On a recent weekday afternoon, amid the campus bustle of final exams and year-end activities, Gracie Conyngham, a freshman, was in desperate need of peace — a place where she could clear her mind, if only for an hour.
With a few steps off Fordham’s Rose Hill campus, she arrived at the New York Botanical Garden. As blue skies and a bright sun settled overhead, Conyngham described the 250 acres of Bronx greenery as a beautiful oasis, a needed escape from the stresses of college.
In fact, she has made trips to the Botanical Garden part of her regular schedule, as she runs through its extensive forest trails three or four times a week.
Conyngham said she is surprised there aren’t more students like her. “I’ve only seen maybe five Fordham students here running,” she said. “I don’t think it’s is very well-known, which I don’t understand.”
“I think it’s really cool that we get in for free,” she added. “I think [Fordham] should advertise it more because that’s an awesome opportunity, that the Botanical Garden is right across the street and we can come whenever we want.”
Growing up in Washington, DC, Conyngham said she often forgets she is in New York when she’s deep in the Garden, away from concrete and absorbed in flowers.
“I always post pictures and I’m like, ‘Are we still in New York City?’ because you would have no idea, it’s so beautiful,” she said.
As the bells of Keating Hall sounded in the distance, Conyngham wasn’t the only student making use of the space.
Spencer Chappell, a senior, wore a Fordham Swimming and Diving tank top as she jogged through the Garden with a friend in between final exams.
“I wanted to check out all the spring foliage and de-stress a little,” she said.
Chappell estimates roughly a quarter of the student population at Rose Hill makes routine use of the Garden’s green space. Aside from being used for running, she said, science classes often take trips to do field testing — like her environmental science class did.
“We came here to do testing in the pond, and I know some of the other science classes come here,” she said. When asked about whether Fordham should put a greater emphasis on getting students to the Garden, Chappell said: “I feel like there’s not a lot of marketing that you can do. It’s across the street — it’s so accessible, you can come for free with an ID. It’s kind of just up to [students] and whether or not they want to do it.”
Even if most Fordham students opt to enjoy the spring weather on Edward’s Parade, the number of visitors flocking to the Botanical Garden has increased in recent years. Last year alone, roughly 900,000 people came through the door, according to Nick Leshi, director of public relations at the Garden.
On the afternoon The Ram was there, elderly couples clutched hands as they began a peaceful walk. Young mothers pushed wide-eyed toddlers in strollers. Raucous schoolchildren leaped around teachers with pent-up excitement.
“The garden is something different for different people,” Leshi said. “We have a lot of events that connect with the community, and they really should cherish [the fact] that they have a resource like this. We’re cognizant of that, and we realize we are stewards of this really wonderful resource.”
The New York Botanical Garden opened in 1891 as a peaceful escape from the bustle of city life. The landscape is still as paths line green fields of blooming plants, some planted by staff and others grown naturally. Flowering trees stand tall enough to provide shade for beds of flowers and well-trimmed bushes, but fall short of blocking out the metropolis completely, as the tops of apartment buildings occasionally poke into sight.
Fordham students with photo identification get free access to the grounds throughout the year, so they can walk through the paths or jog through the forest trails. Leshi, who also works part-time as a professor at Fordham, said it is the kind of unique access students should jump at.
“Come and enjoy, if they’re going for a run this is a great place,” he said. “If they just want to come on a beautiful day and hang out, this is the place to go. If they’re going to go and study on Eddie’s Parade, it’s a short walk if you want to come here for a change of environment.”
Beyond Fordham students, Leshi added that the Botanical Garden is a necessary institution for many city dwellers, who may not have access to the luxury of a college campus.
“Especially in the Bronx, younger people that come here, they live in places where you have maybe a small plot that’s a backyard, but a lot of people don’t even have that luxury,” he said. “There are playgrounds or concrete, rubber mats. So, coming here where they can actually enjoy nature, go into the Family Garden, dig in the dirt and see where food comes from, it’s really a learning experience.”
