Give Me Your Birders, Your Paddlers, Your Huddled Masses. . .
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Outside magazine, September 1994
Give Me Your Birders, Your Paddlers, Your Huddled Masses. . .
Ad libitum through Central Park, America’s wildest experiment in democracy
It’s a perfect fall day in New York City: 60 degrees, the spires above Central Park West bathed in aquamarine, hundreds of people gathered near Bethesda Fountain or passing through its esplanade. A man in tailcoat and spats is telling stories by the Lake. Children sit on the grass as he paces and gestures. What he’s saying is unintelligible from this distance, but a sign, GHOST
Which is omnipresent. A classical guitarist plucks New Age riffs as an accomplice hawks cassettes. A fusion band, New Hype Jazz, plays as its leader, a Latino trumpeter in beret and motorcycle jacket (a hockey mask capping its right shoulder) passes a bowl for contributions. The music is infectious; an aging hipster in zoot suit and stingy brim starts to rhumba. Above the
A few yards away, under an overhanging branch, a largemouth bass swirls at the Lake’s surface. I spot it and cast a black surface popper, jigging it lightly across the water. I’ve been fishing for half an hour and, except for two small bluegills, have caught nothing. The Lake is rich in aquatic life, and it is not unheard-of for anglers to take six- to eight-pound bass here. I
As my rod bows, I hear a father say, “Look, Josh, the man’s fishing.” Guitar music pauses. I fight the bass to shoreline, where a small crowd of children is gathering. I palm the fish–12 inches–before releasing it, and turn to see some 20 people watching.
The reflexologists seem annoyed, as does the storyteller; I’ve diverted their customers. I strip out line and cast deliberately so that the children might watch, as curses from musicians and accupuncturists fill the air.
What Central Park is for, and to whom it belongs, are questions that have been argued since New York City’s Greensward Plan, developed by city planners and landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was effected in 1858. This was America’s first landscaped public park–and its first democratic one, an archetype for all that have followed. It was conceived at a
Today, Central Park is synonymous with what’s best and worst about urban life. It’s where Woody Allen cavorted with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and where the celebrated Jogger was raped and nearly murdered in 1989. It’s where Paul Simon played to 750,000 fans in 1991, and where Jennifer Levin was strangled in 1986’s Preppy Murder. It’s where the
Through popular art, Central Park has been laminated onto our psyches. It’s where Stuart Little raced his boat on Conservatory Water, where Holden Caulfield fretted about ducks wintering on the Pond, where The Fisher King’s Robin Williams urged Jeff Bridges to disrobe and “give the little guy some air,” and where Jack Nicholson howled at the moon
Theatricality–of the type that Lillian Russell displayed by riding through Central Park on a gold-plated bicycle with jewel-encrusted spokes–has always conflicted with, and even threatened to overshadow, the park’s natural subtleties. In summer they’re cloaked by the greenery of 26,000 trees, which help make the park, lying as it does on the Atlantic and Hudson flyways, prime
Most birding territories are in the park’s secluded regions: the North Woods, the four-acre Hallett Nature Sanctuary near 59th Street, the 36-acre Ramble at park center. Their winding paths and verdancy cloak what Captain Bill Bayer of the New York Police Department’s Central Park Precinct calls “predators”: the five to 35 muggers, dozen rapists, and two murderers who in an
My uncle William Nichols–a writer and producer of network television shows and a devotee of theatricality–was already celebrated when, while birding in the Ramble one day in 1963, he was attacked by several youths who robbed, beat, and left him for dead. His friend James Schuyler described the incident in a poem, “Dining Out with Doug and Frank”:
My abstention from the Park
My dalliances in Central Park are invariably colored by my uncle’s experience. Part of me is wary; another, incautious to the point of danger–it’s a call of the wild. So on an evening in July, shortly after moving to an apartment near the park, I’m both startled and pleased to encounter a young African-American man spin-casting in the algae-covered Lake, off the Ramble. I’ve
The Meer was drained for renovation two years ago as part of Central Park’s ongoing restoration, inaugurated in 1980; when it was refilled, it was stocked with 50,000 bass, bluegill, minnow, and catfish fingerlings. In September I bicycle north to find dozens of black and Latino anglers working its banks. Some own tackle, even fly rods, but most use bamboo poles with bobbers
