Start at the beginning, at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. From here, Central Park spreads north 51 blocks to 110th Street, meandering crosstown to Eighth Avenue, encompassing 843 acres in all, a prodigious parcel of city real estate, a little bigger than the principality of Monaco.
Walking toward Scholars Gate, the Fifth Avenue entrance to the park, you pass the Plaza, the elaborate Pulitzer Fountain, and the gilded statue of General Sherman, looking a little gaudy on a sunny summer afternoon. Taken together, they make a grandiose introductioon to a park whose designers admired the bucolic and pastoral.
So, even before you enter the park, you're confronted with some of its incongruities. Designed by architects who admired unspoiled nature, it's a man-made paradise with very little in it that's natural.
Plonked in the middle of a city that claims to revere the work ethic, it is devoted to leisure. Surrounded by the handsome apartment houses of the truly rich, it has sheltered the truly poor: paupers in tarpaper shacks during the Great Depression, the homeless and desperate of every generation since it was built in the 1800s.
The neighborhood wasn't always prime.
Walking north inside the park, surrounded today by flowers, lawns and trees, you pass through what was once called Pigtown. Before the park came along to supplant it, this was a noxious little suburb, inhabited by poor, mostly Irish immigrants. This wasn't the only community in what became the park: Scattered around the landscape were groups of houses and farms as well as businesses that more settled neighborhoods had exiled uptown: bone boilers, tanners, soap manufacturers. Not the most salubrious place, you would think, to put a park.
In fact, if the plutocrats of that day in the 1840s when the idea of a city park was first mentioned had had their way, it wouldn't have been put here at all. It would have run along the East River, adjacent to the country houses of the Knickerbocker families who envisioned a grand city park as a place for their own.
Building the park was, after all, an enormous financial commitment. The land Central Park occupies was owned by various landlords, all of whom had to be paid. The final land bill came to $5 million, a huge sum in 1853, when the city started to acquire it. Only a few years later, the US Government would buy all of Alaska for $9 million -- and people called that folly.
Today, few would argue with the wisdom that produced the park. It has become an icon of New York, drawing almost 20 million people a year into its rustic confines. Its rocky outcrops and rolling lawns, its placid lakes and ponds -- even its sometimes raucous playgrounds -- provide the kind of escape from the pressures of the city that its designers -- Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux -- believed in from the beginning.
"Olmsted and Vaux called themselves 'Landscape Painters,'" explains Sara Cedar Miller, the historian for the Central Park Conservancy, which now runs the park in conjunction with the city. "Everything here is absolutely intentional. They believed they were moving people through a series of pictures, as in a museum."
What they would never have imagined was the frame that would eventually surround their "pictures." In 1853, the very year that Otis invented the elevator, which would make possible the high rises that now shadow the park, the partners were concerned with designing the park to eliminate all trace of the city, sinking roads for commercial traffic, and building a sheepfold to shelter the animals that would wander the park's meadows.
It was a gargantuan effort. During the early years of construction, workers moved tons of stone and carted in more tons of topsoil. They laid six million bricks and poured 35,000 barrels of cement; tons of gravel and sand were delivered and used.
Workers blasted through rock, then broke it up into stones that would be used to build ornamental bridges or form the paving for the miles of roads that would eventually wend their way through the park. In the first few years of construction, workers planted more than 1,400 species of trees and shrubs. They built 36 bridges and archways and created four bodies of water.
And finally, there was a park -- the first one anywhere built solely for the people's recreation. As Cedar Miller points out, the place was like nothing else of its time. It was, she says, "Disneyland--without the commercialization, of course. There were no neighborhood playgrounds then, no Coney Island. This was it.''
In the end, though, the park would become more than just a pleasure ground. The huge reservoir near 81st Street (replaced by the Great Lawn in the 1930s) guaranteed clean water for the city, a dairy (sans cows), provided reliable fresh milk for babies. The military also was represented. Submissions to the original design competition had to include plans for a military parade ground, where troops could train. That requirement was eventually scrapped in favor of the peaceable Sheep Meadow.
But two military presences could not be ignored. One, the Blockhouse, now a ruin, is the oldest structure within the park. It stands in the northern end of the park, the last remnant of a chain of forts dating to the War of 1812, meant to protect the city from British incursion.
