You climb a grass-covered hill and look out onto a busy harbor. The skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan rise in the distance. The iconic Statue of Liberty beckons. This is New York City’s newest and most inspiring panoramic view — the Hills of Governors Island.
The Hills is a newly opened ten-acre park on Governors Island. Eight years in the making, the new public green space features something truly unique in the five boroughs: four man-made hills with spectacular views.
Governors Island is less than half a mile from the tip of Lower Manhattan and a quarter mile from Brooklyn. It is accessible by ferry in the summer. There are no year-round residents or cars on this little island, so your visit may be a surprising bucolic (though slightly surreal) experience.
Tour the Brand New Topography in NYC’s Bay
The Hills section is in the newly opened southern area of the 172-acre islet. This part of the island was added in 1911 from the dirt excavated for the Lexington Avenue subway.
First, you will encounter Grassy Hill. It rises 25 feet and offers gentle slopes and views of the new park.
Then you will see the seventy-foot-tall Outlook Hill. This is the highest point on Governors Island.
If you want an adventurous ascent, climb the enormous granite blocks of the Stone Scramble. These gigantic rocks were salvaged from the island’s former seawall.
The Hills were made partially of recycled debris from the demolition of the buildings and parking lots on the Island. The rest of the Hills’ fill material arrived by barge from a quarry in Dutchess County.
More than eight hundred trees in different stages of maturity — including birch, hickory, pine, sassafras, tulip poplar, and eight varieties of oak — surround the Hills. Thousands of shrubs like blueberry, sumac, and summersweet create a naturalistic landscape.
On our visit, the grasses were active with dragonflies, butterflies, and sparrows.
Discovery Hill is a forty-foot hill of grasses, shrubs, and beautiful site-specific art.
Pause at the top of Discovery Hill. Lady Liberty is ahead of you, Brooklyn is behind you. Common terns, cormorants, and gulls may fly by. There is no traffic noise except the sound of helicopters and boats. This is a good place to listen for a non-human voice.
Cabin, a concrete reverse cast sculpture by Rachel Whiteread, surprises as you descend the summit of Discovery Hill.
If you have a cabin fixation like I do, this art piece may inspire fantasies.
As you wind your way out, you will pass Slide Hill and its four stainless-steel chutes of different lengths, including the longest slide in NYC.
From Military Space to Public Space (and No Luxury Condos Yet)
For almost 200 years of its history, Governors Island was a military site. The City of New York bought the island from the federal government and then opened it to the public for the first time in 2003.
If you are a New Yorker or just visiting the city, it’s hard not to think about real estate while on Governors Island: How much is all of this worth? How can the City allow everyday people to enjoy it without charging an admission fee? When are the luxury condos coming?
Fortunately, restrictions imposed under the federal handover forbid several uses for the island, including gambling, permanent housing, and cars, save for service vehicles. (Hotels are permitted, though none has yet been planned.) And thanks to the water that surrounds it, the enclave will likely be spared opportunistic encroachments of the sort that now impinge on the High Line. – Martin Filler, The New York Review of Books
It’s a miracle, like Central Park is a miracle. Go and see it.
To learn more about Governors Island, the Hills, and how to get there, check out the Governors Island site.