Central Park is the great green heart of New York. It runs up the centre of Manhattan Island from 59th to 110th Street and across from 5th Avenue to Central Park West. Twenty five million people take a walk in Central Park every year. Millions more enjoy it from lofty towers all over the city.
Like many other 19th century parks around the world, Central Park was inspired by the Municipal Park in Birkenhead, across the Mersey River from Liverpool, England. Re-interpreted for the Big Apple by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, its 843 acres are a blend of gloriously untamed nature, beautifully cultivated garden, playgrounds and monuments.
A labyrinth of rustic paths and horse trails wind through overhanging trees and thick bushes, past stony streams, waterfalls and outcrops of dark schist, the bedrock in which New York’s skyscrapers are anchored. There is a vast paddock of uncultivated grass, the Sheep Meadow, which was once actually a sheep pasture. Squirrels forage unconcerned for food under the trees. There’s that distinctive, woodland smell of leaves and damp vegetation. Birds call overhead. The ubiquitous New York traffic noise is a distant hum.
Broad avenues, lined with sculpted trees, cut through and across the park. There are stands of manicured bushes, giant beds layered with flowers and great expanses of lawn. While the lush and exotic 6 acre Conservatory garden is the most spectacular of the park’s formal gardens, Strawberry Fields is certainly its most memorable. Dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, the small enclosed garden is ringed with benches where devotees keep a constant vigil. A central parterre of fresh flowers depicts a peace symbol. The roof top of the Dakota building where Lennon was shot is visible above the treetops.
Central Park boasts 35 children’s playgrounds, all strictly closed to adults unaccompanied by kids. There is a Carousel, which dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and which is open every day in all seasons. The Tisch children’s Zoo contains an enchanted forest with earthen paths and native plants, where birds fly free in an invisible overhead net. TheThe Central Park Zoo, a playground for people of all ages, features tropical, temperate and polar environments and a fair representation of their inhabitants. The Delacorte Theatre is the venue for the summer New York Shakespeare festival and the Swedish Cottage Marionette has puppet shows for all ages. Last but not least of Central Park’s playgrounds is the beautiful, old world Wollman Rink where New Yorkers take to the ice in their millions every winter.
Central Park’s monuments are many and varied. There are the follies, like whimsical Belvedere Castle which completes a fairytale picture just south of the Great Lawn. The elaborate Victorian stone Bethesda Terrace, with its wings, porticoes, tunnel, sculpted façade, 1 acre esplanade completely overshadows the pretty little lake. An avenue lined with busts of great bards, pays homage to literature. Dotted all over the park are statues of the great and famous of US history. There are plaques to mark the spots where the rich and celebrated have planted trees. But the most fascinating monuments in Central Park, each with their own special story, are the park benches, some bearing famous names, others with the names of complete unknowns, some with messages of love and others with messages of loss.
There was a time when Central Park was a dangerous place. Visitors were cautioned against it. It was the scene of muggings and murders. But not any more. Since Rudy Juliani took the helm as Mayor of New York, the Park, along with the city has become a safe place for a stroll both by day and by night. It remains open until 2. a.m. and Park Rangers patrol 24/7. The same Park Rangers, along with teams of volunteers and Central Park Conservancy Staff lead Central Park Walks and Talks which include geology, bird-watching, ecology and park history.
There are three centres in Central Park dedicated to informing and educating visitors. The Dairy, a vintage Victorian Chalet houses the main visitor information centre and gift shop. The Henry Luce Nature Observatory, in the Belvedere Castle is an interactive display which explains how to observe, identify and record the plants and wildlife in the park. The Charles A Dana Discovery Centre provides environmental education programs such as bird-watching, fishing, ecology and horticulture explorations as well as workshops, performances and events highlighting the park and its neighbourhood.
While Central Park’s grid of broad tree-lined avenues and labyrinth of winding rustic paths are made for walkers and ramblers, it seems that at every gate, around every bend and behind every tree, there lurks some temptation to ride – horses and carriages, bicycles, trishaws and rickshaws, there are even special little perambulators designed to take the weight off canine paws. We set off from the 59th Street entrance, determined to stay on our feet. But it wasn’t long before we succumbed to the persuasions of a gaunt Romanian trishaw operator. He showed us the Central Park of film and television – the fountain where the Friends cast took the plunge, the Boathouse Restaurant which featured in Sex and the City and the lake where Carrie and Big went under.
Central Park is many things to New York; a playground, a quiet retreat, a soft oasis of green amidst the harsh grey and a cherished piece of natural beauty in the concrete jungle. It is one of the world’s great parks, more so because it sits at the centre of one of the world’s great cities.