In 1856, the 843 acres that Central Park would encompass had been settled largely by minorities: “poor Irish, German and black families,” according to Ron Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s superb book The Park and the People, “who raised vegetables and tended hogs.” Although records show that some park residents, including African-Americans,
Today, Central Park administrator Betsy Barlow Rogers calls restoration of the park’s northeastern corner–long a wasteland to its African-American and Latino neighbors–her “most thrilling” success. “When we opened Dana and the Meer last fall,” she says, “I was feeling all that delight. ‘You gave us back the park,’ residents said. They remembered when it was nice, then how it
Rogers, the park’s 57-year-old chief renovator and foremost spokesperson, was appointed administrator in 1979 after four years as executive director of the Central Park Task Force, a citizen group, and ten years with the Parks Council, another group concerned with preserving all of the city’s parks, before that. One of her three books, The Forest and
One of Rogers’s most important roles–and one of her greatest strengths–is as a go-between for the New York Parks and Recreation Department and the Central Park Conservancy, a private fund-raising group. Coordinating gifts from the vastly rich denizens of Fifth Avenue, Central Park West, Central Park South, and neighboring locations, as well as from foundations and
Such collaboration has become a panacea to urban park distress worldwide. “If parks are going to be truly great,” says Stern, “there has to be some kind of partnership, with the city providing basic maintenance, and the frills and the special things that make them great being paid for privately. You can’t have a series of royal gardens paid for by tax funds.”
“They’re all in trouble now,” laments Rogers of the urban parks she’s in touch with in Japan, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and France. “We had such vision when we built these great park systems in the nineteenth century. Now both a psychic and financial disinvestment in public space is going on. Some of us are optimists. We believe that there is an essential good in public spaces,
Much of Central Park’s democratic appeal is anchored to its fundamental accessibility as place. Except for the rivers, it’s the only sizable expanse where Manhattanites may embrace the natural world. New immigrants are especially drawn to Central Park, some fishing, some hunting crayfish in the Meer, some picking ginkgo nuts or mulberries, some scouring the understory for
On its northeastern side I spot Ikumori, plastered to the face in khaki pants and pink drover’s shirt, his only concession to gear a pair of chartreuse-laced climbing shoes. In his forties, he’s lean, with powerful arms and back, a warrior’s face, shoulder-length hair, and samurai mustache. He’s coaching a young climber, leaving chalk prints on the schist as he fingers the way,
Ikumori takes a break to introduce himself. A native Japanese who’s lived in New York for ten years, he’s a visual artist who sleeps and works in the storeroom of an East Village restaurant in exchange for odd jobs and gardening. He spends much of his time painting, but otherwise lives to creep up the face of Manhattan bedrock. He’s been climbing six years (“In clear weather
So great is the Manhattanite’s hunger for nature that “Wildman” Steve Brill, since his arrest for picking and eating a dandelion here in 1986, has led more than 18,000 people on his Edible Tours of Central Park. (His book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, was published last spring.) Meanwhile,
Sources of sanity are at a premium in New York, of course, and I join the late-fall visitors hurrying to Central Park’s woods. On a brisk December day the park’s woodlands manager, Dennis Burton, accompanies me on a tour of the restored 90-acre North Woods. He’s a fortyish fellow in a backpacker’s parka and boots, with frizzy brown hair that this afternoon is flecked with
We stand a quarter-mile from Harlem, but this section of park could not feel more remote. In Olmsted’s plan, its modest forest was left unimproved, suggesting the Adirondacks. It had been trampled by British and Hessian troops during the Revolutionary War and largely denuded by American forces during the War of 1812. Villages were cropping up when Olmsted acquired the land in
I follow Burton south through Huddlestone Arch, a gravity bridge and tunnel made from elephantine blocks of Manhattan schist. “The idea was that you would walk from that open vista into this,” Burton says, indicating the forest. “It’s kind of like the magic gate.” We emerge at the Ravine and walk past a restored waterfall, the Cascade, to Manhattan’s last surviving streambed,
Burton pauses above a marsh crowded with asters and fallen willows. “We’re starting to lose them,” he says evenly, “but you can see the canopy has opened up. That’s become one of our best bird habitats. On any given weekend, we’ll find a line of birders on this path, looking in with their binoculars and spotting all kinds of stuff.”
