There’s a park near my house in Montreal that doesn’t look like much when you approach it from a particular angle. At least that’s what I thought when I moved to the neighbourhood a few years ago and entered the park from its northeast corner. I strode across the patchy, garbage-littered grass, past the rarely-played-on baseball diamond with its broken fence, and into the police station parking lot. It was hot and dry and dusty, and there seemed little reason for me to ever step foot into again. Which I didn’t. For almost two years.
My relationship with city parks was formed in childhood, when I was fortunate enough to grow up on the edge of a great wilderness—or so it seemed. This was Calgary in the mid-seventies, and my family’s house, though situated in a suburb, was on the edge of the city. When we walked to the end of our driveway, we could see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. If we turned south, we could follow the path of the eponymous silver springs down to the edge of the Bow River, where there were little whirlpools to dip our toes in and confidential rocks upon which to sit and share our most secret desires. If we looked north, there was nothing but vast fields of grass—though by the second month we were there, the subdivision had broken ground on its second phase. Today, the house where my parents live could almost be considered inner-city.
But none of that mattered to me then, because there was never a need to look north. Those were the days when a nine year-old girl and her twelve year-old friend could venture out on foot at nine in the morning with their ice cream money and their kangaroo jackets and pretty much do whatever they wanted as long as they were home by five. Being nine and twelve, we did all kinds of silly, stupid things: like sliding in the slime-caked sewage tunnel that opened into the river and poking around on the heavily-treed peninsula where the teenagers and the ne’er-do-wells hung out. We also did more sensible things, like go for walks, and look at birds, and play in the mud. There were crocuses to pick in the spring and snowmen to build in the winter, and we took advantage of everything the area and the seasons had to offer. We were blessed. And we were spoiled.
Some days, we could go an entire afternoon without seeing other humans. There must have been dog walkers and joggers doing their thing, but they stayed up high, near the road that circled the subdivision. This was before the city paved the paths and built the stairs that lead down to the creek, before there were benches and garbage cans and architecturally-designed platforms that identify the locations of the pathway’s many prime viewing points. There was a fair bit of scrambling that had to be done if you wanted to get from the road to the water, and so the river valley was primarily the domain of the young.
Later, as a teenager, I moved into an apartment closer to downtown. This was around the same time that I became obsessed with New York City. I would sit on the balcony with a glass of wine and dream of Central Park—seeing it as a place of great beauty and mystery and adventure and danger. A park. In the city. An urban forest. A place that you could walk to, where you could escape the crushing pressures of urban existence and feel a sense of peace. A place for everyone.
There was a park about two blocks from my apartment. I went there once as a child for a family reunion and never again.
In the twenty-odd years between that apartment and the one that I am sitting in tonight, I have been to New York more times than I can count, and there is rarely a visit that does not include at least a weave into Central Park. That Central Park proved to be all that I imagined and more will come as no surprise to anyone who has been there, or anyone who has been blessed enough to spend time in the Tiergarten, or in Hyde Park, or on the mountain in Montreal.
But this is not an ode to Olmstead or to New York, it’s an ode to a simple city park that in the past two years has become a kind of oasis for me; as it has for the hundreds of apartment dwellers who live around it; a park that can still underwhelm if you catch it on the wrong day, but can also be so beautiful—especially in the early morning, when the sun has barely risen, and then again at the end of the day. I have such affection for this place that when I think about moving away from here, I feel a sadness that surprises me. To see it transformed by light and shadow and mist—not to mention Instagram—is to experience the park on an entirely new level. And I can’t help but wonder as I wander through it each morning: it is the park that’s changed or have I?