Sunset Park

50 Favorite Places #21
This is about Sunset Park – the actual park, not the neighborhood of the same name (though I love the neighborhood as well). In general, I rank parks according to the quantity, variety and novelty of the birds I’ve seen or aspire to see within their boundaries. Sunset Park is an exception. Not so with Sunset Park. While you can see birds there – Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Crows of both the American and Fish persuasions, as well as the ubiquitous pigeons, House Sparrows and starlings, other common backyard birds, and the occasional weary migrant – it’s no one’s idea of a birding hot spot. The fact that I love it so much despite its failure to contribute a single species to my life list attests to its other charms.

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Plumb Beach

IMG_8320 (3)50 Favorite Places #20

Or is it Plum? Over the years, it’s been called both. The “NYC Go” site describes “Plum” as a misspelling, then proceeds to assert the name derives from beach plums (plumbs?) indigenous to the area. Old photographs from the collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society show the name spelled Plum.  But at some point – and I’ve not been able to pinpoint exactly when, or why – the official spelling changed to Plumb. If you pull off the Belt Parkway into the rather tatty parking area today, “Plumb Beach” is what you’ll see on the official National Park Service sign.

Before it was either Plumb Beach or Plum Beach, it was Plum (not Plumb) Island, cut off from mainland Brooklyn by a tidal creek. Its isolation contributed to a colorful history, documented by my running teammate Keith Williams in his (sadly defunct) blog, The Weekly Nabe. I won’t go into the details – you can read Keith’s telling here – but the highlights include the world’s shortest ferry route, grandiose military plans, a squatters’ encampment, contraband liquor, illegal prize fights, and of course, because this is NYC, Robert Moses.

It was Moses who demoted Plum from Island to mere Beach. With Hog Creek filled in for the construction of his Belt Parkway, Plum(b) joined the rest of Brooklyn. And while it’s still not easy to get to by foot or public transit, it’s a cinch if you have a car. Classic Moses.

Since 1972, Plumb Beach has been part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service. It’s an unlikely national park. There’s not much of a buffer between it and the congested Belt Parkway, just a narrow strip of grass and a bike/pedestrian path. Even from the bike path, the beach and its adjacent tidal marsh are mostly hidden from view by scrubby growth. The trash-strewn parking lot and its permanently closed visitor center offer the only clues that something might be up.

Its unlikeliness is precisely what I like about it. Though Plumb Beach is no longer an island, it’s still a world apart. On summer weekends, beach-going families congregate on the sand west of the jetty, while kite surfers provide a show out on the water. The pious splash and lounge fully covered, next to sunbathers covered with practically nothing.

The wilder beach on the other side of the jetty is the domain of fishermen, off-leash dogs (the bane of my existence) and birders. Its dunes surround a shallow basin that transforms itself twice daily, going from lake dotted with swaying grasses to mudflats strewn with debris. From the beach, you wouldn’t know it was there.

Birders know it, of course. We desire the birds it conceals: herons and egrets and rails and shorebirds, swooping skimmers, diving terns, skulking sparrows. The other group who knows it are sexually marginalized men, also drawn by its possibilities for concealment, also motivated by desire.

There’s an undeniable awkwardness that comes from being fully kitted out as a Bird Nerd – convertible shorts, baseball cap, binoculars, spotting scope – in a place where others are kitted out in, well, nothing. And, I assume, an even greater awkwardness being naked or recently naked or about to get naked in a place where others are peering through binoculars while carrying powerful telephoto lenses. Sometimes, to combat the awkwardness, greetings are exchanged. But in general, the two groups occupy the space as though it’s two separate spaces, parallel worlds.

My two most vivid memories of Plumb Beach are of a regally long-beaked Whimbrel plucking crabs from the interior mud flats at low tide, and of a regally naked man liberating his hair from its messy bun before stepping into the lagoon that fills that same space at high tide, then floating there among the grasses.

It’s been a couple of years now, and I haven’t seen either the bird or the man since. Both have acquired a dream-like quality. In this sweltering pandemic summer, Plumb Beach seems more remote than ever, at least for the car-less, and the quantity of trash in its parking lot and along its shore has reached frightening levels. But it’s still one of my favorite places in the city, if only because the idea of multiple worlds hidden behind the Belt Parkway enchants me so.

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The Vale of Cashmere

IMG_8249 (2)50 Favorite Places #19

First off, that name: Vale of Cashmere. Whisper it to yourself. What do the syllables bring to mind? For me, they promise magical forests, enchanted pools, knights bold and ladies fair.

