerous (unless it’s somewhere like Brownsville or East New York, which you should avoid entirely).

The safety situation can sometimes change from block to block. Therefore, if you’re staying in one of the more off-the-beaten-path districts of NYC, it’s best to consult with a local about which sections or streets of the neighborhood to avoid.

Note that your AirBnb host may downplay the potential safety concerns, so be sure to do some research online if you don’t know any other locals. With that said, NYC overall is among the safest major cities in America.

New York City is probably the only city in the entire USA where most residents can live comfortably without a car. And that’s good news for temporary visitors who are used to navigating cities independently via public transportation.

You can get just about anywhere with the subway which is run by the MTA. An individual ride costs $2.75 regardless of distance. You’ll need to buy a Metrocard from the machines located at each station, which accept card or cash. While you can pay per ride, it’s best to fill it up with $10 or $20 at a time so that you don’t always need to think about it.

Note that the L train, a convenient line which runs through Manhattan and Brooklyn, is not currently running on weekends. And numerous other lines change their course or stop running completely due to scheduled repairs (or oftentimes, seemingly at random).

There are numerous apps for navigating New York’s complex and ever-changing subway system. But when it comes to getting straightforward, real-time updates regarding delays or schedule changes, I find the best app to be the most obvious one: Google Maps.

Manhattan is highly walkable, while walking from one district to another within Brooklyn is a pain. Just like in the movies, New York is full of taxis and you shouldn’t have difficulty finding one to hail down from the street. Nowadays, though, many people just hire an Uber or Lyft.

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