This article was supposed to be about Inwood Hill Park. I had envisioned telling sarcastic jokes about Peter Minuit’s purchase of the island of Manhattan from the Indians. There were plans to describe the awe of the mighty Hudson seen from some lofty precipice, and to conjure the rocky, virgin forest at the island’s tip. Sadly, Manhattan’s last true wilderness did not evoke the Romantic grandeur I was expecting. Instead, walking the silent, unkempt paths of Inwood Hill, I hesitantly faced the unwelcome progeny of my venture—fear.
As a first-year at Columbia, I eagerly explored the city on long runs off campus. I boldly sprinted through Harlem, crossed bridges into the South Bronx, and trekked where I imagined no freshman had been before. Led by a yellow map of the city that normally hung on the wall of my room, I gradually compiled a vast mental repository of places, neighborhoods, and people. Like any amateur Herodotus, I took note of strange customs, battles, and myths.
“The women of Washington Heights, I noted, are prone to whistle as I run past. To mimic the wind perhaps,” I had scribbled. Some runs took me to historical monuments, like Strivers’ Row and Yankee Stadium. On others I sought neighborhoods for the loveliness of their names—Mott Haven, Hell’s Kitchen, and Blissville, of which I noted, “the bliss does not reside as much in the existing structures as in the mingling of gastronomic delights.”
For all the fearless zeal I’d proudly trumpeted, I maintained one stringent policy. Once the sun went down, the opportunity for a jaunt did too. And so, as the winter months closed in, I found my policy becoming ever more restrictive, but refused to surrender my exploration to the mystery of the night. I recall once running through Central Park at 4 p.m. in November, watching the sky grow darker, and sprinting in near panic over the last hill before 110th Street to avoid the intrusion of darkness.
New York is a city that never sleeps, but for a runner the night can assume a harrowing uncertainty. When I finally breached the sunset barrier, I set strict rules after dark. No parks. South of 120th Street and west of Columbus Avenue only. For a brief, embarrassing period, I even wore a reflective vest, albeit at the behest of my dear, worried mother.
But the night was growing on me. The prospect of danger enlivened my more pedestrian jogging routes, fuelling in me a warrior ethos. I was stronger, faster. I had a purpose.
There were times, of course, when the night felt truly safe. The boats tossing in the water by Riverside Park always had a mollifying presence. The 69th Street Pier, with its white radiance jutting into the Hudson, was like the placating light at the end of a tunnel. Still, the shadows were poised to attack, and on my more skittish nights I would jerk and flail at the flitting of squirrels in the underbrush, or as the shadowy hydrants morphed into the vicious hounds of my imagination.
At times, my nighttime journeys would strive to capture the essence of the New York night. I recall running through Times Square at 11 p.m., dodging the chaos of cars, bright lights, and the babel of foreign tongues. Brooklyn Bridge and the glowing Midtown skyline in the distance never failed to fortify my confidence in the city’s aura of Empire.
Yet for the most part, the world of New York at night remains largely undiscovered for me. I have relaxed, but never abolished, my stringent rules. Never have I run through the Bronx, much of Harlem, or even portions of Central Park at night. What I consider vague thresholds between neighborhoods during the day turn into great fortifications at night.
The runner, of course, gets to keep moving until his journey has ended. His flights of fancy, the imagined dangers and twilight heroics, epitomize his alienation from the city. And so, walking one cloudy afternoon through Inwood Hill Park, waiting for the trees to turn into vagrants and for the forest to turn into a vast colony of the dispossessed, I decided to run.