The Palisades, to be sure, are the amalgamation of all things odd and strange. Take the geological formation itself as an example. Formed approximately 200 millions years ago, they create a wide plateau and a set of sandstone cliffs that rise hundreds of feet above the Hudson River, providing the casual hiker with a dizzying vista of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Yonkers. Though there is a narrow strip of land that runs at the bottom of the eastern side (with the widest patch being the town of Hoboken), most of the Hudson’s west bank is dominated by the cliffs for dozens of miles up the river. Such a great disparity in sea level between two sides of a river is an unusual setting created by Mother Nature, and such eccentricities seem to permeate this raised ground and infect those who tread upon them, especially when you focus on its section along the Hudson Waterfront. In the way that wines are enriched by a certain terroir, creatures both human and beast seem at times to be influenced by some sort of arcane power fused into the rock beneath their feet, and cyclically, the Palisades feed on these similar passions. On the towering crests of Weehawken, the spirits de terroir were stimulated with Alexander Hamilton’s drawn blood, when Aaron Burr mortally wounded his longtime foe. During the earlier part of the 20th century, wealthy recluses spent fortunes in order to build breathtaking palatial estates of wood and stone on these precipices that offer a chance at terminal velocity. After only a few decades, though, their owners strangely abandoned them, leaving behind decaying husks that are now remnants of broken aspirations and who angrily choke invading winds flowing unimpeded through their al fresco bedrooms. Such a place seems to feast on both blood and dreams. However, though I can recall a few such incidents from my feeble mind, my knowledge of this place’s history isn’t all that encompassing. Being only moderately acquainted with the longer version of its past, I can better testify to the bizarre nature of these cliffs in the here and now, and among the Hudson Waterfront, no place imbues more of this odd streak than Little Peru.
Take a walk through Little Peru along the ground that skirts the edge, and you’ll see poignant examples of my suppositions. From such great heights, observe the affluent towns below along the Hudson River, and if you look across directly, you’ll come face-to-face with the mid-section of every famous skyscraper. On a clear day, you’ll embrace an all-encompassing perspective that stretches from the George Washington Bridge to the Statue of Liberty, showcasing the various monuments dedicated to Othmar Ammann. With such unparalleled views in an ever hungry real estate market, you would expect every spare inch of this rim to be occupied by homes…but Little Peru would have you fooled. Instead of a slew of mansions or luxury condominiums (which would be expected in any of the waterfront towns underneath), you will instead find more than a few condemned homes, dirt lots, abandoned factories, and half-completed structures, standing as eternal sentinels that silently keep a vigil over the domain beneath them. Much like the Night’s Watch of George R. R. Martin, they seem to have pledged their lives to shield the brink, from this night to all the nights to come. It’s a view that’s further bolstered by the fact that the local inhabitants steer clear of these guardians, leaving them unbent and unbroken. However, the fantastical comparison does not simply end there.
After all, one needs a menagerie in order to create a mythology, and again, the Palisades do not disappoint. In the narrow nook at the cliff’s base and along its wooded sides that aren’t as steep, you’ll find a bizarre variety of life that claims this harsh turf as their own. Unable to make homes in the paved roads of Little Peru, many of the aforementioned feral colonies (specifically those of a feline nature) constitute their dens in the soft dirt; skunks, raccoons, and badgers also have their mail delivered here. These beasts, though, are not alone. Using curbside garbage harvested from the streets above and below, tribes of destitute and homeless have constructed vertical hamlets of makeshift homes, with beds that carry an elevated amount of danger if you happen to fall out of them. Located usually under the protective cover of trees, these tiny settlements are usually hidden from the prying eyes of the outside world. Little does the bourgeois family of a Hoboken condo know that such a small enclave of hardship and maybe chagrin resides only a few feet away from their cozy, modern abode. Of course, there are also the rumors of supernatural inhabitants as well; under the cliffs of Edgewater, they supposedly take the form of angry Lenape tribesmen from centuries ago. Whether or not they also make a habit of stealing untethered lawn chairs and municipal traffic cones, I couldn’t tell you.
As I walked along a street and its accompanying fence that formed the rampart for this particular part of the Palisades, I speculated and wondered about that alternate dimension resting just out of reach over the side. Maybe its hobo characters were unexpectedly dynamic and intellectual; maybe even Wes Anderson (whom I would entrust with creating my version of heaven) might just find a few muses from such an unique cast. Though likely not…it’s hard to be inspired by someone who probably shits in a bucket. Nodding at my own wisdom, I only took a few more steps past the fence with its various taped flyers that read se renta un quarto before I had reached my final destination: the new firehouse. Completed only a few months ago and situated at one of the highest points along Little Peru’s cliffs, it possessed a serene setting envied by even falcons and contained excellent equipment for the resident firefighters, including a state-of-the-art gym. Unfortunately for the firefighters, though, some local politicians had caught wind of such plans, and they had argued against state funds to create lavish privileges for only a few. (I found a politician taking such a position as a bit ironic, but maybe that’s just me.) In the end, a compromise was reached, and the firehouse’s gym had to become accessible to the public at large. Since the firehouse was only a few blocks away from my home (and since the exercise craze hadn’t exactly made it into Central American culture), it left me with a gym mostly to myself. After walking past the large open garage and along the side of the building, I finally reached the large gym in the back that sat on the cliff’s edge. Lined with transparent plexiglass walls that offered mainly shades of azure on such a clear beautiful day, one could stand in the middle of the gym and momentarily entertain the notion that this barren spaceship was headed to some sort of ethereal plane (or possibly some version of hell for an astraphobic, in the case that the blue skies were replaced with a lightning-riddled thunderstorm).
I was in the midst of such meditation when I was rudely interrupted by an assertive bark that hit my eardrums from the back.
“Esso! Look who it is! Hey…I thought that I told you never to come back here? You want another black eye?!?”
I spun around to face my challenger. The familiar visage of a wiry teenage girl and the more familiar face of an older musclebound teenage boy both intensely stared at me. They didn’t blink, and neither did I.
“Enjoy it while it lasts, kid,” I said with a warm relish, “Because it doesn’t always go your way. And today…today is going to be my day.”
Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.