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Saffron Spices Up a Cold Central Park

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Times Staff Writer

This city of black and shades of gray was swimming in saffron Saturday as Central Park, the great public arts project of the 19th century, came alive with the first great public art project of the 21st century. It’s called “The Gates.”

After 26 years of trying to convince New York to allow them to install the project, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, themselves New Yorkers, finally saw it happen. Hundreds of volunteers spent more than four hours unfurling saffron-colored panels from 7,532 gates on footpaths that snaked through 23 miles of the park.

The unfurling might have gone more quickly, but the grinning volunteers -- mostly groupies in gray parkas signed by the artists -- were continually being stopped to have their pictures taken.

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“I’ve been juiced up all week waiting for this to open,” said Myron Towels, who with his wife, Betty, had come down early from the Bronx to get pictures in morning light.

“Look at the ducks,” he beckoned Betty, pointing to white birds atop an ice floe in the Harlem Mears lake on the north end of the park. “Their beaks are orange too. Is that in keeping with Christo?”

Nearby, Olfunmibi Awoshiley, a Nigerian who has lived in Harlem for two dozen years, said he liked seeing all the white people there to view the gates -- even if they looked a little lost coming out of the subway in his neighborhood.

“Usually in winter this part of the park is deserted, but the gates are connecting us with the outside world,” said Awoshiley, who for weeks had observed vinyl-covered poles being brought into the park. As he was speaking, volunteers pulled off a piece of plastic -- a “cocoon” -- holding up the fabric panels. Awoshiley grabbed the plastic and wrapped it around himself, African style, and started applauding and cheering.

The biggest cheer, however, was savored by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who released the first panel about 8:30 Saturday morning. With the artists and a gaggle of schoolchildren at his side, the mayor turned toward a riser filled with reporters and instructed, “OK, everybody look at the camera.” Bloomberg couldn’t have looked more pleased with himself.

And why not?

Before he was elected, the artists, who have done dozens of temporary art projects all over the world -- such as wrapping Berlin’s Reichstag in silver material and erecting hundreds of yellow umbrellas along a 19-mile stretch of the Tejon Pass -- faced relentless opposition in New York, even though they would end up paying for all $21 million of it themselves. Opponents feared they would somehow injure a park considered the city’s public jewel.

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But it took the billionaire mayor, an acquaintance of Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, to face down the naysayers and make it happen.

And the opening Saturday was, by definition, quite a “happening.” Despite the cold and a bracing morning breeze, all variety of New Yorkers and tourists swarmed the park.

Two Columbia University sophomores, one from Maine, the other Detroit, spent the morning skipping under the gates, occasionally jumping up to swipe at the fabric panels, which ended seven feet above the ground. And as Naomi Liselle led her three children, ages 6, 9 and 12, to their favorite playground, she tried to engage them in the art of it all.

“Look up -- look at the symmetry of the poles. Look over the hill and see the orange sticking out among the gray trees. Listen to the flapping of the panels. Doesn’t it sound like the sails of our boat when we’re in the Hamptons?” asked the young mother, who studied art history in college. The children looked at her dully as they used the legs of the gates as makeshift soccer goals. “Mom,” said Marcus, the oldest, “what are you talking about?” She pulled his hat playfully over his eyes and added, “OK, OK, just take it in your own way, as long as you take it in.”

In fact, most people talked either gibberish or poetry Saturday as they tried to describe their reaction to this most unusual exhibit.

“It brings color to my gray state of mind in winter,” burbled Weldon Lee, as he made his way alone through a crowd on a hill with a particularly good view of the gates set against the Wollman Skating Rink at the south end of the park.

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In addition to the spontaneous gatherings on the ground, there were multiple celebrations in high-floor apartments surrounding the park. At one Fifth Avenue party, many guests arrived in saffron-colored cashmere blazers and sweaters. The color scheme was even reflected in the food -- platters of smoked salmon and glass bowls filled with dried mangoes.

“I don’t know whether [Frederick Law] Olmstead would have liked this great work of art in his great work of art, but as a Jeffersonian he would have approved,” said art critic and historian Irving Sandler, as he sipped champagne and gazed out at the park from a 10th-floor apartment on Fifth Avenue.

Sandler was referring to the man, who, along with Calvert Vaux, designed Central Park in 1858 with intentions to enable all the city’s people, not just the rich, to have a place to congregate. Sandler said that part of the power of this exhibit was that it was temporary -- it will be pulled down in 16 days. “Nobody would like it if it was still here in March,” he said.

Frankly, it was difficult to separate the boldness of the gates from the beauty of Olmstead’s original creation -- and their power in showing the contours of the park.

“I never realized all the different levels of this park, the hills, the steps, the way it undulates,” said Anja Grafe-Friedrich, a 34-year-old Munich architect who had come to New York for three days to see the exhibit.

She said that on her first day in New York, she thought the poles looked silly, like some lame project of a first-year architecture student: “But today the objects are alive, like a serpent occupying the space and with humans occupying the organism.”

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City officials hope thousands of non-New Yorkers like Grafe-Friedrich will come to see the gates and bring with them $80 million in tourist dollars.

“I don’t doubt it,” said Terry Merrell, who had come from San Diego with a group of friends. They’d already spent $500 on dinner Friday and had plans for several more outings over the weekend. “This is an event where everyone wins.”

Well, this is still New York, a city that boos its mayors whenever they walk into Yankee Stadium, a city where no good deed goes uncriticized. By midafternoon the complaints had begun.

“Why didn’t they bring snow too?” a jogger, who’d clearly been unable to finish her run because of the crowds, complained as she exited the park at 72nd Street.

Out of nowhere a man walking his dog chimed in. “Yeah, look back at the great view,” he snarled. “It looks they left their dirty laundry hanging!”

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