New York City’s Central Park, a man-made haven of many seemingly natural splendors, boasts more than a few unusual, insider-y and less-trafficked locales spread out across its 843 acres.
You know, hidden gems and less obvious “secret” spots overlooked by the madding crowds.
There’s (shhh!!) the Whispering Bench of Shakespeare’s Garden; the mysterious Ramble Cave; the ruins of a 19th century fortification known as the Blockhouse hidden away within the North Woods; and the long-gone site of Seneca Village, a thriving rural community established by African-American property owners in 1825 that was razed several decades later to make way for Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s game-changing artificial park.
And then there’s Hallett Nature Sanctuary.
Formerly known as the Promontory, Robert Moses' off-limits bird sanctuary in Central Park is now open to the public for the first time since the 1930s. (Photo: Elvert Barnes/flickr)
Located on a 4-acre peninsula that juts into one of Central Park’s most preternaturally serene water features, the Pond, this fenced-in nature preserve isn’t exactly tucked away in a far-flung corner of the park. Located just south of Wollman Rink and a few paces from bustling 59th Street in the far southeast corner of the park, Hallett Nature Sanctuary is neither remote nor hard to find. It’s right there — millions of people pass by it each year, many of them traversing the Pond’s iconic Gapstow Bridge.
Yet very few people, even born-and-bred New Yorkers, have actually entered Hallett Nature Sanctuary. This, however, is about to change as this little seen oasis-within-an-oasis gears up to open for regular public access.
You see, the peninsula — known as the Promontory up until 1986 when it was renamed in honor of naturalist and civic leader George Harvey Hallett Jr. — was closed off to the general public in 1934 by city ruining/improving “master builder” and then- newly minted parks commissioner, Robert Moses. As Central Park Conservancy president and chief executive Douglas Blonksy explains to The New York Times, Moses envisioned the rocky and heavily wooded parcel would serve as a bird sanctuary.
Left to go wild, Hallett Nature Sanctuary — the smallest of three designated woodlands within Central Park alongside the Ramble and the North Woods and one of only two permanently fenced-in areas of the park aside from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir — has served that purpose over the past 80-some years as a popular pit stop for migratory birds along the Atlantic Flyway. Closed off to human activity and subject to minimal maintenance, it didn’t take long for the peninsula to become wild and overgrown with plants including a host of invasive species including Japanese knotgrass, Norway maples and the dreaded and aggressive wisteria — and very much not according to plan.
“Wisteria was a huge problem, too,” Blonksy explains to the Times. “In a woodland, it will strangle everything, and that’s what was happening here."
In addition to visiting birds and interloping plants, Hallett Nature Sanctuary is home to a variety of fauna, some permanent and some just passing through, including groundhogs, raccoons, grey squirrels, box turtles and a particularly elusive coyote named Hal. The spry year-old coyote named, of course, after the sanctuary where he was first spotted, caused quite a stir in the spring of 2006. After leading police and park officials on an epic chase through the park, Hal was tranquilized and captured. He later died during a routine tagging procedure before he was to be released back into the wild.
Hal’s brief but headline-generating stint in Central Park came only a few years after the conservancy began to focus on some of the park’s most sylvan yet overlooked features.
Launched in 2001 to “return the Woodlands to their original glory, enhancing and protecting these fragile landscapes and their wildlife while also enriching the visitor experience as envisioned by Olmsted and Vaux,” the $45 million Woodlands Initiative marked the beginning of a new era for the Hallett Nature Sanctuary. Over the past 15 years, park workers have slowly but surely cleared away thick layers of invasive plants and introduced native ones (trillium and shooting stars, to name just a couple), installed an irrigation system and cleared away impassible and overgrown footpaths.
Described by the conservancy “as a perfect example of how even the ‘wildest,’ most naturalistic habitats in Central Park require constant planning and care in order to thrive,” Hallett Nature Sanctuary was opened for periodic guided tours in 2013 in which visitors were offered a rare peek beyond the barbed wire fence.
Now, with its wood-chipped trails cleared even further and an eye-catching new entrance gate installed, Hallett Nature Sanctuary will soon open to the public on a regular basis for the first time in more than 80 years.
Following a sneak-peek for birders to be held this week, the newly tamed sanctuary — “a peaceful haven just feet away from some of Central Park’s busiest paths” — will welcome park visitors during posted afternoon hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays beginning on July 1 and lasting through the end of August.
Considering that Hallett Nature Sanctuary will remain just that, a sanctuary for urban wildlife, it’s unlikely that this enigmatic patch of wilderness will ever be opened for full public access. It will be carefully maintained and tended to, but not overly manicured. The fences erected so along ago will remain in place. Dogs will be kept out. It will stay wild-ish, one of the few public outdoor places in Manhattan where, if you manage to drown out the symphony of blaring car horns in the not-so-far distance, you might forget you’re standing smack dab in the middle of the concrete jungle.