In fact, the Vale of Cashmere is a small section of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, tucked away in its northeast corner and accessed by one of several winding, descending walks. And although its name always puts me in mind of Arthurian legend (the “vale” part, I suppose), it’s actually grounded in Orientalist fantasies (the Cashmere part). The name was bestowed by the wife of Brooklyn’s then-mayor, who lifted it from an 1817 poem by the Irishman Thomas Moore. Moore’s poem recounts the legend of Lalla Rookh, a princess engaged to a prince who falls in love with a poet who – surprise! – turns out to be the prince in disguise. (Under a different spelling, Lala Rokh was the excellent Persian restaurant, now sadly closed, where I celebrated surviving the 2017 Boston Marathon. But I digress . . . ) Continue reading

Green-Wood Cemetery

IMG_8108 (3)50 Favorite Places #16

Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Horace Greeley are buried there. So is “Bill the Butcher,” the thuggish nativist killer depicted in Gangs of New York. The names on its tombstones echo those of Brooklyn streets – Suydam, Havemeyer, Joralemon – and call to mind half-remembered pages from U.S. history texts – DeWitt Clinton, Boss Tweed, various lesser Burrs. It contains the highest point in Brooklyn. Its 7,000 trees beckon migratory birds in the spring and fall, while raucous green parrots nest year-round in the Gothic spire of its main entrance.

It was, at one time, the nation’s second-busiest tourist attraction, after Niagara Falls.

Until recently, it was hard to imagine Green-Wood as a busy tourist site. Continue reading

Fruit feeder at Canopy Lodge (Valle de Anton, Panama)

Screenshot (19)50 Favorite Places #15

Can you have a favorite place that you’ve never been to IRL? Stuck at home, except for socially distant runs/walks and more-or-less harrowing resupply missions, I’ve started watching the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s live feeder cams – and in particular, the one trained on the fruit feeder at Panama’s Canopy Lodge.

My inspiration came from someone on Bird Twitter whom I’ve never met (how did I come to follow a guy from Patagonia who now lives in the UK? dunno, but I’m glad I did). He posted something about wood-rails, along with a photo. Instantly, I was consumed with burning wood-rail lust.

That was a week and a half ago (March 29, if you must know, when I had expected to be heading back to Mexico City from Oaxaca via Puebla). Continue reading

Bosque de Tlalpan

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50 Favorite Places #12

Let me say first off: I would have loved the Bosque de Tlalpan under any circumstances. But in these fear-stalked, plague-ridden times, I love it even more. We all need more nature in our lives right now. Every breeze, every birdsong, every falling leaf and fluttering butterfly feels like a little bit of normalcy that also happens to be beautiful and soul-soothing. Continue reading

Viveros de Coyoacán

IMG_679350 Favorite Places #11

Get there early in the morning, before the sun is fully up, and you’ll find the Viveros de Coyoacán already alive. Birds twitter and chirp as runners circle the perimeter path, their feet making crunching sounds in the fine red gravel.

The Viveros are part park, part nursery. They date from 1901, when Miguel Ángel de Quevedo – an engineer and architect who was also a passionate environmentalist, known in Mexico as “el apóstol del árbol” – donated a plot of land to be used as a public nursery. The idea caught the attention of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz. Díaz was an asshole, but he was also genuinely committed to the beautification of Mexico City. In his autocratic eyes, making the city more beautiful meant making it more modern and European, and that meant ornate architecture and wide, tree-lined boulevards.

Where would all those trees come from? Why, the Viveros of Coyoacán, of course. Continue reading

2019 in birds

varied thrush (2)

Varied Thrushes (January’s bird of the month)

I saw lots of birds last year. Seriously, lots. To be precise, I observed 470 species worldwide (which, last year, meant the U.S., Mexico and Spain), and 380 in the U.S. alone. Rattling off these numbers makes me feel a little sheepish. I know that listing is silly, even a bit tacky. It’s much cooler to ignore those totals that eBird makes so easy to track, and simply enjoy the birds you’re lucky enough to see.

On the other hand, reviewing my list provides a mini-review of my year.  This is the second time I’ve done a “year in birds” post, and both times I’ve been surprised by the intensity of the memories the exercise provoked. Continue reading

Lonestar Brooklyn

img_7580-e1576850953203.jpgOn the one hand, it’s become a cliche of lazy travel writing to describe this or that city or neighborhood as “the Brooklyn of (fill in the blank).” You could even say it’s become a cliche of lazy travel writing to describe Brooklyn – sprawling and variegated home to more than 2.5 million people, not all of them youthful or rich or white or especially hip – as “Brooklyn.”

On the other hand, when a resident of Park Slope passes a sweater-wearing tree in Coyoacán, or a co-working space in Sevilla or just about anywhere in Portland, Maine, it’s hard to avoid a sensation of familiarity – appealing, boring, comforting and a little ridiculous, all at once – followed by an urge to walk faster, even flee, guilty by association. I wonder if the quality of “Brooklyn-ness” hasn’t become a planet-devouring blob, no less imperialist for its good intentions, no less homogenizing for its quirkiness. This decade’s Golden Arches, packed with probiotics and infused with CBD.

It was this on-the-one/on-the-other handedness that had kept me from visiting Austin until recently. Continue reading

At sea

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Sunrise at sea

Sunday morning, I woke up at sea, having spent the night in a sleeping bag on the upper deck of a 110-foot fishing boat, looking up at the stars. It was still dark when I decided to quit pretending to sleep, and a thin mist enveloped the deck. I could make out dark waves, a few figures – sleepless, like me, or on duty, performing various nautical tasks – and the ghostly pale railings of the boat.

The queasiness hit as soon as I sat up. Continue reading