Nature in The Bronx: A Walk Through Van Cortlandt Park

A mallard couple in a pond reflecting the colors of the autumn leaves. PAM CHASEK/COURTESY

By Angelica Niedermeyer, Features Editor

Across from bustling Broadway are the vast green fields, brimming trees and canopied trails full of wild creatures living unbeknownst to the city around them. Barbecue pits, basketball, tennis, and pickleball courts, golf courses, tracks, playgrounds, pools and skate parks are just a few amenities home to New York City’s third largest park and Manhattan College’s backyard. The sun is still shining, zip up a sweater and come take a walk with The Quadrangle through Van Cortlandt Park.

“The vastness here is so special,” said Lillian Fox Peckos, New York City Parks and 3×3 field researcher, who highlighted the importance of green spaces in The Bronx for mental and physical health, “Parks are the lungs of the city.”

The entrance of Van Cortlandt Park at sunset. ANGELICA NIEDERMEYER/THE QUADRANGLE

Van Cortlandt Park at 1,146 acres with 600 acres of woodlands is most known for its over 100 year-old world renowned cross country course. Runners, walkers and bikers make use of the tracks and trails each day. 

Sofia Petroski, junior English and secondary education double major, is training for the Big Apple Half marathon and relies on VCP’s long trails and flat terrain. Fall is her favorite season to run at VCP. 

“The park is just the only place around here that provides long stretches of nature,” said Petroski. “I’ve done countless runs just down Broadway. It’s not the same as smelling the fresh air and being connected, seeing the trees above you.” 

However, the college is no stranger to running in VCP. The annual MC Cross Country Invitational attracts over 300 teams and 10,000 runners; this Oct. was its 51st year. 

Stephanie Ehrlich, Executive Director of the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance (VCPA), spoke on the relationship between Manhattan College and the park through the years.

“Van Cortlandt Park Alliance and Manhattan College are very good friends,” said Ehrlich.“We have a very, very deep partnership that spans a lot of different areas.”

Many sports teams have practiced in the park– like at the country’s first public golf course. But, to some MC students and faculty, VCP is also an outdoor classroom. Michael Judge, Ph.D. professor of biology, and Pamela Chasek, professor of political science, take advantage of the space both personally and educationally. 

“My ecology class uses Van Cortlandt Park quite a bit for different laboratory exercises,” said Judge, who also shared that he used to go cross country skiing on the park trails when there was enough snow. “It’s a way to investigate nature and my ecology course [by] seeing the world outside.”

Chasek shared that she takes her morning walk in the park to prepare for her long teaching days, and encouraged students to make use of the serene space for noticing critters. After making the park a habit during the 2020 lockdown, Chasek photographs birds daily on her Instagram @paminnyc. 

“My environmental politics class had a park assignment […] to talk about [the] multiple uses of parks, [and] what are the challenges faced by the park that they visited?” said Chasek. “99% of New York City is within a 10 to 15 minute walk of a park. We should be really thankful to have it.”

VCP offers an abundance of activities for park goers– whether students and faculty are into fitness, mindfulness, history or the arts– the park has it all. Ehrlich shares how her love for performing inspires the programs at the park.

“I love the sort of intersection of culture and the arts and nature,” said Ehrlich. “That is really what makes me feel alive. I love seeing outdoor music and outdoor dance. I like to sing and so all of those things are really important. I love creating programming to share with the public.”

Reflecting on The Bronx’s history, The Van Cortlandt House in the middle of the park is The Bronx’s oldest surviving building from 1748. The first to own the property being Jacobus Van Cortlandt, a wealthy New York City merchant and two-time mayor of New York City. Enslaved people and a local overseer kept up the property until Frederick Van Cortlandt, Jacobus’ son, had the historic house built in 1749.

“There’s an enslaved African burial ground here,” said Ehrlich. “It is very, very important to the descendant community. We are continuing to try and make that space more beautiful and better known.” 

The house is now a museum that is open for self-guided tours.

As the days get dark and the breeze gets colder, park experts remind The Quadrangle that the park is still an outlet to release tension from long hours at the library. 

“Don’t be afraid,” said Ehrlich. “Come on out, do some exercise, get some fresh air and get away from your computer. Get away from your phone, get some sunshine, clear your head. The park is really, really, really a great place to do that. I think folks sometimes lose sight of that.”

However, regarding the recent muggings at knifepoint last month, it is still important to remember there is safety in numbers. 

“Always visit the woods with a friend or two or three,” said Ehrlich. “This is still a city I wouldn’t recommend venturing out alone. It’s always good to have a buddy or two when you are in the park. 

As The Quadrangle looks towards the future, Fox Peckos shares that NYC parks have been operating at a deficit since the 1970’s and they hope to raise that budget to 1%. Van Cortlandt Park is MC’s natural treasure and with living in a crowded city researchers cannot ignore the realities of the current climate. 

“You’re so lucky to have a beautiful green space,” said Fox Peckos. “We can all get wrapped up in our lives, and school is so important—study for finals— but it’s also so nice to look at the vastness of a place […] it’s a good reminder to take care of our earth and be mindful of our impact on the world.”