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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Coleman

The Parks of New York City: A Quick Guide for Writers

Angel of the Waters fountain at Bethesda Terrace.
Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. Photo credit: me.

If you’re a writer, New York City is one of the best places in the world to set an epic romance—or a murder mystery. Maybe you’ve seen Enchanted (or Taxi Driver) enough times that you figure you can get your story going and worry about the details later. But if you’re not super familiar with Manhattan geography and you need an outdoor setting, figuring out the best park for a first kiss or a criminal ambush can be tricky business—and the details matter.

Here you’ll find a quick and dirty guide to five of the most well-known parks in Manhattan—written just for authors, not tourists or dog-walkers.

1. The High Line This elevated park, built on the framework of the former elevated train, was created in 2009. It runs vertically along the city’s west side, on the downtown end of Manhattan and overlooking the Hudson River. At one spot, you can see, very distantly, the Statue of Liberty; there are low bleachers built into the park at this spot, which you can sit on to view it. You can access the High Line via large metal stairways and a few elevators. There’s a lot of public art, which changes several times a year, and in nice weather you might find little carts selling ice pops or artisanal beverages. When it first opened, the park was flanked by many crumbling old apartment buildings once occupied by folks who had to live with the train rushing past their windows. More and more, though, those buildings are being replaced by sleek, high-ticket condo buildings that glitter in the sun. This park is very narrow—it used to be a train track, after all—and it tends to be quite crowded, with nearly everyone walking along the same path in an endless flow of foot traffic. There are benches and a few cut-out spaces for overlooks, but this probably isn’t a good place to set a chase scene or one where two lovers stop in the middle of a sidewalk to kiss.

View of the Statue of Liberty from the High Line.
View of the teeny-tiny Statue of Liberty from the High Line bleachers.

2. Central Park Everyone knows Central Park thanks to its appearance in approximately one billion films and television shows. Smack in the center of Manhattan, it’s one of the few places where characters can find a reasonable amount of privacy, spin in a joyous circle without hitting anyone, or chase down the guy who killed his wife. This park features many charming and unique settings: Belvedere Castle (a small stone castle, or “folly”), the Conservatory Water (where you can rent a little remote-controlled boat for your child to zoom along the pond), the Sheep Meadow (a large, open field popular with sunbathers and picnickers), and the beautiful Bethesda Terrace, which features the Angel of the Waters fountain, talented busker-musicians, and a view of the rowboaters on the lake. Although Central Park is a wonderful open space, it’s worth noting that at least below 97th Street, you’re never more than a few feet from the sight of skyscrapers and other reminders that you’re still in the city. The wilder northern part of the park is a different story, but for the most part, your characters wandering the park are not likely to forget that they’re in Manhattan.

Antique carousel at Bryant Park.
The carousel at Bryant Park.

3. Bryant Park Directly behind the famous New York Public Library with its stone lions, Bryant Park is a midtown gem. It fits squarely into a city block, and it’s surrounded by lovely skyscrapers. The city has put a great deal of effort into making it a delightful public space, with an outdoor reading library, permanent game and chess tables (and a system for checking out board games for free), a beautiful antique carousel that plays French children’s songs … and a really nice public restroom. This park has a distinctive style of outdoor chairs and tables, which you can see on its website. In the warmer months, public yoga classes and outdoor movie showings are held on the large green space at its center, and in the winter there’s a European-style holiday market. Bryant Park is a great place for characters to meet up, meet-cute, or sit and muse on their lot in life while watching the life of the city unfold around them. It’s a relatively small space, but a centrally located and vibrant one.

4. Riverside Park Located along the Hudson River and just west of the prestigious Barnard and Columbia universities, Riverside Park has been the site of more crime in recent years than any other park in Manhattan. Although this part of the city is also home to the gorgeous Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, wonderful eateries, and a community garden, the more remote vibe of its parks makes them more attractive to people with ill intentions. Morningside Park and the North Woods of Central Park, both nearby, have been the sites of high-profile rapes and murders as well as robberies. Most people who visit Riverside Park and other nearby parks, of course, emerge unscathed. But if you’re looking for a setting for a bad guy or hero to do what they came to do, this is a reasonable place for it all to go down.

Dancers in Washington Square Park.
Spontaneous dancing in Washington Square Park.

5. Washington Square Park If a downtown vibe is what your story needs, this park, located in Greenwich Village and the more bohemian part of the city, might be just what you’re looking for. Its triumphal arch and distinctive fountain make it a landmark not to be missed. Washington Square Park is my favorite people-watching spot in the entire city. On any given day, you can watch NYU students practicing martial arts or their lines for theater performances, hear a string quartet busking near the fountain, see leather-jacketed, middle-aged punks walking their dogs, and keep an eye on a guy patrolling the grounds with a hand-painted sign urging everyone to repent. If you need a character to bump into someone odd or meet the love of their life in the midst of a quirky scene, there’s really no better setting than this park. I once encountered an artist who made felt pigeons and was displaying a flock of them on the path, with real pigeons (perhaps confused?) strutting among them. Another had created a tiny band of puppets out of cloth and wire, complete with playable instruments. When it comes to artists and buskers here, anything goes. And if your characters are East Village punks, Greenwich Village hippies, or part of the West Village LGBTQ scene, this is a natural place for them to hang out.

A few more things to keep in mind: smoking has been banned in city parks since 2011. Directions around the city are usually given as “uptown” and “downtown,” not north and south. And real New Yorkers stand “on line,” not “in line”—something to remember if they’re striking up a conversation about where to go next.

These are just a few of Manhattan’s many parks, each of which has its own character. If you have questions about these or any others, comment below and I’ll do my best to fill you in!

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