He gestures toward the trees. “What we’re doing here is making kind of a model of the northeast deciduous forest–an oak, hickory, chestnut, tulip forest. That’s what was here when the Europeans first discovered it.” He walks on, pausing to toe a hillock. “We started replanting and restabilizing these slopes,” he says. “We’ve used only native vegetation so far, mountain laurel
But Burton hasn’t waited. “Because we’re on an island, the best we can really hope to return naturally would be winged animals–birds, butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, that sort of thing,” he says. “So we’re introducing some amphibians and reptiles. The problem is that a lot of kids use the area, so turtles are difficult to bring in here because they’re captured. Snakes pretty
Just as in the public lands of the West, restoration in Central Park has come up against the conflicting values of multiple user groups. “There were so many constituencies that were concerned about what kinds of projects we were going to do–what we were going to put in here, what we were going to cut–that at first we didn’t do anything,” says Burton. Birdwatchers, for
“Most urban parks are going through a similar evaluation of the issues of landscape management–how they’re going to protect natural areas,” says Sauer. “We’re reviewing the final draft of a master plan for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. We also did a master plan for Manhattan’s Inwood Park, and we just completed one for the whole Olmsted park system in Louisville, Kentucky. But
After examining Glen Span Arch, a restored portal at the Ravine’s western entrance, Burton and I backtrack to a small meadow below the 102d Street Cross Drive. “We’re slowly trying to establish this as a native grass and wildflower meadow,” he says, “but it’s slow because right now it’s mostly inhabited by lawn grasses and that sort of thing.” He grins. “So I got myself a
Such pastoral delights are a direct link to Central Park’s nineteenth-century origins, when sheep grazed the Meadow and barouche carriage rides were the entertainment of choice. But professional outrageousness and native theatricality have always chipped at the park’s gentility. From the start, working people preferred less-fettered commercial parks, such as Jones Wood or
Olmsted and Vaux included several small playgrounds and a parade field in their Greensward Plan. But as the city grew northward, Boss Tweed paid off political debts with porkbarrel construction projects in the park, and in the 1930s parks commissioner Robert Moses reshaped it with countless new paths, buildings, and recreational and commercial facilities. Today’s 15 million
Yet it never seems enough. Conflict between recreational and romantic factions will again erupt when the fate of the recently decommissioned Central Park Reservoir is decided four years from now. Covering 110 acres, fully one-eighth of the park, it has for a century and a half quenched New York’s thirst while providing a staggering aquatic vista that’s home to waterfowl, huge
Others, such as former park curator Henry Hope Reed, would welcome a frank return to Olmsted’s intentions, if not his plan. Nearly 30 years ago, Reed was advising parks commissioner Thomas Hoving that “what makes the park is the landscape, the green lawns, leafy vistas, and mirrors of water,” not recreational features and events that would “desecrate one of the finest American
Equally outrageous, critics claim, are events such as last October’s “Woofstock,” its canine celebrants wearing tie-die, love beads, and bandannas on a march to benefit homeless animals. Beethoven served as Honorary Chairdog. Seventeen-hundred pet aficionados congregated to greet him and fellow celebrities Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Tama Janowitz, all dog
The Woofstockers moved past joggers, in-line skaters, bicyclists, a speed walker reading from a script, and an Asian wedding party being photographed. The bride and groom, immaculate in white silk, stood on steps leading below ground to the Bethesda Arcade. Beneath its arches, where Francis Ford Coppola shot party scenes for New York Stories, some
Betsy Rogers admits that homelessness is “a terrible social problem that we have” in the park. “One tries to deal with it compassionately,” she says. “We’ve spent millions of dollars restoring the Arcade. They aren’t harming anything, but it’s not nice to smell urine down there, and it’s not a scene that makes other park users happy. On the other hand, how far do you go, and to
