My New York Obsession

Moments of Zen in Paley Park

Is this the calmest place in all of Manhattan?

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Historically, when asked to describe myself, I use adjectives like caring, hardworking, and intelligent. But if I’m being truly honest with myself (and you, dear reader), the adjective at the top of the list would have to be anxious.

Paley Park Zen New York
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

When I first moved to New York to break into the publishing industry, my network was basically nonexistent. Luckily, an incredibly kind writing professor of mine helped me land a slew of informational interviews to learn more about my would-be industry. The night before my first interview, I prepared by imagining all the ways the meeting could go wrong and having a series of stress dreams. I also woke up obscenely early, which gave me more time to mull over the potential (negative) outcomes. But maybe this was good. Waking up early meant that I could do some preinterview LinkedIn stalking, and there would be no way I could be late for the 6 p.m. meeting.

My hair was wet, makeup melting, and my polyester shirt was glued to me. Whatever chill I had mustered was replaced by an upset stomach.

After worrying about what to wear for a short while, I was finally ready. I was calm, caffeinated, and as prepared as I could be. That calmness evaporated by the time I made my commute from Morningside Heights to midtown. The 1 train is always far too hot in the summer, and I was sweating profusely when I stepped out of the station. My hair was wet, makeup melting, and my polyester shirt was glued to me. I was miserable and whatever chill I had mustered was quickly replaced by an upset stomach. But then I realized I was actually fine, as I was early enough to buy a new shirt, towel off in a bathroom, and recenter myself.

Finally at a café in Turtle Bay with a large cup of tea and notebook ready, I began to worry that I had somehow gotten the date wrong. Rechecking my email, I realized that I’d arrived more than hour early. With no book and a phone that was dying, all I could do was sink deeper into the leather chair while absentmindedly ripping the paper cup in my hands and watching the businesspeople chat.

When my interviewer finally arrived, we headed to what I can only describe as an oasis right next door, the place I wish I’d spent the previous 90 minutes: Paley Park. We sat in a pair of outdoor chairs near the park’s entrance and talked about books and music while a 20-foot waterfall roared gently in the background. After he left, I stuck around, marveling at how calm I was. I don’t want to exaggerate, but it felt like for the first time in weeks, I could relax somewhere that wasn’t my bedroom.

The trees, the ivy, the waterfall—all of it was placed in Paley Park to drown out the city.

The 4,200-square-foot park was designed with peace in mind. The trees, the ivy, the waterfall—all of it was placed there to drown out the city. Now in its 52nd year, the park is an open secret among New Yorkers who want a break from the noise without having to venture to (and probably get lost in) Central Park.

Paley Park Zen New York
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Paley Park is different from other New York parks in a few ways. First, there’s no grass and it’s surrounded by walls on three sides. Second, the park is on the same plot of land that used to house the Stork Club, a favorite old-timey playground of the rich, powerful, and well connected. Third, it’s a gift to the city from the William S. Paley Foundation, formed by the same William Paley who built CBS into a broadcast powerhouse. In 1967, the foundation financed, designed, and situated this island of zen in Turtle Bay for the benefit of all New Yorkers.

During the day, the honey locust trees give the perfect amount of shade and there’s usually a handful of people reading or chatting quietly at the marble tables. The waterfall is just loud enough to drown out traffic sounds, as well as any negative thoughts you may have.

Paley Park Zen New York
Photo by Sayaka Ueno

At night, Paley Park is breathtaking. There’s rarely anyone else around, and just one light glows from behind the waterfall. Sitting there, I am aware only of myself and the reassuring sound of the water. Paley Park is my sanctuary from my quotidian problems.

New York isn’t the best city for easily stressed people like myself, especially if meditation doesn’t quite work. 

New York isn’t the best city for easily stressed people like myself, especially if they find that, like me, meditation doesn’t quite work. The constant noise, the millions of people, the high cost of living, and the never-high-enough salaries conspire to create a frenetic energy that can be equal parts invigorating and exhausting. But sitting in Paley Park makes calming down simple. I can’t promise it will solve all your problems, but at the very least, the sound of the waterfall will make you feel as though some of them are being washed away.

Sherri Gardner is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared on TripSavvy and in The Wall Street Journal. You can find more of her writing at srgardner.com. She previously wrote about ropa vieja for WSWD.