June 1, 2003
Central Park's Golden Age
If a well-tended park can bring to mind the gaudy spring of Shakespeare's sonnet, Central Park summons an epic of Homeric proportions. Taken all at once, it is grand, sweeping, nearly overwhelming. Fortunately, it is also digestible in small, delicious bites.
The park's 150th birthday is this year. It has taken that long to make the park what it is today: a safe retreat where one's only worry is that there's a more beautiful spot elsewhere that one may be missing. On one recent morning at the north end of the park, a black-crowned Night-Heron sat regally on a branch in the Harlem Meer, waiting to pluck lunch from the fish-filled waters. Farther south, a waterfall glistened along a wall of jagged black rock and puddled into the Pond, another serene pool with coves and aquatic grasses, where a resident duck waddled ashore to fetch one of her brood, briefly forcing passers-through to make way for the duckling. In the Ramble and the North Woods, paths slice through thickets of trees and shrubs with a density approaching a subtropical forest's. Ferns sway on hilly terrain.
The 843 acres that make up the nation's best-known municipal park showcase nature at its finest. But except for the naturally formed rock and some of the creatures that inhabit or pass through the park, from 200 species of birds to all kinds of dogs and people, the settings are made or enhanced by man. Away from the obviously manicured greenery of the Great Lawn (created from a drained reservoir in the 1930's), the Sheep Meadow and the elm-lined Mall and Literary Walk, there are places shaped by stealthy engineering. The park's ponds and lakes are carved out by design, the fish they hold selected like tenants in an exclusive co-op. A heron's perch will remain picture-perfect, because it has been anchored at just the right spot. Trees, plants and flowers, seemingly wild, are placed and tended with care. Hidden garden hoses create a waterfall. This is art, the realization of Hudson Valley paintings and imagined Edens. Taken together with its structures and monuments, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Bethesda Terrace, Central Park is an ingenious effort to soothe and inspire 25 million visitors every year.
Park officials date its beginning from July 21, 1853, when state legislators voted to create a public space out of a rocky and swampy plot of land on the edges of 19th-century New York City. Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted provided the blueprint several years later. Their grand vision went beyond the European model, and not only in landscaping. They foresaw that the rich and working classes alike could find solace within its boundaries.
Over the years, the park came to symbolize the ills of the larger city, hitting bottom in the mid-1970's, when it became a repository for graffiti and garbage, thugs and drugs, its gardens and playgrounds in ruins. Resurrection came with the establishment of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980, which did something the city alone could not. The conservancy marshaled the resources of the park's neighbors, raising and spending $300 million to recreate and maintain the park as a model of public-private partnership.
The anniversary will be marked on July 19 with fireworks and concerts. But the real celebrating will be done by the city's lucky residents, as it is every day, on skates and bikes, in sneakers and strollers, or arm-in-arm, soaking up the joys of one of the greatest parks in the world.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company