Last Saturday night I hopped on the 1 train at 125th street and rode it to the end of the line. One of the nicest (or creepiest, depending on who you ask) things about taking the train so far out is getting to ride in a completely empty subway car. At the final stop I descended the platform onto 242nd street in the Bronx, my nose greeted by the smell of burning charcoal drifting from the dozens of barbecues in Van Cortlandt Park. I watched the families eating burgers from the grill and the little kids chasing each other through the park as I waited for my ride. The Westchester Bee-Line 1 bus arrived and I was able to get a free transfer with my Metrocard. This was good news for a cash-strapped graduate student, as I would be able to make my entire journey for only $4 round-trip – hence the title of this post. Unfortunately, due to the MTA fare hike that took effect on Sunday, such a trip will now cost an extra 50 cents. Anyway, I rode the bus across the city limits into Yonkers. The southern part of Yonkers is fairly similar to the Bronx and it is actually quite difficult to discern when you have left one and entered the other. As you get further into Yonkers, you will begin to notice a few Italian eateries and Irish bars among the Latino restaurants and grocery stores. Towards the northern end of town it starts to feel like the suburbs, with larger single-family homes and green lawns. I must have gotten lost in a daydream about owning a house of my own, for when I looked back around me I noticed that not only was I the last one on the bus (again), but that I had gone too far and missed my stop. I got off right before the welcome sign to Hastings-on-Hudson and started walking back to Yonkers.
I didn’t remember passing my intended destination and figured that it must be further to the east (not really an amazing feat of deduction, since the only features to the west were the railroad and the Hudson), so I resolved to make my way up the hill. The pavement upon which I was walking ended abruptly as the road curved around a steep hill, and I decided that it was probably too dangerous to attempt walking in the street around a blind curve. Fortunately, I came across a small dirt path that intersected the road just as the sidewalk stopped.
I was already late for the event I had planned to attend and I didn’t feel like I was headed in the right direction, yet I continued to walk down this path for some time. It was really quite enjoyable and besides, I had hardly left the city at all in the past year and was really starting to miss the sounds and colors and smells of the outdoors. The calls and evening songs of robins, flickers, nuthatches, and warblers I was hearing on this trail reminded me of my youth, much of which was spent hiking through the woods with binoculars and field guide in hand. A little further up the path I came across a stone passageway, off to the side and completely overgrown with vines.
Peering through this peculiar entranceway, I spotted what appeared to be a stone relief carving of a lion marked up with graffiti.
To the left of the lion was a horse carving, sans head.
Beyond this entranceway was an old stone house in ruins, covered in graffiti. Signs of drunken revelry were strewn across the site, and signs of the devil were painted on the walls. Having grown up not too far away (in South Jersey) I was used to seeing these sorts of things in the woods and on old buildings.
Commonsense would have advised most to turn around at this point, especially as twilight was fast approaching and the sun would be gone within the hour, but curiosity had already gotten the best of me. I’ve always been extremely stubborn about turning around anyway so I just continued climbing up a steep, muddy, and increasingly non-existent path. Looking ahead, I spotted a stone column peeking out between the trees.
Making my way over fallen stumps (my hands and pants now covered in mud) I came around to the side of a lookout point situated at the bottom of a stone stairway. The view was…well, I never thought I would say this, but New Jersey looked…amazing. Even with the glare of the late afternoon sun , the Hudson and the Palisades were…again, I can’t believe I’m saying this…majestic. The pictures really don’t do this view justice, giving but a weak approximation of the experience.
As you can see in the photo, the lookout was flooded from a stream of water that ran down across the bottom of the steps. I don’t know if it is always so wet here, considering the unusual amount of rainfall we’ve gotten in the past month. These slippery steps were not enough to keep me from ascending the long stairway.
At the top of the stairs I could see a series of buildings and fountains that seemed to resemble a large Greek or Roman estate. Even more surprising than this discovery, I could also hear coming from the other side of the garden walls the amplified voice of a man introducing a Korean music and dance ensemble. I had made it to original destination, Untermyer Park! Following the outside perimeter of the garden walls to the source of the sound, I came upon the stage and a few dozen spectators lounging in their collapsible lawn chairs.
I imagine that the concertgoers must have thought me to be a wild man walking out of the woods at dusk covered in dirt. Conscious of my strange appearance (and lack of lawn chair), I sat down on a rock on the far side of the lawn to observe the performance and take field notes.
Looking back into the woods, I spotted the silhouette of gazebo situated upon a precipice and just couldn’t resist the urge to go exploring again. This time, however, I was followed (slowly) by an elderly man. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t so much interested in exploration as he was in seeing what I was doing. When he finally caught up to me at the gazebo we began chatting about the weather and about photography. I learned that Wes had immigrated to the Bronx from Bulgaria (he had a thick accent) and that he had moved up to Yonkers with his family twenty years ago. He still lives across the street from the park with his wife. Wes shared some of the park’s history with me, mentioning that the former owners of the estate included a governor of New York and a millionaire attorney. Wes then continued on his way and I went back to taking photos.
While taking these photos I was approached again, this time by auxiliary police officer Tommy. Officer Tommy was making his rounds and had come to check up on me. It didn’t take much prodding to figure out why everyone was so interested in what I was doing over by the gazebo. Officer Tommy eagerly offered stories about the park’s shady past. He told me that people would come here at night to sacrifice animals and worship satan. The police officer had even been chased by satanists in this very spot one night when he was a kid (at least, that’s what he told me). According to Yonkers police lore, one night an officer went down the “Thousand Steps” and was never seen again (these are the steps that lead to the overlook point, pictured above). The locals had nicknamed the gazebo and precipice “Eagle’s Nest”, which I am assuming is a reference to the Kehlsteinhaus, Hitler’s mountaintop retreat. Officer Tommy, satisfied that I was not sacrificing virgins to the dark lord, and I, satisfied with the sunset photos I had taken, walked back to the concert area together while discussing Yonkers real estate. Apparently, if you ever decide to sell your house and leave Yonkers you must pay a transfer tax, also known as an exit tax, of 1.5% on the closing price. I wish I had known this before I started daydreaming about buying a house there – I wouldn’t have missed my bus stop!
The concert finished just as the sun was falling behind the Palisades.
Before leaving the park, I took a walk through the Grecian gardens. Photographing the interior of the gardens is not allowed without a permit, so I will just post a link to some photos here and video footage here.
When I returned home to the apartment in Manhattan I decided to do some searching on the web to learn more about the park and the ruins. To my surprise, this park is most famous (infamous, rather) not for its view, its architecture, nor its former high-profile owners, but for its association with David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer. Back in the Seventies, he lived in Yonkers and supposedly hung out with a cult in Untermyer Park, performing satanic rituals late at night. After reading about his life and the creepy history of the park, I can understand why so many people were coming to check up on me at the Eagle’s Nest. The locals still describe reports of strange events taking place in the woods at Untermyer. Yet, despite the stigma surrounding the place, I can’t wait to go to back for the next concert in Yonkers!