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AUTUMN IN THE PARK : It’s the High-Color Season in New York City’s Central Park, Which May Be in Its Best Shape in a Generation

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Two Sundays ago, my wife and I slipped into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and happened upon the top hats, parasols, greenery and languor of a Georges Seurat study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” You know this image--it’s the pointillist scene that inspired the Stephen Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” It stands among Western art’s most enduring images of city folk at play. But it held us for less than a minute.

We were spoiled. For three days, just beyond the Met’s walls, we’d been watching the first week of fall ripen in Central Park, and Seurat’s dots just couldn’t compete.

From 59th to 110th streets, from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West, on the 843 acres of sprawling meadows, shaded slopes and placid waters in Central Park, the day’s complement of 50,000 or more New Yorkers and visitors ran, skated, snoozed, leaped, rowed, reclined, pedaled, posed, conspired, panhandled and pondered their next chess moves, all with the season’s first yellow leaves settling at their feet. Clopping horse-drawn carriages. Conspiring couples. Drummers. Kites. And a saxophone player by the man-made pool known as Conservatory Water, sending variations on “Sentimental Journey” resounding among the model boats.

Near the park’s south end, a young couple paused to watch their newly walking son toss chestnuts at a squirrel, while 10 yards away, concealed in the shade of a thick tree, a grizzled man raised an illicit pipe to his lips.

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In the teeming oval where the park’s premier roller-bladers do their skate-dancing, the American melting pot spun like a centrifuge: here a gliding, grinning man in beard, skullcap and flannel; dashing at his elbow, an intent, spandex-sheathed African-American sylph; behind her, a pair of sweat-shirted Asian-American synchronized skate-dancers and a six-foot white woman in black tights. While a sound system throbbed in the middle and scofflaws peddled beers from coolers on the periphery, the roller-bladers circled and circled.

When it’s in top form, America’s foremost urban park can both pacify and energize like few other places on Earth. Here and nowhere else, a visitor can roll down a hillside wrapped in fall colors and land one long block from the home of the Metropolitan Opera, or six blocks from the Museum of Modern Art, surrounded by one of the world’s greatest collections of restaurants, theaters and doings after dark. October in New England is pretty, but it can’t deliver that. Nor can the Southwest, the Northwest or any place I know in California. And one more thing: Despite diminished government support and the recurrent threats of urban crime and poverty, Central Park may be in its best shape in a generation.

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“This is the prototype for Disneyland,” said Sara Cedar Miller, the park’s official historian and photographer, joining us in our first day’s explorations. “You walk through different environments, having different experiences.”

In the beginning, it was all rocks, mud, country homes, tenant farmers’ shacks, a reservoir, remnants of American Indian settlement, and a path upon which George Washington and his troops retreated from the British in 1776. Most New Yorkers lived on the other side of 14th Street, more than 45 blocks south of the lands that would become the park.

But once city officials selected Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as winners in an 1858 park design competition, the two set to disguising the massive rectangle as a sequence of pastoral settings--a meadow, a lake, a rock bluff, a forest, each new countrified setting intended to gracefully lead into the next.

If you start at the park’s main entrance--Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, just across the street from the Plaza Hotel--your first environment is the Children’s District, a stretch of green expanses, occasionally peppered with glacier-scraped boulders, that reaches north to 65th Street. The district, the most densely developed in the park, includes a pond, a zoo, a skating rink, a carousel, a hilltop shelter for chess and checkers players, and an old dairy building that was converted from idleness into the Park Information Center in 1979.

The zoo, which has seen many ragged days, now looks good. A $35-million renovation was completed in 1988, and the New York Zoological Society has taken the facility over from the city, relabeling it “a wildlife conservation center.” Admission for adults is $2.50, but peer over the fence and you can still peek at a sea lion for free.

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The carousel, where Holden Caulfield watched his sister Phoebe in J.D. Salinger’s novel “Catcher in the Rye,” wheezes merry tunes and spins children for 90 cents a ride.