The second is The Arsenal, coming quickly into view as you head uptown toward 65th Street. Predating the park's construction, it served as the armory for New York's National Guard. But even after the military left, the Arsenal remained a powerhouse, the main offices for the park's administrators. Now it houses the offices for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoo.
One of the most powerful of the city's Parks Commissioners was Robert Moses, who took office as an appointee of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, in the 1930s. During his term, Moses made his presence felt almost as much as Olmsted and Vaux had. Although he came into office as a protégé of those who wanted to preserve the original designers' vision, Moses himself believed in an activist vision of the park: Where Olmsted and Vaux had made room for only one playground, he added close to 20, complete with jungle gyms, see-saws, and swings. "Leisure DeLuxe," was how one newspaper described his creations. He also brought in playgrounds for grown-ups: ball fields, tennis courts, and shuffleboard.
Those additions are dotted throughout the park. Along with the original designers' vision of untrammeled nature -- which would give the people a respite from the city's pressures, they thought -- a more activist agenda has, over the years taken hold, and today, New Yorkers use the park for everything from frisbee games to picnics while listening to the Philharmonic to a yearly marathon to dancing under the stars.
A circuit that takes you from the East Side's formal Mall north to the Harlem Meer and down the West Side to the Sheep Meadow, gives an overview of what this place was designed to be and how it has been used down the generations. So, put on a comfortable pair of shoes and get ready for a stroll.
Just opposite the Arsenal is one of the park's most endearing institutions. With its fairy-tale like buildings, it's one of the most child-friendly places in the park. The musical Delacorte Clock has its devotees, but by far the most popular attraction are the polar bears, which have, since the zoo's 1980s renovation, been visible in a glass-sided tank. Here, visitors gaze at them as they cavort, pirouetting in the water like graceful -- if overweight ballerinas.
The penguin house is another favored destination, especially on a hot summer afternoon, when this cool, dark haven is lively with children delighting in the antics of penguins and puffins slicing through the water or tumbling, kneeless, off ledges and rocks.
Outdoors, there's another favorite place: the sea lions pond, where feeding time draws crowds to watch the animals jump, clap, and bark for their supper.
The zoo is a far different place than it was before its $35 million renovation turned it into a state-of-the-art attraction. Before, the animals had been housed in utilitarian cages -- many too small for them -- with few amentities to distract them from the hordes who showed up to gape at them. Now, animals like the monkeys are left to their own devices, playing in their open-air habitats and seeming to take almost as much interest in the tourists as the tourists do in them.
West of the zoo, you connect with the Mall, with its colonnade of elm trees which when in full leaf, provide a cool, shady haven. Bethesda Terrace lies just a little farther west, a confection of formal staircases and an elaborate fountain.
From the terrace you get one of the park's prime views. Looking across the Lake, you might spot a rowboat making its way across mirror-smooth water followed by a sleek black gondola. On a nearby hillside, a woman does tai chi and a pair of friends play with a dog. Along one of the roads that bisect the park, a solitary power walker marches past, arms swinging aggresively, headphones clamped securely on her head.
These are hardly the swells Olmsted and Vaux would have envisioned looking out over the Lake, but, as Sara Cedar Miller remarked, "everyone sees the park as a tabla rasa, as a blank slate. Everybody projects s something onto it."
And each generation uses the park in its own way. The great-grandparents of those young friends playing with their dog might have danced the charleston and drunk bootleg gin at the Casino, one of the city's hotspots during the '20s. In the 1960s, their parents might have gathered here at 'Freak Fountain,' when it was the main meeting place for the city's hippie tribes.
Then, the terrace was inundated with long-haired flower-children: Impromptu concerts took place on the steps; vendors sold roach clips and hash pipes; the more entrepreneurial sold marijuana and LSD. Finger cymbals and sheepskin vests were the uniformn of the day.
That was the generation that celebrated its youth culture with be-ins and happenings. With the encouragement of parks commissioners like Thomas Hoving and August Heckscher, the definition of what was acceptable in the park began to widen. Rock concerts made their first appearance; permits were granted for huge political demonstrations; sports left the fenced-in playing fields and took to the lawns and the roads: frisbee throwers, bike riders, and skate-boarders. Now, their presence is so much accepted that their needs have been stitched into the fabric of the place: On a Sunday afternoon, the Skaters' Circle, on Center Drive in the middle of the park, is lively with speed- and disco-skaters.
