Grand Central: Exploring New York’s Central Park

by Iyna Bort Caruso

The signs I love most in Central Park are the ones with just enough practicality to sound official and more than enough hospitality to make you feel at home:

NO to Dogs Without Leashes

YES to Reading, Relaxing, Sunbathing and Daydreaming

To locals, it’s almost a dare: Put away the smartphones and tablets. Forget about phone lines, bottom lines and deadlines.

Amazingly, New Yorkers comply. Once they step under the green canopy, they soften. The knots in their brows melt away like an instant Botox injection. Spending time in Central Park is a stress-reducer bordering on purification rite.

Los Angelino Robyn Eastman calls it, “breathing space in a city that’s sometimes overpowering.”

This 843-acre public space is not like any other New York tourist attraction. Survey Manhattanites and you’re likely to find more have visited the summitatVail

thanthe top of the Empire State Building. But Central Park is a central part of city life. In this high-rise metropolis, it’s the one place apartment-dwellers get to spread out. Gotham’s front porch and backyard.

Credit the park’s uncanny ability to transform itself into whatever you desire: A playground for biking, ice-skating, fishing and rock climbing. A classroom for tango, tree-pruning and yoga lessons. Its 62 sculptures, fountains and monuments rival museum collections and its concerts, poetry readings and long-running Shakespeare in the Park series make it a top-drawer theatrical showcase.

Londoner Ian Milne spent his first-ever Sunday in New York 16 years ago and pays a visit back at every opportunity. “Above all else I think that’s where a visitor should go. It’s an obvious oasis from the concrete towers, but it also has a tremendous variety in it– from the Great Lawn and the wooded areas to the zoo and the Wollman Skating Rink. It’s a great Sunday morning spectacle. There is more variety in one place than in any London park.”

That so many of the park’s 40 million annual visitors are awed by its diversity doesn’t surprise one person, Sara Cedar Miller, Central Park photographer, historian and author of “Central Park, An American Masterpiece.”

“I don’t think people expect these landscapes to have a presence. They think grass, trees, paths, benches, lights, a few statues–like every park. But this park is a work of art. Not every park is. It may be designed artfully, but this is truly a work of art. And people get it when they come.”

In 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted a law setting aside land to create America’s first major landscaped park. They used powers of eminent domain to seize property populated by squatters’ shacks, hog farms and makeshift gin joints.

A landscape design contest was held and the plans of Frederick Law Olmsted, superintendent of the undeveloped park, and Calvert Vaux, the English-born architect, were chosen. They had their work cut out for them, not just for the scope of the project but because they had to create the park from scratch. Surprisingly, Central Park is a completely engineered environment. Prior to its existence, this stretch of Manhattan was a mixture of marshland, rocks and muddy terrain. Swamps had to be filled in, land manipulated, open spaces created and millions of trees planted.Of the park’s seven lakes and ponds, not one body of water is natural.

When Central Park opened to the public in 1859, the pair had turned the great expanse into a complex work of art.

The park, now spanning 59th Street north to 110th, has three distinct landscapes, rooted the English Romantic tradition. A glorious formation of American elms along the promenade known as the Mall is the park’s greatest horticultural feature. Sara Cedar Miller describes the Mall as a gothic church. “It’s like walking under the ribbed vaulting of a cathedral the way the trunks resemble columns and the branches meet overhead.”

Pastoral meadows dominate the southern sections and rambles dominate the north. This woody and mysterious patch of dense flora, brooks, bridges and cascades was intended to replicate the forests of the Adirondack Mountains. “There’s nothing like a sheer stone cliff looming over a wild ravine to make you forget you’re only a few blocks from the Guggenheim Museum gift shop,” says visitor Bart Swindall of Chicago.

Bethesda Terrace, the architectural heart with its elegant stonework by 72nd Street, is where these three landscapes converge. Miller calls it the million-dollar view: Central Park’s Versailles.

“This is a living landscape painting reminiscent of the Hudson River School which was in vogue when they were building the park,” Miller says, “But no single canvas could equal this masterpiece.”

This masterpiece of organic architecture can almost be forgiven for distracting visitors from some of the honest-to-goodness attractions sprayed throughout the park, like the Central Park Zoo. This is an all-ages favorite showcasing animals in their natural habitat. A tropical rain forest, sea lion pool and collection of cave-dwelling polar bears are wonderfully juxtaposed against tony Fifth Avenue, just a few minutes’ walk east.

