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All too often, Ebenezer Owusu does not get to relax at his neighborhood parks in the Bronx. He has to cram onto busy basketball courts and run laps around walkers and people riding bikes.
But this summer, through his job with a student conservation group, he has discovered a park more to his liking: a stretch of verdant forest along the Bronx River.
“When it’s crowded, you can’t really think because there’s too many people around you,” said Ebenezer, 17, a rising high school junior, as he worked to restore a trail in a section of the park known as the Bronx River Forest on a recent morning. “If I lived near here, I would come every day to do my homework, or read a book because it’s peaceful and quiet.”
Though often overlooked by park-goers, about one-third of New York City’s sprawling public park system — or about 10,000 acres — is made up of forests, woodland, wetlands and marshes that would be more at home in a rural outpost like, say, the Catskills or the Adirondacks, than in the middle of a teeming metropolis. These so-called natural areas lie within existing parks around the city, including Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay parks in the Bronx, Forest and Cunningham parks in Queens, Marine Park in Brooklyn and the Greenbelt on Staten Island.
“As the city gets more and more crowded, we have these 10,000 acres that many New Yorkers don’t even know about,” said Sarah Charlop-Powers, the Natural Areas Conservancy’s executive director and co-founder. “It’s this untapped resource for a lot of people looking for an adventure — or some peace and quiet — in the city and it’s just a subway ride away, or in many cases, just a walk away from where people live.”
On a recent morning, Ebenezer and four other students were laboring over a rutted stretch of a dirt trail that winds along the Bronx River as part of their summer jobs with the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit that is working with the Natural Areas Conservancy. Ebenezer drilled nails into wooden steps that would offer hikers a way to cross when river waters flooded the trail.
Nearby, Kelly Bamfo, 18, was helping to lay another part of the trail. He said it was so quiet that he felt like he was somewhere far away from the city. “When I come out here, I don’t hear the car honks and the trains and the people screaming and yelling,” he said.
If he was not working at the park, he said he would probably be playing video games with his friends. In fact, when he told his friends what he was doing this summer, they asked, “Are you serious?”
“I feel like I’m growing,” he said. “I realize now my world is not just about being inside, new apps and new games and things. There’s more to life than just technology.”