Continuing northwest, you come to Belvedere Castle, built by Olmsted and Vaux, a stage-set of a place designed as a landmark to draw visitors away from the Mall and into the Ramble. It was always a romantic place, overlooking the Shakespeare Garden, but over the years, it fell into ruin, and by the late 1970s, it was on the verge of falling down. Stones had disappeared and graffiti covered the walls.
Enter the Central Park Conservancy, a private-public partnership that has raised millions to preserve the park. In the early '80s it began a restoration of the castle, which was completed in 1983. Today, the building houses the city's weather bureau and the Henry Luce Nature Observatory, where budding naturalists can learn about bird life in the park. Or they can just show up, borrow a backpack stuffed with binoculars, reference material and maps, and take off to explore nature.
The resuscitation of Belvedere Castle was just one of the Conservancy's many successes. Another was the renovation of the Shakespeare Garden, with its plants mentioned in works by the Bard, which nestles in the shadow of the castle; where the garden once lay in ruins, weeds choking the plantings, today it has been restored, and it has become a favorite destination.
But in addition to such high-profile projects, the conservancy is also in charge of the park day-to-day, and that means running the mundane details. Like picking up the garbage.
Every day, teams of maintenance workers fan out, emptying bins and picking up litter. "By 8:30 or 9 a.m." says Doug Blonsky, COO of the Conservancy, "the park is pretty much cleaned up." Graffiti, once the bane of the parks department, is kept to a minimum: It is reported as soon as it's spotted, and teams of workers are dispatched to scrub it off.
THE GREAT LAWN
When the Conservancy began raising funds for the park, one of the biggest jobs it faced was rescuing the Great Lawn.
During the early 1980s, it was the site of the monster concerts -- Simon & Garfunckel, Elton John and Diana Ross -- that drew thousands into the park on summer evenings. They also destroyed the lawn.
Asked whether he thought those kind of concerts would ever return to the park, Blonsky doesn't hesitate. "People get angry when there are things like film shootings," he says. "People think of this place as their backyard."
But, he continues, intelligent management practices can make the park safe for mass gatherings. He explains that when the Philharmonic plays during the summer, the details are worked out in advance so as to cause minimum damage: plywood is put down to protect lawns; traffic patterns are carefully worked out. "There has to be a balancing of use in the park," he continues. "There are certain times and locations when you can do certain things and certain times and locations when you can't."
But even before the concerts, the Great Lawn was no stranger to controversy. In fact, its very creation was controversial.
Before the Lawn went in, this was the site of the reservoir, which held water from the Croton Aquaduct for the city. When it was drained in the 1930s, a massive fight broke out over what would replace it.
"It was portrayed as boys and girls vs. art," says Sara Cedar Miller, with some activists determined to straighten the park roads to make the place more efficient for cars and to use the newly reclaimed land for baseball fields and playgrounds.
Opposing them were those who wanted to build sports stadiums and radio transmitters on the site. Still others wanted to cut a road through the heart of the park to connect the two great museums -- the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- and festoon that walk with monuments and statuary. Preservationists demanded that any plan for the site be consistent with Olmsted and Vaux's original plan of bucolic nature.
In the end, the preservationists struck a deal: for those who wanted a formal garden, a small allee of trees was added at the northern end of the plot; for those who wanted playgrounds, children's play areas were added (with the proviso that they be screened by foliage). The new project was named "The Great Lawn for Play," and construction began.
Over the years, that name caused some problems: By 1981, the place was in terrible shape. The lawn had become a dustbowl and impromptu softball games were the norm. Today, after an $18.2 million restoration completed in 1997, the 55-acre Great Lawn is worthy of its namesake -- a lush stretch of Kentucky bluegrass. Beneath that thick green carpet are drainage pipes and sprinklers, which help keep the place green and dry.
Those drainage pipes and sprinklers under the Lawn are only a small part of the infrastructure that sustains the park.
Standing among the trees in the North Woods, the 90-acre parcel that stretches to the northern edge of the park, it's easy to imagine yourself far from the city. Huge rocks obtrude from what seems to be a forest floor; the more mundane sounds of the city compete with birdsong, and off in the distance, you can hear the sound of water tumbling over a ravine.
All of this is artifice, though. The trees, now grown to maturity, were planted by gardeners during the early years of the park's construction, and the water is controlled by a series of taps. "Pipes carry water from the ponds and lakes," says Sara Cedar Miller. "The cascades can be turned off just like a bathtub in your house."
