The long, narrow string of green begins at the northwest corner of Central Park. It snakes its way north through Morningside Park into Harlem. Just five blocks north it continues into Saint Nicholas Park, in central Harlem, then through Jackie Robinson Park, then to Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.
This is the Hike the Heights Giraffe Path, which now connects the neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan, and more than just physically. It’s a social connector, a place where once a year friends and families, along with total strangers, gather to share ideas, frustrations and beliefs. This concept of interconnectedness was hatched in the wake of 9/11, when many New Yorkers were struggling to cope with the tragedy.
That’s when Lourdes Hernandez-Cordero, then a Columbia doctoral student, focused her dissertation on the role of community mobilization in trauma recovery. Long walks through Highbridge Park helped crystallize her vision. She saw spaces for grieving, but also for happier gatherings. She saw how the parks of Upper Manhattan touched a diverse network of neighborhoods and wove them together.
“We had been thinking about environmental strategies for public health prevention,” she said. “And I thought about the problems of our neighborhoods and how no one was coming together in our public spaces to share their fears, to address these issues.”
And then it came to her: “a series of walking meetings in our public spaces.”
After completing her doctorate, Hernandez-Cordero and a group of Columbia faculty from varied disciplines began forming partnerships with organizations, institutions and residents located along the trail, including schools, civic groups and social service organizations. The idea was to conceptually link those entities to create or strengthen services and programming, and most of all, to create a dialogue – all connected by the trail. She credits Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the Parks Department and the City Parks Foundation, with playing an integral role in shaping those partnerships.
She named the meetings Hike the Heights, and they kicked off in 2005 with participation from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. By the second year, there were hundreds of participants from neighborhoods ranging from Manhattan Valley to Fort George, and event joined with one of Hernandez-Cordero's projects at Columbia, CLIMB (City Life Is Moving Bodies), where she was working as an assistant professor.
“The day really started to gel as a venue where different people from different walks of life came together to celebrate the neighborhoods,” said Hernandez-Cordero, who now serves as the Associate Director of Community Partnerships for City Harvest’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative.
The Hike is literally that – a walk - and it’s now enjoyed every June on National Trails Day with what Hernandez-Cordero calls an “empty bowl approach.”
“It’s there for you to fill with whatever you like – whatever issues you want discussed, whatever activities you want to participate in with friends and neighbors,” she said.
The event is a potluck of sorts: its website encourages participants to bring their “company, an activity, leadership, friends, funds or supplies.” It’s now annually attended by hundreds of Upper Manhattanites – seniors, children and everyone in between.
“It has become one big party,” Hernandez-Cordero said. “And when the High Bridge opens [joining Highbridge Park to a park by the same name in the Bronx], we’ll have a two-borough party!”
In the past few years, the “Giraffe” theme of the hike – named for the long, skinny trail – has taken on new meanings. Head Start, a partner, has integrated a study of giraffe family structures into its curriculum. And Hernandez-Cordero has worked with Creative Arts Workshops for Kids to develop a public children’s art component of the hike that she calls the Parade of Giraffes. The art is displayed along the trail each year during the hike.
“Each giraffe,” The Hike the Hikes website says, “will be unique and celebrate the many voices and cultures of Harlem and Washington Heights.”
As the event approaches a decade, it’s an important example of how our city's parks are much more than just places for recreation and relaxing. They’re the bedrock of New York City’s neighborhoods. And by showing how multiple parks can be woven together to link neighborhoods, as in Upper Manhattan, people like Hernandez-Cordero help realize – and harness – the potential of parks to connect communities in new ways.
Hike the Heights is a model of how looking at public spaces in a new way can make neighborhoods that once seemed far away from each other – physically, culturally, demographically – feel like close-knit family. It's all about making the connections.
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