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Monday, November 12, 2018

Two Sides of the Same Woods

On one side of the road, you have tourists reading plaques about trees. On the other, gay men circle the woods looking for potential hookups. The Bronx River Forest is one of the few remaining sections of the great woodland that once covered the New York region. While we tend to consider the plants and animals that populate wooded areas like this as "wild," this landscape is highly shaped by the physical interventions and social activities of humans. It is easy to overlook how much human action can shape the "natural" environment, but the differences created by separate jurisdictional control over trails winding through the woods along the Bronx River on each side of Allerton Avenue create a stark contrast.

People duck under a fallen tree (covered in poison ivy) on the Blue Trail north of 204th Street in the Bronx Forest managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation
Tourists stop along the trail in the Thain Family Forest in the New York Botanical Garden to read facts about the trees 

South of Allerton Avenue, the Bronx River flows through the New York Botanical Garden. Since the 1890s, this land has been City parkland, part of Bronx Park, which is administered by a private institution specifically charged with the development and maintenance of a great living museum. To the north, the parkland is under conventional control of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

There are some physical differences in terrain between the two sections. To the north, the river passes through a floodplain. After flowing into the garden, it quickly drops into a ravine with some moderately steep slopes down to the river. Nonetheless, the main distinctions between these two sections is how the land is managed and access is controlled.

Access into the Garden is limited to paying patrons (and a few local residents who may be allowed free admission to the grounds after presenting identification), while north of Allerton Avenue, access is entirely uncontrolled. Visitors to the Garden are greeted and walk inside with a ticket and a map. At 204th Street, parkgoers cross a bridge and pass a circular seating area where there are usually a few shabbily dressed men, who may or may not be drunk, sitting on the benches. From Southern Boulevard, the entrance is nothing more than a split in the multi-use path.

The main entrance to the Garden, set back behind a parking lot, makes a visual statement and controls access

Wayfinding signs in the Garden point the way to other points of interest inside the grounds
The rustic wooden fences in the Thain Family Forest act to keep people on the formal path
The borderless multi-use path allows people to enter the woods, giving rise to new user-defined side paths
Greenway signs in the park provide directions for people using the multi-use path to travel through the park
Inadequate and missing sidewalks along the Garden's edge create hostile conditions for people trying to circumnavigate the grounds

The new Garden gate at Bedford Park Avenue also marks the entrance and limits access

The entrance into Bronx Park at 204th street crosses the railroad tracks and allows completely free entry
The park entrance from Southern Boulevard is a split in the multi-use path

There is a multi-use path that passes through Bronx Park. It is a primary bicycle and pedestrian connection between the communities on either side of the Bronx River Parkway, since it is a safer, more comfortable option than Gun Hill Road. Routing people who are going elsewhere through the park is quite different from the Garden, which blocks through movement (and is even hostile toward people trying to pass around the outside). Instead, the Garden draws people from elsewhere who are there specifically to see its displays. The signage in these two areas reflects this difference; while the Garden is dominated by interpretive signs that turn the plants and landscape features into displays, the multi-use path features wayfinding signs to guide people on bicycles to the other sign and traffic signs to manage conflicts between people walking and people on bicycles.

An interpretive sign in the Garden's parking lot provides a teaser display, before visitors have even entered the gate 

Encampments are routine sights in the open parkland, but any attempt to bed down in the Garden would be immediately removed. Grounds staff would notice it quickly and the dedicated patrol from the 52nd Precinct inside the Garden could provide direct assistance for any trespassers.

The Garden's business model could never tolerate people having sex out in the Thain Family Forest. Paying visitors would not accept it and rich families would never allow their names to be associated with it. Nobody bothers to patrol the woods where the gay men meet up in the areas north of Allerton Avenue. There is also little police presence to remove encampments. The combination of sexual activities and mental illness is certainly enough to discourage many from the surrounding communities from venturing out into the woods alone, or even at all.

Additionally, there is a difference in the level of maintenance. As a living museum, the Garden is well maintained. Paths are constantly repaired to ensure a good walking surface and the poison ivy is routinely cleared away. Under Parks jurisdiction, the side paths are treated more like wilderness areas and remain mostly untouched by maintenance routines, including cleaning. Unlike the Garden, where paths are deliberately designed, the park's paths were largely the creation of regular use by users. A few years ago Parks tried to formalize some of the paths and close others to better concentrate usage in a way that might limit the ecological damage and discourage the sketchy wanderings with isolated encounters, but with only limited improvement. Even some of the main paths that serve as maintenance roads suffer from poor maintenance, leaving them rutted mud wallows in some locations.

The Garden has informational signs about poison ivy (that is English ivy behind the sign in this picture)
It can be difficult to spot any poison ivy in the woods near the edge of the path in the Garden
Poison ivy grows in large patches encroaching on the sides, and even in the middle, of the trails to the north
Parkgoers need to be attentive to avoid brushing against
the poison ivy growing off the trees
A muddy section of path in the park
Broken glass is often worn into the dirt paths in the park

Piles of trash are not uncommon near areas where the homeless have encamped in the park

Accompanying the interpretive sign is a box that holds fliers about events in the park. These are always free and open to the public. They generally have an ecological focus and are often volunteer efforts. To the extent the publicly-controlled woodland is cleaned, it is largely done by private volunteers as an environmental effort
There is a single interpretive sign in the parks section, which speaks to restoration of the Bronx River, reflecting the general approach of treating the area like a wilderness area

When a tree falls in the woods in the Garden, it becomes a new display with a sign as it decomposes off to the side of the path, whereas in the park it may be ignored for years while blocking the path before a section is cut out with a chainsaw

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