Doug Blonsky points out that the city's lifelines run beneath the park's forests and meadows. "There are hundreds and hundreds of pipes that carry the city's water supply," he says. In addition, the park's own drainage system is emptied into its various ponds and lakes. "Everything in the North Woods," Blonsky says, "empties into the Harlem Meer."
The Meer -- which is the Dutch word for "lake," is a remarkable place. It's often a relaxed scene of mothers walking with strollers and older kids tossing balls or loping along the paths. Along the water's edge, cormorants dive and swans nest on a small island. Groups of men stand around, fishing rods cast out over the water, waiting for a bite.
"I come here almost every day," said one man, carefully baiting his fishing rod. Asked what he catches, he shrugs and laughs. "Not much," he admits. "But it's a way to relax."
It's hard to believe that just a few years ago, this was one of the most degraded landscapes in the park. During a three-year restoration, the Conservancy spent $10 million reshaping the Meer and stocking it with largemouth bass and catfish.
At the northern edge of the Meer is the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, named for a newspaper editor, and housed in the park's newest building. Built to echo the lines of the Dairy, the center is a place for free family and community programs all year long. There are educational exhibits on display in the Great Hall, while children's nature classes are held upstairs.
From the Fifth Avenue side, the gilded black iron gates lead to a formal garden -- the only one in the park. The gates themselves were made in Paris and once graced the entrance to the Vanderbilt mansion at 58th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The garden is a relative newcomer to the park, created in 1937 to replace a greenhouse. Once inside, you can stroll through the Italian Garden -- a cool-looking refuge of lawns and hedges lined by allees of crabapple trees that shade from deepest pink to white during their spring bloom.
To the north is the French garden, with formal plantings that bloom in season: In spring there are 20,000 tulips, and in late October, 2,000 Korean chrysanthemums lend even more color to the autumn landscape.
To the south is an English garden, with beds centered around a fountain that has given the garden its nickname: The Secret Garden, a bronze sculpture of two children, characters from the book of that name. The sculpture, installed in a reflecting pool in 1936, shows a young boy playing a flute, a little girl listening to him. In summer, the garden is a riot of peonies, dahlias, purple salvia, big, sweet-smelling roses, iris, foxglove, feathery-looking goat's beard and exotic Scotch thistle -- "almost too much color and texture," says Diane Schaub, the garden's curator.
As she strolls along the garden's paths, she takes a pair of clippers from a pocket and starts snipping away at the hedges. The snik-snik of her clippers punctuates her conversation as she talks about how people use the gardens.
"This is the only legal place in the park where you can get married," she says. "And on weekends you might have 10 wedding parties a day coming up here for photographs." During the week, she says, there are the neighborhood people who come in to relax among the flowers, and there are the volunteers who help keep the gardens looking their best.
Where once the park's reservoirs held the city's back-up water supply, that function is no longer very practical -- today's reservoir would provide only a few hours of water for the city at its current usage rate.
But parkgoers have found other uses for the reservoir: On the path that runs around it, from 85th Street up to 97th Street, the joggers and power-walkers seem to come along in an endless stream, starting early in the morning and stretching long past sundown.
The most famous of them was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (for whom the reservoir is named), who would stroll over from her apartment on Fifth Avenue and take to the path. But the runners aren't the only ones who treasure the reservoir: Bird watchers also congregate here, adding cormorants, gulls, and loons to their life lists.
Near the reservoir and the tennis center is the prosaically named Bridge No. 28, the Gothic Arch, one of three cast iron bridges in the area. Olmsted and Vaux's original plans called for rustic-looking bridges made of stone held together by friction instead of mortar, and there are examples of such spans throughout the park. But, as construction costs mounted, pressure was put on the designers to come up with something cheaper. Although to modern eyes, the bridges seem ornate works of art, they were bargain-basement alternatives, created to satisfy the bean-counters of the park's early administration.
Near the Ramble, the sinuous Bow Bridge is one of the loveliest in the park. Stretching 60 feet across the Lake, it's a romantic place, and it's been the subject of countless photo shoots. On a summery morning, solitary walkers make their way over it; in the afternoon, rowboats glide beneath its graceful span.
Walking along the western side of the park near 85th Street, you come across a thick stand of pine trees donated to the park by the philanthropist Arthur Ross in 1971. In winter, the trees are a welcome spot of deep, rich green against the bare landscape, and in summer, their scent tinges even the hottest afternoon with a refreshing coolness. Just beyond the pines you come to the site of what was once a thriving village.