The Chess and Checkers House fills on weekends, and on most days accommodates notable characters. On a Thursday morning, I found a lone man, rumpled and frowning, before him a chess column torn from the newspaper and a full complement of pieces on a green and white board.

“Just goin’ through the drill,” he said, and resumed frowning.

The hotels along Central Park South are still glitzy, pricey and celebrity-rich. We were retreating to our room at the Helmsley Park Lane one afternoon to find, amid a thick-trunked forest of vigilant associates, the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton strategizing on the lobby couch. When I looked in at the Plaza, the staff was making ready for an afternoon press conference at which Woody Allen would insist that he is not a bad person.

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But plenty has changed on Central Park South. At Rumpelmayer’s, where countless middle-aged New Yorkers remember being treated to ice cream in their youth, dreariness hangs in the air, the food is unremarkable, and at least one waiter isn’t certain what the words whole milk mean.

At the Plaza Hotel, about four decades ago, Judy Garland used to consign her daughter, Liza Minelli, to the care of a nanny, who in turn would ask Plaza Hotel doorman Joseph Szorentini to keep an eye on roller-skating Liza across the street. Now, Szorentini told me, eyeing the park entrance from his sidewalk post of 46 years, “I wouldn’t take the responsibility.” When guests ask advice on exploring the park now, Szorentini plays it safe; he tells them to take a carriage ride, and warns that “above 72nd Street, you’re taking your chances.”

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What kind of chances, exactly? That’s the central question of Central Park, and of course there’s no answer. But consider this: Police figures show that the Central Park Precinct is the site of fewer reported crimes than any other precinct in New York City.

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An estimated 15 million people use the park each year. In 1992, the park’s roughly 150 uniformed officers logged reports of one homicide, four forcible rapes and 158 robberies. Police say the figure for reported robberies is one-fifth of what it was a decade ago, when the park police force was half the size it is now.

By comparison, the 19th Precinct, which includes the posh residences and shops of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, last year counted seven homicides, 31 forcible rapes and 1,500 robberies.

My wife and I wandered the park over four days, from early morning to late afternoon, north and south. We strolled as a twosome and separately. I turned down half a dozen whispered offers of marijuana, and saw about a dozen men and a few women who looked as if they’d slept under the trees. In daylight, I passed through the Ramble--known as a nighttime meeting place for lone gay men, and hence a place of opportunity for muggers--and felt no menace. Under advice from park employees, we did avoid another area with a similar reputation: The Blockhouse, near West 110th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.

We didn’t go in after dark. Those who do, authorities say, should travel with company, on lit paths, with a destination in mind. (Hundreds of New Yorkers do that nightly in fall and winter to skate in Wollman Rink.) Though the park officially opens at dawn and closes to pedestrians at 1 a.m., police don’t throw the homeless out, and even on cold autumn nights, it’s a fair bet that several dozen people are sleeping in the park.

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At any rate, we haven’t even come near 72nd Street yet. Heading north from the Children’s District, you find bowling greens, where lawn bowlers materialize like natty ghosts in their whites every Sunday; and the 22-acre green plain of the Sheep Meadow, where all radios and tape players are banned.

Most of the park’s six-dozen horse-drawn carriages seem to spend their time clopping on the roads that run here. We took one--$34 for a 20- to 25-minute ride--and while the foliage and monuments slipped past and we settled onto a red blanket, our driver entertained us with tales of our horse’s previous professions. High-stakes racing in Australia. Dragging an Amish buggy in Pennsylvania. Fourteen years old now, and soon to be profiled in the New York Times . We were honored, and afterward, my wife was favored with the opportunity to feed A.J. a carrot.

Near the Sheep Meadow lie the volleyball courts and the tumult of the roller-bladers’ oval--the park’s raw energy vortex. Beyond to the north stretches the promenade and leafy ceiling of the Literary Walk, better known among New Yorkers as the Mall.

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“This is the only straight line in Central Park,” said Miller, the park historian, leading us through and noting the gently curving paths placed everywhere else by Olmsted and Vaux.

