An urban jungle

Back on the 12th, I posted about the “War of the Weeds” in back of the Palo Alto downtown library, across the street from my house: a contest between common ivy, ailanthus, and golden bamboo for control of the territory. Now I have better photos, showing the whole length of the jungle, in three sections, without cars.

Meanwhile, at the Y where I go to my senior fitness class, there’s a whole rank of California peppertrees covered with red berries, and with leaves already turning for the fall.

All this caused me to delve into the notion of an urban jungle. Turns out different people have very different ideas about what that phrase refers to, and that exploration will take us to Hong Kong, Chongqing, urban gardening, and “wild” parks in various cities, including the Ramble in NYC’s Central Park — with Al Pacino in full gay cruise mode.

The weed-war panorama. (Photos by Juan Gomez.) In three sections, starting on the east:


East: crape myrtle in the distance, big ailanthus in the center


Middle: the three weeds at war


West: out to Ramona St. and a California live oak

Most of what you’re seeing is a low fence (starting under that big ailanthus tree in #1), with the dead wood of a once-sturdy vine twined on it, now with ivy marching west on it, also up into any tree it finds. Golden bamboo thrives on this side of the fence; it marches west rapidly at ground level and has pretty well killed off the periwinkle (Vinca minor) that used to cover the ground. All those trees close up are trees of heaven (Ailanthus altissima).

So three hyper-vigorous plants — two garden ornamentals and a common street tree — vying with one another along that fence, uncontrolled, running amok, creating an ever-expanding urban jungle, a wild untamed place in the middle of the city.

Side notes. That crape myrtle in the distance belongs to a house on Bryant St., the next street west of mine. Under it there’s a pretty white rose bush. And a bit in from that there’s a striking bougainvillea vine (which you can’t see). Further in, on the left in #1 is a very tall, very dead conifer (with, of course, ivy growing up it): a picturesque eyesore, but also potentially dangerous if it comes down.

Behind your back as you look at the photos is the back of  the library building, with a row of Victorian box trees (Pittosporum undulatum) along the wall — one of them totally dead (recently) and two others in trouble — plus wisteria vines running amok. Things are not happy in the parking lot.

California peppertrees. On to another parking lot, at the Ross Road Y in Palo Alto, where a long dividing strip is planted with peppertrees (Schinus molle) –like Victorian box, they are small, pretty trees. They are thick with pinkish-red berries (which, when crushed between your fingers, smell like fresh black pepper) — see #4 below —  and their leaves are now turning red — see #5 (photos by Kim Darnell):



Around the margins of the parking lot are much more substantial trees, thickly planted. In fact, Palo Alto in general is tree-dense, with street trees, yard trees, and lots of tree-filled parks. Something of an urban forest. But only occasionally jungly.

Urban jungle 1. The expression urban jungle used to refer to truly wild, untended areas in a city — like the library area across the street from me, at least at the moment (until someone cleans it up). Every city has waste areas, abandoned lots, and the like, in which vegetation just runs riot. Jungle areas.

Urban jungle 2. Next sense of urban jungle, not about plants at all. Instead, the expression has metaphorical jungle, the jungle of concrete jungle. With densely packed tall buildings playing the role of jungle trees.

Photographer Andy Yeung has explored one urban jungle in this sense, in a series of studding aerial photographs of Hong Kong. From the designboom site (which is fond of lower-casing) on 3/9/16, “andy yeung’s drone photography captures hong kong’s urban jungle” by nina azzarello:


Yeung, Urban Jungle 02

andy yeung, a photographer based in hong kong, captures the bustling metropolis from a completely new perspective for his series ‘urban jungle’. documented via a drone camera, the images depict the architectural sprawl from hundreds of meters above the earth’s surface, highlighting the extreme heights and dramatic depths covered by hong kong’s crowded cityscape. looking down at the city from above, viewers are treated to a typically unseen vantage point — one that accentuates the high-volume high-rises and their impact on the landscape. see images from ‘urban jungle’ below, and more city landscapes by andy yeung on his website

Urban Jungle 3. Some writers use urban jungle loosely to refer to any green spaces in a city, such as those in Palo Alto.

