Cheap Fun in Central Park: Scaling Rat Rock


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Silas Baker, 6, of Washington Heights in Manhattan climbs up Umpire Rock, also known as Rat Rock, a boulder in Central Park.

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Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times

On a recent Saturday in the southwest corner of Central Park, scores of children swarmed an immense 40-by-15-foot rock. As they climbed, leapt and navigated a crevasse, one boy offered his appraisal.

“If it was a restaurant, it would be a Michelin four-star,” said Cole Carin, an 8-year-old from the Upper West Side. (Michelin operates on a three-star rating system. Whether the third grader knew this is beside the point, or maybe it was exactly his point.)

Lucas Martin, a lanky 11-year-old from Park Slope, Brooklyn, took in a clear view of treetops and the Midtown Manhattan skyline before sliding down the rock’s eastern ridge. Is it hard to climb? “It depends where you go,” Lucas said. “Some parts are more easier than others, and some parts are more vertical.” Is sliding down the rock scary? Shrugging, he said, “You get used to it, and you just do it.”

Although Cole and Lucas were in a parkour class together, there is no official course requirement or fee to enjoy this ancient outcropping of bedrock in the middle of Manhattan.

Children have for many decades eagerly played on and around what is known officially as Umpire Rock, for the Heckscher Ballfields just north of it, and informally as Rat Rock, for the vermin that once overran it at night.

In a 1924 article in The New York Times, a person identified simply as “the old New Yorker” described this geological wonder as “a famous sliding place for the boys and girls of old New York,” and recalled sitting “on an old tin pie plate” to slide down its surface. “The rock was just as shiny and slippery” in the 1870s, the writer noted, “as it is today.”

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Silas in Central Park where boulders continue to be a popular source of fun for children.

Credit
Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times

Along the north face of the rock, a small group of bouldering enthusiasts prepared to climb, equipped with powdered chalk and crash pads. “This is a real niche spot” for bouldering, Jinda Phommavongsa, 35, of Sunnyside, Queens, explained. (Unlike sport climbing, bouldering is done at lower heights, without ropes or harnesses.) He pointed out that the rock was a training ground for Ashima Shiraishi, a 15-year-old climbing prodigy who got her start there at age 6.

His own daughters, Annie, 3, and Gemma, 18 months, were seeing the rock for the first time, and it immediately made an impression on Annie. “When we came around the corner she’s like, Look, it’s a climbing gym that’s outside,” said Kristy Greene, 37, who is Mr. Phommavongsa’s wife and the mother of the girls.

Mr. Phommavongsa said: “The irony is, just the way kids naturally climb, their technique is far better, or starts off better, than most adults when they start climbing. They don’t have the same fears and inhibitions.”

That isn’t to say children never get nervous. The parkour class was at the rock again the following Saturday, and Holden Crutchfield, a 9-year-old from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, looked skeptical when challenged to ascend a steep ridge. Octave de Pous, 10, from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, offered encouragement.

“I can do it, he can do it,” said Octave, gesturing and offering encouragement to Holden. “You can do it.”

Holden did it.

“When you first come here with a little kid you’re like, they’re going to fall off this thing,” his father, Trace Crutchfield, said. “But they just don’t fall. No one falls.” He jokingly theorized that the city had installed a giant magnet beneath the rock in order to keep children stuck to it.

“It’s pretty much a cheap date. There’s no kid I’ve ever brought here that hasn’t just loved it, that you don’t have to pry them off to take them home.”

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