Bronzes of Shakespeare and other poets stand at one end of the Mall. At the other lies one of the park’s greatest current blights: The Bandshell, which park officials until recently hoped to tear down. A citizens’ group went to court to block that effort and now, until money is found to renovate the shell, it stands crumbling behind a chain-link fence. Each time I passed it, it was in use as a backstop for stickball games. In a city of 7.3 million densely packed people, no park resource is wasted.

Jog west and a little south from the Bandshell, and you’ll come upon the bright lights and shiny surfaces of Tavern on the Green. It’s an expensive restaurant now, the inside filled with flowers and chandeliers, the outside draped with lanterns. But sheep once slept here, and there’s no telling what might now be there had not a third crucial figure risen to redirect park history after Olmsted and Vaux were gone.

Robert Moses, commissioner of New York City’s parks from 1934 to 1960 and arguably the most powerful man in Manhattan during that time, inherited a derelict and dangerous Central Park. Growing ferociously, the city had spent its money elsewhere during the early years of this century, and then been impoverished by the stock market crash of 1929. Robert Moses’ biographer, Robert A. Caro, writes that by 1932, “nine of every 10 trees on the Mall were dead or dying.” The zoo, Caro writes, amounted to a largely random collection of animals in 22 crumbling wooden pens, and packs of rats “so bold that they were stealing food from the lions’ feeding pans.”

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By the end of Moses’ first year, he had harnessed federal New Deal money, converted the sheepfold into Tavern on the Green and renovated the zoo. Over the next few years, he added 20 playgrounds around the park’s edges--a departure from the Olmsted and Vaux ideal of the park as a place for “passive” recreation, but a move celebrated daily by New York parents.

“For some reason, kids love to climb on this,” a bemused Kathy Hipple told me one day, as her 4-year-old daughter, Samantha, scrambled up the bronze Alice in Wonderland sculpture near Conservatory Water.

Not far from Alice in Wonderland lies the Lake, where a Venetian gondola reposes low and long in the water, where visitors can rent rowboats, and where the Boathouse Cafe offers waterfront seats and the best food I found in the park. (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan dined here in “When Harry Met Sally . . . ")

From the Boathouse Cafe, diners can see Bethesda Terrace across the water, a Moorish formal fountain area often used for charity parties. When the space is open and the sun is shining, dog owners congregate there to pitch sticks and watch their companions retrieve them from the shallow waters of the lake. In the shade beneath the terrace arches, homeless people sometimes lay out their bedrolls; I saw one dreadlocked man slumbering directly beneath the beatific face of a frescoed maiden. But on weekends, the terrace is busy with storytellers entertaining children, and all manner of improvised entertainment: turtle races (“Every one a champion, every one a thoroughbred,” barked their keeper, with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blaring from his boombox); shiatsu masseurs pounding patients on portable tables; a quartet of puppeteers with birds on their hands beak-syncing to gospel music. “The Legendary Crowations,” said the sign.

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Alongside those various occupations, the terrace is in almost constant use by makers of commercials. (It’s not by accident that Central Park continues to show up in so many commercials and movies; though crews must get permits, the city often charges no fee for filming or commercial photography, a vast difference from many sites in Los Angeles and elsewhere.)

To cross the lake and keep heading north, use Bow Bridge--but pause in mid-span and enjoy the view. This might be my favorite spot in the park. To one side of the cast-iron structure, couples glide past in rowboats rented from the Loeb Boathouse; to the other, there is more of the lake, a line of deciduous trees, and the skyline of the Upper West Side, including the graceful facade of the Dakota apartment building, John Lennon’s last address.

Across the street from the Dakota at 72nd Street, beneath the deciduous trees, lie the three acres of Strawberry Fields--my wife’s favorite corner of the park. Conceived by Yoko Ono as an “international garden of peace,” the area includes more than 160 plant species, a black and white walkway mosaic and the word “Imagine.” Ono contributed funds to cover its maintenance, and a cross-section of locals and international tourists is often seated at the triangle of benches surrounding the mosaic. While I was crouching over the tiny tiles with my camera, my wife watched an old man lay out snacks for the squirrels and gradually coax them onto his shoe and then into his lap.