Occasionally the first two senses come together, as in photographer Raphael Olivier’s studies of Chongqing, China, which depict the urban landscape (almost always enveloped in smoggy haze), but with a special interest in green places in the city. From Olivier’s website:


Olivier, Urban Jungle #3

Chongqing, Western China, is a municipality covering the area of Austria, home to almost 30 milion people. Even though most of its territorry and population are still rural, its urban center is under massive expansion making Chongqing the fastest growing city in the world. Yet this development is mostly chaotic and unregulated (the city is notorious for its corruption). Over the past years this has led to an incredible forest of buildings taking over mountains and surrounding farm-lands, creating one of the most incredible urban landscapes on Earth. This photo essay aims to show the unique scenery created by Chinese mass urbanization, endemic lawlessness, mountainous topography and subtropical climate, in a very organic urban sprawl out of a science fiction movie.

Yeung’s and Olivier’s portfolios are both impressive, well worth checking out.

Urban Jungle 4. An even looser use of urban jungle is to refer to any city greenery, even house plants, as in the title of this 2016 book:


Urban Jungle 5. A final use of urban jungle combines the utterly ‘wild’ sense (1) with the ‘park’ sense (3). In it, the expression refers to parkland that is elaborately designed to seem wild, while being carefully tended to maintain a certain degree of order, as in areas of great urban parks in many parts of the world. For instance, in the U.S., areas of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, among them the Back Bay Fens in Boston and Central Park in NYC. Here I’ll look at the Ramble in Central Park.

From Wikipedia:


Stone Arch in the Central Park Ramble

The Ramble and Lake is a main feature of Central Park in New York City. Part of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s “Greensward” plan (1857), The Ramble was intended as a woodland walk through highly varied topography, a “wild garden” away from carriage drives and bridle paths, to be wandered in, or to be viewed as a “natural” landscape from the formal lakefront setting of Bethesda Terrace (illustration below) or from rented rowboats on the Lake. The 38-acre Ramble embraces the deep coves of the north shore of the Lake, excavated between bands of bedrock; it offers dense naturalistic planting, rocky outcrops of glacially scarred Manhattan bedrock, small open glades, and an artificial stream (The Gill) that empties through the Azalea Pond, then down a cascade into the Lake. Its ground rises northwards towards Vista Rock, crowned by Belvedere Castle, a lookout and eye-catching folly.

Secluded “wild” areas in urban parks quite often serve as locales for cruising and hooking-up for sex. In particular,

Since at least the early 20th century, the seclusion of The Ramble has been used for private homosexual encounters. In the 1920s, the lawn at the north end was referred to as the “fruited plain”, and in the 1950s and 1960s, The Ramble was feared by many as a haven for “anti-social persons”… Today, The Ramble’s strong reputation for cruising for sex has given way somewhat to nature walks and environmentalism. However, some in the gay community still consider The Ramble to be “ground zero for outdoor gay sex”, enjoying the “retro feel” of sneaking off into the woods. As a tradition much older than Christopher Street and Fire Island, The Ramble continues to be a gay icon even in the more open environment of modern New York.

The Ramble figured prominently in the movie Cruising. From Wikipedia:

(#10) Al Pacino, undercover and on the prowl

Cruising is a 1980 American crime film written and directed by William Friedkin, and starring Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, and Karen Allen. It is loosely based on the novel of the same name, by The New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, about a serial killer targeting gay men, in particular those associated with the leather scene in the late 1970s. The title is a play on words with a dual meaning, because “cruising” can describe police officers on patrol and also cruising for sex.

2 Responses to “An urban jungle”

  1. H.S. Gudnason Says:

    From Joe Keenan’s novel, Blue Heaven:

    It’s also among the park’s most notorious sections, well known, especially in the warmer months, as the place where gentlemen go to meet other gentleman with similar interests; i.e., a high esteem for physical fitness and a love of movie trivia.

  2. Kim Darnell Says:

    I’ll add another interpretation of “urban jungle” that you don’t address here, which is the big city as dark and dangerous and full of wild and/or unexpected threats. This is by far the strongest interpretation of the phrase for me, although I have no idea where I got it. It seems to be related to the “concrete jungle” interpretation, but the focus is not on the buildings as tree substitutes; instead it’s about the people in the city being predatory animals with good camouflage.

    Here are some links that seem to be connected to this “predatory” interpretation of urban jungle:

    A search of “surviving the urban jungle” reveals a variety of other sources on similar themes. Apparently, this interpretation may have roots in the Chicago School of Sociology and the study of homeless people there:

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