Aside from simply offering a beautiful space for New Yorkers to walk and run, the Botanical Garden attracts thousands of people each year through its annual art exhibitions. It hosts about five each year. The next exhibition starts May 16 and will center on Frida Kahlo, the influential Mexican painter, and her relationship with nature.
The Garden also prides itself on offering a wide range of educational programming, where children and teens from near and far can learn about healthy eating through The Edible Academy.
“It’s an education initiative,” Leshi said. “It’s meant to teach people where food comes from, how it works and what kind of foods can be grown. We’ve been building that into how to cook it in a healthy way.”
On a recent afternoon, schoolchildren from a local school kneeled around a bed of dirt from within the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden as a staff member described a type of worm they should be looking for.
Roughly 300,000 children and families from the Bronx take part in this education program each year, according to information provided by the Garden.
As part of fostering a wide variety of education initiatives, volunteers work year-round with the Garden’s 400 permanent staff members to perform a variety of tasks. Some volunteers are retired; others have flexible work schedules and visit the Garden a few times a week or whenever they can.
Leshi said the exact number of volunteers ebbs and flows, depending on the mood of the city.
“After 2008, after there was that financial crash, you had a lot of people who were shifting their jobs and they decided to come back and help with one of the exhibitions, building sculptures — and they found that very therapeutic and helpful,” he said. “After 9/11, I heard a lot of people came here looking for something to do to get back and connect with nature.”
As city real estate becomes increasingly prized, Leshi said that despite other needs, the Botanical Garden provides an essential service to the city and its residents.
“You could look at a museum, you could look at Central Park itself and say, ‘All that could be used for affordable housing and other things,’” he said. “You’re taking away something that is a necessity for another necessity. It’s like somebody saying: How do you choose between air and food? You need both. You just have to find a way — people need housing, but people also need green spaces, they need gardens, they need places to go to escape the stresses of everyday life.”
Aside from the educational, cultural and research benefits, Leshi said, the true benefit of the Garden lies deeper.
“There’s a pavilion up there I like to go to,” he said, pointing toward a grassy peak. “When you’re up there you forget you’re in the Bronx. Sometimes you hear Fordham Road, but to you it sounds like a river flowing — you just forget about it.”
Officials at Fordham said they do not feel added pressure to compete with their neighbor across the street. Though Marc Valera, vice president of Facilities, said it is important to “keep the campus looking good.”
“I think our campus is much better looking than the Botanical Gardens because it’s lived-in and it has the students,” he told The Ram. “I think the Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo, including our campus, has green space that’s kept in a very urban area — that’s very unique.”
This time is particularly important for the Rose Hill grounds crew as they prepare for the University’s commencement ceremony, which is always held outside.
“What we try to do is always keep the campus at least looking at a high level of appearance and cleanliness so it makes it much easier to prepare for commencement,” Valera said. “Incoming and prospective students can come at any time, frankly, to the campus to look at it.”
The grounds crew at Rose Hill spends weeks preparing for commencement, picking up leaves, raking and fertilizing Edward’s Parade and cutting grass around campus, Valera said.
Fordham spends roughly $1 million each year on groundskeeping, Valera said.
“It’s not unreasonable for New York City — it’s fair,” he added when asked about the cost.
Fordham has an internal group of groundskeepers and hires out seasonal staff, Valera said.
“Tree work is something that we don’t have on our staff, but we have a very good arborist who maintains our trees,” he said. “We have a pretty large collection of trees, as you can tell on campus, which is pretty rare for other places.”
Back at the Botanical Garden, Sanjay Pothula, a senior at Fordham, had just gotten up from a nap under a collection of cherry blossoms.
“The Botanical Garden for me now is a way to unwind and a new experience for me to take in,” he said. “The fact that I’m going to the Garden now maybe means later on, as I get older, it will be something that I put into my daily schedule.”