Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
One of the pleasures of reading is experiencing (or, at least, being introduced to) new sights. Reading is travel by armchair. This is so even when one’s reading doesn’t happen to involve travel books. Stephen King takes his readers inside not only the geography of small towns, but also into their psychology and sociology. He helps his fans see not only what it is like to live in a small town but also what is means to live in such a community.
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child show their readers what it is like and what it means to work for a big city museum, for a big city police department, for a big city newspaper; they also, quite frequently, show their readers what it is like and what it means just to live in and get around in a big city, whether by foot, in a taxicab, on the subway, or by bus. In their novels that are set in New York City, they always refer to landmarks, streets, and other physical locations. Some are known to many; others only to locals or the well traveled. For instance, in Cemetery Dance, the authors allude to Inwood Hill Park. Native New Yorkers are no doubt familiar with this park, but I had to look it up, first to see if such a place really exists (it does, as do many of the places to which Preston and Child allude) and, second, to see where it is. As it turns out, Inwood Hill Park is in northern Manhattan, along the Hudson River, west of Broadway and south of Knightsbridge Road. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation describes the park as “a living piece of old New York”:
Evidence of its prehistoric roots exists as dramatic caves, valleys, and ridges left as the result of shifting glaciers. Evidence of its uninhabited state afterward remains as its forest and salt marsh (the last natural one in Manhattan), and evidence of its use by Native Americans in the 17th century continues to be discovered. Much has occurred on the land that now composes Inwood Hill Park since the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries, but luckily, most of the park was largely untouched by the wars and development that took place.
The park continues to honor and cultivate its environment. In 2002, the Urban Park Rangers launched a five-year bald eagle release project in the park, in hopes of re-introducing the bird species to New York City. In the summer of 2007, the park's Dyckman Marina was added to New York State's Hudson River Greenway Water Trail, a project aimed at reacquainting city dwellers with natural bodies of water and encouraging citizen stewardship.
Similarly, a hiking trail and the Hudson River Bike Trail offer visitors chances to appreciate large stretches of the park's natural beauty in an environmentally friendly manner.
Also importantly, the park manages to present modern conveniences like athletic fields, playgrounds, dog runs, and a barbecue area, in harmony with its natural assets. The Park stands as a functional, beautiful space, waiting to be appreciated and used.
Inwood Hill Park contains the last natural forest and salt marsh in Manhattan. It is unclear how the park received its present name. Before becoming parkland in 1916, it was known during the Colonial and post-Revolutionary War period as Cock or Cox Hill. The name could be a variant of the Native American name for the area, Shorakapok, meaning either “the wading place,” “the edge of the river,” or “the place between the ridges.”
Human activity has been present in Inwood Hill Park from prehistoric times. Through the 17th century, Native Americans known as the Lenape (Delawares) inhabited the area. There is evidence of a main encampment along the eastern edge of the park. The Lenape relied on both the Hudson and Harlem Rivers as sources for food. Artifacts and the remains of old campfires were found in Inwood’s rock shelters, suggesting their use for shelter and temporary living quarters.
In 1954 the Peter Minuit Post of the American Legion dedicated a plaque at the southwest corner of the ballfield (at 214th Street) to mark the location of a historic tree and a legendary real estate transaction. A living link with the local Indians who resided in the area, a magnificent tulip tree stood and grew on that site for 280 years until its death in 1938. The marker also honors Peter Minuit’s reputed purchase of Manhattan from the Lenape in 1626. The celebrated sale has also been linked to sites in Lower Manhattan.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, colonists from Europe settled and farmed here. During the Revolutionary War, American forces built a five-sided earthwork fort (known as Fort Cock or Fort Cox) in the northwestern corner of the park. It fell to British and Hessian troops in November 1776 and was held until the war ended in 1783. After the Revolutionary War, families returned to the area to resume farming.
In the 1800s much of present-day Inwood Hill Park contained country homes and philanthropic institutions. There was a charity house for women, and a free public library (later the Dyckman Institute) was formed. The Straus family (who owned Macy’s) enjoyed a country estate in Inwood; its foundation is still present. Isidor and Ida Straus lost their lives on the S.S. Titanic’s maiden voyage. When the Department of Parks bought land for the park in 1916, the salt marsh was saved and landscaped; a portion of the marsh was later landfilled. The buildings on the property were demolished. During the Depression the City employed WPA workers to build many of the roads and trails of Inwood Hill Park.
In 1992 Council Member Stanley E. Michels introduced legislation, which was enacted, to name the natural areas of Inwood Hill Park “Shorakapok” in honor of the Lenape who once resided here. In 1995 the Inwood Hill Park Urban Ecology Center was opened. It provides information to the public about the natural and cultural history of this beautiful park. Today the Urban Park Rangers work with school children on restoration projects to improve the health and appearance of the park. Complementing the work of the Rangers is that of dozens of Inwood “Vols” (Volunteers), who assist with park restoration and beautification (“Inwood Hill Park”).
Many of these features of the park are described in Cemetery Dance, both to develop eerie descriptions of atmosphere and to serve the demands of the novel’s plot. In Cemetery Dance, it is very believable as the possible refuge for voodoo priests, devotees of obeah, and zombies that Detective Vincent D’Agosta and Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast investigate.
A couple of other references in their novel, to Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols and Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, were also obscure, although I have heard of Durkheim. An Internet check, sure enough, turned up links to both volumes. One site even features online excerpts of Elementary Forms. In The Forest of Symbols, Turner investigates the function of ritual; in Elementary Forms, Durkheim takes on such topics as “the origin of the sacred,” “totemism,” “effervescence,” “the theory of religious forces,” and “the ambiguity of the sacred,” among others, some of which seems to inform the theories that Pendergast explores, if not embraces, in the novel as he investigates revenants, voodoo, obeah, and the mystical in general.
King’s depiction of small towns and of small town life, like Preston’s and Child’s depictions of their fictitious museum, real places in new York City and elsewhere, and their references to actual scholarly works of interest to their own narrative topics, enhances readers’ experience, offering something more than the stories themselves, which keeps readers satisfied and coming back for more.