This is the 15th in a series of posts about New York – a re-post of an essay I wrote about four years ago. The original post is reprinted here with no editing.
When I used to live in Tribeca, non-New Yorkers would ask me “Oh, you run? I bet you love running in Central Park!” Back then it would irk me, even though their geographic ignorance was not their fault.
“No,” I’d say sweetly, “I prefer to run along the Hudson.” Which was, and is still a fact, even now living only a few blocks off the Park and running it frequently; racing it most weekends.
New York, as you probably know or have surmised, is ferociously neighbourhoody, not merely in the borough-to-borough sense. Each neighbourhood has a distinct personality, evolved and evolving over time. Nothing is static: growth, rot, gentrification, construction — all constants.
One other thing that remains constant, and perhaps is a neighbourhood in and of itself is Central Park.
Central Park has not always existed. It is, by historical standards, a relatively recent phenomenon. New York traces its founding to 1624. It wasn’t until 1844 that American poet William Cullen Bryant began to romanticise the need for a public park in New York City. Perhaps Bryan’s words were not so much “publicity,” rather a reflection of public sentiment — by then New Yorkers had resorted to using cemeteries as public parks because there were so few green spaces left in the growing city. In 1857, the City approved the development of a 700 acre public park, and in 1858, Frederic Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux were selected to design the space.
In 1873, Central Park (originally dubbed “the Greensward Project”) was completed. For the first 60 years of the Park’s existence, largely due to the City’s demographics and politics, there was little interest in using the Park for its intended purpose. But in 1934, newly-elected Republican Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia tasked Robert Moses with cleaning up the park — an effort that was, all things considered, a success.
Throughout the 20th century, the Park was not immune from the upheaval that City experienced. The Park was opened to events in the 1960s — drawing crowds; protests; concerts — but the City lacked the expertise, budget, and general wearwithall to manage the impact. Despite being named an historical landmark in 1963, the Park fell into serious disrepair once again, which continued throughout the late 1970s.
In 1980, the Park informally came into the managerial hands of the Central Park Conservancy — a public-private partnership that formalised their management agreement over the park in 1998 and manages the Park to this day. (And does a fantastic job!). The Central Park Conservancy began restoring the Park in the early 1980s, and today, the Park is the most visited urban park in the country.
Perhaps I am not alone in saying my feelings on the Park change with the seasons.
In the Winter, the Park is a tundra — the Reservoir frozen over; the surface crackled and full of mystery like an ancient skin. The horse-drawn carriages ferry blanketed passengers like it’s something romantic, and I suppose it is in a way. But the dirt and grime and smell of horse-shit and other people who have used those blankets make the idea very unromantic to me.
Spring has rolled directly into Summer in Manhattan the last few years but during the few Spring days, one can practically see the cartoon steam lines rising out of moist lawns. The Spring growth brings itchy eyes and pollenshowers from every tree. Then comes Summer with its lazy picnics and sunsoaked Saturdays with sangria secreted in under cover of Gatorade jugs. We play games of catch until we’re too dizzy from the wine. But beware the young couples necking; petting; going through the rituals of love behind boulders, trees. Every Summer seems a Summer of Love — sweet, gentle love — but only until Dusk. Because everyone knows that after dark, the Park is still the Park.
In the Fall, the Park is magical: the trees are a canopy of fire! I used to — don’t laugh — have my hair done at the salon at Bergdorf’s and sometimes I felt like asking the stylist for silence so I could drink in the view. (That salon was another life; is another post.) Walking in the Park under the Autumn trees may be life’s greatest pleasure — the heady, sneezy smell of maples, elms; the peaty smell of dying grass.
November brings my favourite day of the year — Marathon Sunday. There is no more welcome or glorious sight than Central Park on that day. The air is crisp; the leaves are fireworks of celebration; my fellow New Yorkers are screaming my name and carrying me to the finish. Even in the late afternoon shade, as the sun sinks into the Hudson on the other side of town, the Park glows golden that day.
Central Park, like all of New York, is glamourous, dangerous, ever changing. It is a place where the robber barons and beggars mingle with ease. It is perhaps not where all New Yorkers feel at home — even the most seasoned City-dwellers among us — but it is a place that is uniquely our own.