The Srawberry Fields project was undertaken soon after Lennon’s assassination in 1980, a time when the park lay in perhaps its worst shape ever. Money for maintenance dried up during the city’s financial crisis of the 1970s, and by 1979, park officials acknowledge, the Sheep Meadow had become “a dust bowl,” beer cans filled the Pond, and the full-time staff of Central Park gardeners had dwindled to two. Now there are more than 40.

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The group that brought the park back, and has fundamentally changed the way the place operates, is the Central Park Conservancy. It was born in December, 1980, as a private, nonprofit entity that would raise money, set priorities and collaborate with city officials, and has grown to employ half of the park’s 230 workers. Led by president Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the conservancy has erased graffiti, reseeded dead lawns, added lampposts and emergency call boxes, preserved and renovated various historic structures. It also has made the park into one of the city’s most fashionable philanthropies.

As a result, the conservancy now spends at least as much on Central Park each year as does the cutback-prone City of New York. (The annual park operating budget is about $10 million a year; besides covering half of that amount, the conservancy underwrites various renovation projects.) This financial arrangement is terrific, compared to the alternative of letting things rot. But some worry that it gives big donors too loud a voice in park affairs. And with the city role so small, a private-donor drought now could doom the park to a new era of deterioration.

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I was standing on Bow Bridge, wasn’t I? Looking out at the trees and the Upper West Side?

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Continue north through the Ramble now, past the Delacorte Theater, where the free summer productions of Shakespeare and others are staged.

From 80th to 85th streets stretches the Great Lawn, where Simon and Garfunkel and Diana Ross held massive concerts in the early 1980s, and where Paul Simon returned last year.

That puts us at the Reservoir, closer to the torpor of Harlem than the glitz of the Plaza Hotel, and quite near to the heart of the challenge faced by Central Park’s current stewards.

Near the Reservoir’s much-used running track, a female 28-year-old investment banker was ambushed and gang-raped by “wilding” youths in April, 1989, and the national image of Central Park as a haven for criminals was incarnated again. Making the northern end of Central Park safer, park officials decided, means not only policing it carefully but making it attractive enough to bring crowds back.

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“The more people you have, the less crime there is,” says NYPD Lt. Richard Messemer, who has worked in the park since 1981.

Park officials were already at work on improvement projects in the northern portion of the park, but the jogger case accelerated them. Four years later, although the northern end of the park is still the last place many New Yorkers would think of visiting, additions and renovations are in evidence throughout its reaches.

At 97th and 108th streets, there are new playgrounds. The North Meadow Recreation Center has been restored and expanded to include after-school programs and basketball clinics sponsored by the National Basketball Assn. Farther north, there is the newly completed Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, an environmentally oriented educational project; and the Ravine, a rock-strewn passage with wooden bridges and a 14-foot waterfall that until recently was clogged with seven feet of mud.

At 106th Street, the park’s Conservatory Garden was restored six years ago, and a staff of curators and gardeners continue to refine a seasonally rotating six-acre display of flora and statuary. It’s the most formal garden in the park, a popular site for weddings, and one of the conservancy’s great hopes for drawing more people north.

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Finally, hard by the park’s northern edge at 110th Street, the Harlem Meer lies in rugged contrast to the nearby formal garden. The Meer is an 11-acre lake, the second-largest in the park, and a massive re-landscaping and upgrading was completed there last week. The water is ringed by a thick growth of trees and bushes, and circling the Meer on a footpath, we saw our first really red leaves of the season.

A week later, after my wife and I had left town, the season’s first cold spell hit the city, and overnight lows fell beneath 50 degrees. Those leafy shades of red, I imagine, will be deepening from now through early November at 59th Street, at 72nd, at 85th, beneath the wheels of the roller-bladers and bicyclists, high in the branches of the maples, elms and oaks, on all sides of the birders and boaters, the runners and the ducks, not forgetting the Legendary Crowations. It’s just as well Georges Seurat isn’t around to see it, really. Who wants to be upstaged by 50,000 amateurs?