That dilemma has been at the heart of the current restoration. In the temperate months, some 200 homeless people who sleep in the park are rousted mornings and ordered to move along. Rogers works with outreach groups to assist them and employs some as laborers for a project called Cash for Trash, but they won’t disappear. “What you don’t want is something like Tompkins Square
Yet she also admits that the newest recreational addition–Summer Stage, an iron-railed platform near 72d Street–is “my Frankenstein.” She started its program as a multiethnic venue for local artists but expanded it to include free concerts (Gil Scott-Heron and the New York Grand Opera last summer), plus benefit performances by Elvis Costello and the Neville Brothers. The
Among the outspoken discombobulated is Richard Karp, a writer who lives nearby. “The park wasn’t meant to be commercial, and it wasn’t meant to be ‘entertaining,'” he says. “You were supposed to entertain yourself.” Karp has lived by Central Park since 1974 and has enjoyed its rusticity for 30-odd years. Most recently, to escape the chaos of two young children in a small
At three o’clock one February morning, I awake and am denied further sleep. I can hear wind rattling lampposts outside; there’s little traffic. This has been Manhattan’s coldest winter in memory: two degrees below zero on January 19. A foot of ice-capped snow blankets Central Park, skiers and skaters zipping daily across its surface. I’ve had a rucksack packed, awaiting a thaw,
My intention has been to camp, but Dennis Burton has convinced me that the restored landscape is too fragile for that. Camping is, in fact, illegal in Central Park. Nevertheless I’ve packed a sleeping bag and air mattress; I’ll meditate.
It’s 12 degrees when I hit Fifth Avenue. Doormen yawn at the sight of a rucksacked pilgrim–they’re used to us. I enter the park at 72d Street, boots skidding down the walk to Conservatory Water, then digging into snow dusting its frozen surface. Crayfish sleep in this boat basin, a chilly nest. No human is abroad. The apartments above Fifth are Delphic on the horizon. I hump
I cut to land, tracking the Ramble’s walks past Olmsted’s rustic shelters, where more homeless camp, and through dark woods where no creature stirs. Here my uncle was attacked, but my only thought is of the landscape’s beauty, its boulders capped with snow, its trees gently waving. At Belvedere Castle–a turreted structure on a cliff overlooking Turtle Pond–I disturb one
Passing the 1870 stables–now police headquarters for the park–I cross 86th Street to the Reservoir’s cinder track, Manhattan’s finest running path. Ducks huddle in the Pump House lee. Standing before this vast space, framed by art deco towers to the east and the garishly lit skyscrapers of Midtown, is like viewing the Rockies at sunset. I cross North Meadow and the 102d
I half climb, half skid to the Ravine, where all is quiet. The Loch is frozen to invisibility, but remnants of footprints show me a path. I hike southwest to Glen Span Arch, backtrack to Huddlestone, and then move north through the forest to Blockhouse #1. There is no sound other than the wind rattling the tree limbs. Santeria is practiced here, and the carcasses of sacrificial
Backtracking again, I spook an owl, which rattles a branch and glides off eerily. Raccoons inhabit this forest, and though I detect scampering, no doubt they are nesting. Escaped parrots live here, too, and I recall a story that my uncle wrote for me about a canary named Henry who flees his cage to become lost in Central Park. I cross the Loch’s marsh and unsling my pack at
I lay my gear on ice, where no foliage will be harmed, and ease into my bag. A light snow is falling. I think of All Angels Church–its original structure razed to build the park–which runs an outreach program teaching homeless people to make their own sleepsacks. I ball my parka into a pillow and lie back to contemplate the sky.
I’m awakened by sunlight. It’s 7:30. The meadow is powdered with fresh snow. A squirrel scolds me from an overhanging branch, and rabbit tracks encircle my bag. Sparrows chatter, and as I sit up I catch a scarlet flash in the bushes–a cardinal. I scrunch back against a tree and study the brush. A bluejay dips, trailed by the russet whir of female cardinal. One week later, the
But now I sit alone with the forest, a magnificent respite. Forty-five minutes later I shoulder my gear and grudgingly rejoin the city.
Toby Thompson profiled poet-environmentalist Gary Snyder in the November 1993 issue.