Before the park was built, this was home to some 264 people -- mostly African Americans, but also German and Irish immigrants.
One of the neighborhood's most famous residents was the future Tammany leader George Washington Plunkitt, later well-known for his graft and his straightforward defense of it. "I seen my opportunities," he once said, "And I took 'em." In the 1840s, when his family first arrived from Ireland, the Plunkitts lived at Nanny Goat Hill, part of Seneca Village.
Although popular history remembers the park's onetime residents as shiftless "squatters" who lived off the bounty of the land, a quick reality check shows something quite different. According to Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in 'The Park and the People,' in the 1840s, Seneca Village housed the largest group of African-American home-owners in the city, many of whom had owned their property since the 1820s. The community was settled and nothing if not respectable: There were two churches, several cemeteries, and a school to serve them.
In the 1850s, the state introduced the notion of 'eminent domain,' to take private land for public needs. As the park was being assembled, 1,600 people were removed from the land, and although they were paid for their property, most never became homeowners again.
Seneca Village wasn't the only community that the park displaced. Earlier, the village of York Hill, in the center of the park near 88th Street, also had a population of working-class families, many of whom were also black. That community was displaced when the city built its first reservoir. However, it did leave behind a trace of itself in the name "Yorkville," which it bequeathed to a neighborhood in the East 80s.
Sandwiched between the Lake and Belvedere Castle, The Ramble is the heart of Olmsted and Vaux's park, a "wild garden," as Olmsted called it. Rocky outcrops break up the landscape, offering overlooks -- or just a place to sit with a book. A stream called "The Gill" tumbles through the glades.
This was one of the first parts of the park to be completed -- and the designers rode herd on the workmen who were sculpting the hills and meadows, trying to push the pace of construction to justify its cost. Finally, in 1859, a year after work was begun, the Ramble was ready.
The purpose of this section of the park, says Sara Cedar Miller, was to "provide choices, to lead you to explore, to take you away from the city."
A century and a half later, it still succeeds. Meandering paths lead through a landscape of forest gardens that bring to mind the Adirondacks -- just as Olmsted and Vaux planned. Because the nearby Lake draws a plethora of birds, early mornings along these trails are crowded with bird watchers. Rustic stone arches drip with roses in summer; wildflowers bloom beneath the trees, and in spring, azalea and rhododendron provide vivid splashes of color.
From the vantage point of Hernshead, an enormous rock that juts out into the lake, you can take in the ultimate view of Central Park: the water in the foreground, colorful plantings edging the shore and trees softening the buildings along Central Park South. Set among the trees is a lacy Victorian structure that fits in perfectly with the landscape.
It wasn't part of the original plan, however. Called The Ladies Pavilion, it was -- of all things -- a bus shelter, and was originally located at Columbus Circle. It didn't migrate into the park until 1912, but, with its ornate detailing, it is an old-fashioned touch reminiscent of the park's early years.
Of all the park's spaces, the Sheep Meadow is one of the most beloved. On a weekday afternoon after school lets out the place is busy with students sprawled on the fresh-cut grass. Joggers lope along the paths that cut around the meadow, and the roads carry their share of bike riders and skaters. On the grass, babies toddle, their mothers swapping gossip and advice. Somewhere in the distance, you can hear the genteel click of a croquet mallet against a wooden ball; the croquet lawn, complete with colorful umbrellas and players in white, is nearby.
Like the Great Lawn, the Sheep Meadow has seen its hard times. It, too, was the site of massive concerts -- the first moon landing was televised here on a huge screen in 1969 -- and it, too, was restored by the Conservancy. Its history is picturesque; the name comes from the flock of sheep that originally made its home here, housed in a sheepfold that ultimately became part of the Tavern on the Green restaurant. In the 1930s, though, Robert Moses evicted the sheep --along with their shepherd -- sending them to Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
From the lawn, you can walk over to the area called Mineral Springs. During the day, the Sheep Meadow Cafe serves simple sandwiches and salads, but at night, they bring out the grills and the tables, and there are steaks, chops and fish. If such fare isn't fancy enough, Tavern on the Green has an elaborate menu and drinks indoors or out. Similarly, the Boathouse Restaurant is a terrific place to have a bite -- or a drink -- a relaxing way to end a day in the park.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times