GUIDEBOOK

Parking in Central Park

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Getting there: United, American, Continental, TWA and Delta fly nonstop from LAX to New York, and many others fly direct. Cheapest fares are offered by USAir, charging $388 round trip for restricted coach fares on some flights; most others begin at $418.

Where to stay: Lured by the idea of a room for two on the park for $129 a night, we booked at the St. Moritz on the Park (50 Central Park South; tel. 800-221-4774 or 212-755-5800)--a mistake. Slow, overcrowded elevators. A whiff of mildew in the halls, mediocre service. We moved to the Helmsley Park Lane.

The Helmsley Park Lane Hotel (36 Central Park South; tel. 800-221-4982 or 212-888-1624) tries a little too hard to look luxurious, but has large, clean rooms and responsive service, and a second-floor dining room with fine park views. Standard rates run $215-$285 for double rooms, but weekend specials start at $164.

The Plaza (768 Fifth Ave.; tel. 800- 228-3000 or 212-759-3000), probably the most famous of park-adjacent hotels, has grandeur and attitude. Standard rates: $205-$315 for double rooms. Reduced rates sometimes available.

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The Excelsior Hotel (45 West 81st St.; tel. 212-362-9200), one block off the park on the Upper West Side, offers simple accommodations in a popular neighborhood. Reserve ahead. Double rooms run $75; two-room suites with kitchenette run $99 and up.

Where to eat in (or near) the park: The Boathouse (in Central Park, near 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue; tel. 212-988-0575). Overlooks lake. Contemporary Northern Italian cuisine. Lunch prices run from $5 for soup to $19 for grilled swordfish. Dinner entrees: $11-$23.

Cafe des Artistes (One West 67th St.; tel. 212-877-3500) offers understated, sophisticated setting amid fresco nudes; dinner main courses $20-$32. Tie and jacket required for dinner. Brunches are popular and less formal.

Les Celebrites (in the Essex House Hotel, 160 Central Park South; tel. 212-484-5113), since opening in September, 1991, has become one of the city’s most highly regarded new restaurants--and one of the most expensive. Excellent service, strange celebrity art (James Dean, Billy Dee Williams, Phyllis Diller and so on) on the walls. Dinner entrees: $28-$42.

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Park tours: The Central Park Conservancy and Gray Line Tours jointly offer 90-minute tours by trolley that depart Grand Army Plaza, at East 60th Street and Fifth Avenue, at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. every weekday, April through October. Tickets run $14 for adults, $7 for children under 11. Reservations recommended. Information recording: (212) 360-2727. Reservations: (212) 397-3809.

For more information: Contact the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau (2 Columbus Circle; tel. 212-397-8222) or the Central Park Conservancy (The Arsenal, 830 Fifth Ave.; tel. 212-315-0385).

Autumn Events

A sampling of free, upcoming fall events in Central Park:

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* Saturday, Oct. 30: The Haunted Halloween Tour. Children and their families gather at Belvedere Castle at 3 p.m., then venture into the woods of the Ramble, where costumed “ghosts” conjure up spirits of years past. No reservations needed.

* Sunday, Oct. 31: The Great Pumpkin Sail. Families bring carved jack-o-lanterns to 100th Street and Central Park West at 4:30 p.m., then walk to the 103rd Street Pool. There, candles are lit and put into pumpkins, which are placed in small boats and set floating in the lake. Storytelling to follow. Pumpkins are non-returnable, and advance registration is required; call (212) 348-4867.

* Sunday, Nov. 7: Walking Tour. Tours are a daily feature of the park, and several are offered most weekends. But this four-hour exploration will be the first led by Sara Cedar Miller, official historian and photographer of Central Park. Bring lunch and meet at 59th Street and 6th Avenue (or, if it’s raining, in the Dairy building).

* Sunday, Nov. 14: The New York City Marathon finishes at Tavern on the Green. Race information: (212) 860-4455.

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* Thursday, Nov. 25: Thanksgiving Day Parade. Procession begins at Central Park West and 77th Street, and travels south along the park’s edge for 18 blocks before continuing down Broadway.


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