Animals of the hand-carved kind are over at the Carousel by 65th Street. The original 19thcentury carousel was powered by horse and mule. The current incarnation is a Coney Island import featuring some of the largest painted ponies ever constructed.

A fixture on the cultural circuit is the free Shakespeare in the Park Festival that’s been running every summer since 1957. Its permanent home is the Delacorte Theater, an open-air amphitheater.

The Manhattan skyline provides an exquisite backdrop to the Wollman Skating Rink, accessible through the Grand Army Plaza entrance at 59th Street and Central Park South. Once winter is a memory, inline skaters replace ice-skaters, though gutsier ‘bladers venture out onto hilly six-mile Park Drive known as the loop.

Experiencing the park today, it’s painful to think about the condition of this antebellum jewel in the 1960s and ‘70s when it started to show its age. The park was more than a century old and its infrastructure needed a radical overhaul. Trouble was New York was in a fiscal crisis. “The city couldn’t keep up,” Miller says. “Finally in 1980, they did something about it.”

The Central Park Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization, was created. Under a contract with the city, its mission was to restore and preserve the park. Since its inception, the Conservancy has spent more millions in private and public funds to revitalize the grounds. Expecting graffiti?  Not here. The group eliminated it from every building in the park. In fact, graffiti is removed within 24 hours. They’ve also restored the dozens of playgrounds, repaired many of the park’s 8,000 benches that were falling into disrepair due to neglect and removed weeds and obstructions from the running path ringing the Reservoir. The Conservancy has become one of the most successful private-public partnerships in the country.

The renaissance has been stunning. “It’s New York’s greatest Cinderella story,” Miller says.

Still, reputations die hard. Dorothy Thompson is proof. Thompson hails from Temperanceville, Virginia. Population 1,000. Preparing for her first trip to New York,  she was sure of one thing: “Central Park was where muggers robbed you of all your earthly possessions.” Turns out, Thompson says, “it just wasn’t so.” Instead she discovered “an oasis in the middle of the sprawling city” where “families picnicked, children rollerbladed and students sat under trees with their noses in books. It was idyllic to say the least and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

It’s not surprising that so many impressions have been formed second-hand. Central Park has set the scene of some 200 movies and been featured in TV shows from “The Odd Couple” to “Seinfeld” to “The Apprentice.” “Cliché it may be,” says Peter Tupper of Vancouver, Canada, “it largely matched the image I had from movies and television. It helped that I visited on a nearly perfect spring day. In the middle of all those towering buildings and masses of humanity, there was still a place where you can sit on green grass in the shade of a tree and eat your lunch.”

Grass, benches, gazebos, a wind-smoothed section rock—they all beg you to stay. And everyone does. The Park Avenue doorman eats his brown-bag lunch near the wealthy townhouse owner he serves. The chauffeur shares a bench next to the passenger he drives. It’s the great equalizer.

And the great refuge.

The park filled with stunned New Yorkers after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. A year later an anniversary vigil was held here. Miller says it’s New York’s only all-inclusive “place to really gather in a certain sanctuary-like way and sheltering way.”

Strawberry Fields is the arguably the park’s most sobering spot, a place you can hear before you even come across it. There’s inevitably someone playing the music of John Lennon on an acoustic guitar, creating an apt soundtrack. Located in the western section off Central Park West, this tribute to the memory of New York’s favorite Beatle is across the street from the Dakota at 72nd Street, the apartment building he lived in and was murdered outside of in 1980.The section was dedicated on Lennon’s birthday on October 9, 1985. Yoko Ono donated $1 million to the Central Park Conservancy to re-landscape and maintain the 2.5-acre parcel.

Strawberry Fields is arresting in its simplicity: a black-and-white mosaic, a gift of the Italian government that simply reads IMAGINE. The area is a particularly poignant place to be on Lennon’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, December 8. But walk by any day and you can’t help but be moved by the personal mementos left here in Lennon’s memory. Many of the flowers, hand-written notes, photos and candles are from those too young to have a memory of him.

Central Park without Strawberry Fields would be a bit less contemplative.

And “Manhattan without Central Park,” says visitor Peter Tupper, “would be far less humane.”