Keeping Secret Spots in New York City
Story and photos by Becky Garrison

A New York writer faces a "Secret Places of New York" guidebook with some trepidation, questioning whether it's a good or bad thing to out the peaceful places known only to a few.

Jerusalem Grove

Returning from treks on Celtic sod, I felt an almost primal pull to continue walking this soil when I returned to Manhattan. I needed to find a labyrinth where I could walk away my woes.

While most of the labyrinths I found were either on display in some sanctuary or only brought out for display on select occasions, I unearthed two free outdoor labyrinths located in Manhattan. But when I got to Houston Street and the East River to sample the first one, I found myself standing in front of a faded ring of cracked color. I could barely make out the lines but I tried to walk along this circle until two boys playing an aggressive game of stick-ball told me this site was more for sport than spiritual reflection. Soon after, the park got a good paving over, so this particular labyrinth is now out of mind and sight.

Jerusalem Grove NYC

According to the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation's website the second labyrinth titled "Jerusalem Grove," possessed an almost commercial flair. This spot, donated by the city of Jerusalem and dedicated on July 8, 1976, consists of fifteen cedars with an inscribed horizontal marker in ivy bed with a labyrinth made of beige marble standing in the center.

Based on this information, I half expected to stumble upon a somewhat kitschy site frequented by seekers desiring any connection to their homeland, as well as all those still infused with the Celtic craze. But when I got to Battery Park, I had to circle a few times around the various war memorials as the marker was now MIA.

But finally, I found an open iron gate door and entered into total silence. I walked toward the labyrinth, took off my shoes and then continued on my path until I completed my journey and exited. Filled with a sense of quiet peace I never knew could be possible in an urban environment, I kept coming back. My own patch of paradise all to myself—with a few occasional others like the infrequent unhoused person taking a nap or the awkward moment when I disturbed a couple engaged in a passionate embrace.

So when I caught a copy of Secret New York - An Unusual Guide: Local Guides by Local People on display at Book Expo 2012, I got a bit nervous. Would this book expose my secret? Armed with the guidebook, I set to find out if the author outed my private labyrinth.

While skimming the book, I did find some other secrets that I somehow overlooked. For example, while I've been to St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery countless time, I had no clue that their graveyard that housed Peter Stuyvesant also represented the resting place for A. T. Stewart, inventor of the department store. Somehow I missed the note indicating that his body was stolen. Apparently grave robbers wanted to cash in on his fortune.

NYC paluzzi

Moving a bit east, I also never noticed the 18-foot bronze statue of Lenin standing on top of a luxury apartment building, an irony probably lost on the majority of those residing at 250 Houston Street. And had I not taken a historical walking tour of Lower Manhattan courtesy of Context Travel, those hidden treasures unearthed by my guide would be news to me.

Other items proved to be not-so-secretive. Take the monuments situated in Central Park, Herald Square, and Madison Square Park. Their colorful tales would be known to history buffs. Nothing secretive either about the Blessing of the Bikes at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Earth Room, or Grand Central's Whispering Gallery. These items receive press whenever a NYC magazine devoted to the tourist trade wants to point out the "quirkiness" of the Big Apple.

As with any print publication, by the time the book hit the stands, some items had shifted. Currently, neither the Palazzo Chupi at West 11t St. or the pig sculpture at St. Patrick's Cathedral can be seen by the naked eye due to ongoing renovations. Also a few places like the Last Gaslight Lamppost proved to be not just secretive but inaccessible with their gates locked shut.

Every so often, I'd stumble upon a plot of land though that I felt might be someone else's secret—hopefully the revelation of their favorite spot to be won't wreck their serenity. But as I continued my journey through the secret and quasi-secret spots listed in the book, I kept searching to see if the author outed Jerusalem Grove. Fortunately he failed to include this in his listing of NYC's secret hot spots.

Irish Hunger Memorial

So this presents me with a bit of a dilemma. Should I keep this secret to myself or share this experience with those who could also benefit from the rejuvenating and calming experience of walking a labyrinth? After all, when I first visited the Irish Hunger Memorial, no one seemed to know the place existed and I could reflect at the top undisturbed. This site has now been discovered by enough people during their explorations of Battery Park City that I can no longer experience more than a nanosecond of silence before being overrun by touristy chatter.

Do I risk having the same fate befall my secret labyrinth? Anything this serene can easily transform from an oasis into yet another Lululemon branded outdoor yoga studio. I wouldn't wish that scenario on any beloved plot of land. Then again, I feel selfish keeping this silence all to myself. So for those of you who need a respite, search around the northwest section of Castle Clinton. Perhaps you might be fortunate enough to spot an unmarked open metal door on your right welcoming you to come in. Just don't tell anyone I sent you.

Becky Garrison is the author of Jesus Died for This? and a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column. Other writing credits include work for The Guardian, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, and US Catholic. When she takes a break from her laptop, Becky can often be found kayaking, fly-fishing, biking or hiking.

Related stories:

Setting Foot on Celtic Sod by Becky Garrison
Really Wild Wildlife in New York City by Ayun Halliday
Travel by the Glass by Chris Epting
The Fish That Made London by Donald Strachan

Other United States travel stories from the Archives

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