We've all seen pictures of joggers pounding the pavements, art deco apartment blocks towering above the green canopy, not to mention sugary moments in rom-com's with Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan set on the boating lake or in one of the white horsedrawn carriages. Central Park comes with a lot of baggage and it may be, thanks to the movies, the best known park in the world.
But what always takes me by surprise is the sheer size of the place. It stretches north from mid-town for over fifty blocks and is the size of a small European kingdom. There is still a ramshackle feel to the park, with great stretches covered in woodland or expansive meadows. It used to be a byword for urban crime and news stories would warn nervous travellers of crossing its dark expanses at night. But times have changed and, at least by day, the park is relatively safe. The only thing you have to worry about is the wearing out of shoe-leather and not being run over by one of the millions of joggers.
As city parks go, Central Park is a relatively newcomer being built in 1876. As New York expanded the city authorities bought up the open land north of 59th Street. The architects Vaux and Olmstead had a vision of countryside in the middle of Manhattan. And that is exactly what it is. The city is still omnipresent as those mega-desirable apartment blocks loom over everything reminding you that it is not far away, but the noise of traffic is reduced to a manageable hum. And all that green foliage does give the illusion of being in up-state New York rather then being in the middle of Gotham. But its primary function is to be a place to allow the residents to let off steam and exercise their lungs. It's a peoples park, and New York is probably unthinkable without this enormous Eden in the middle of the busy city.
To get there is easy. Along its length are over eight subway stations with the (A), (B), (C) and (D) lines passing along Central Park West and the green line stations of the Upper East Side within easy walking distance. But most approach from the south, either from Grand Army Plaza at the top of Fifth Avenue or Columbus Circle . This is the best place to enter. Eleven years ago on my first visit I was staying in a hostel on W88th Street and traversed Central Park on my first morning. I exited at 59th Street/Columbus circle and remember a tatty junction with screaming traffic and fluttering trash. Imagine my surprise to revisit it and find that it has all changed. Now it is a wide clean concourse overlooked by modern office blocks. The small plaza itself was awash with tourists, hotdog vendors and crowds watching break dancers. It was given class by a gushing fountain topped with a gilt statue and a general air of cleanliness.
I also picked one of the first sunny spring days to visit Central Park. The trees were laden with pink blossoms (see photo) and there was a general air of merriment and the blowing away of cobwebs after winter. I started my walk after a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on E82nd Street, and with increasingly aching feet, walked the two miles down to Columbus Circle. On the way, despite getting lost twice, I was able to lap up the atmosphere and festival air as the entire city descended on the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
In fact the park was bursting at the seams. I'm used to crowds living in London, but I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people using the park -- joggers sped past, families chattered, and huge dogs on small leads tripped over their owners. Not far from the Met is the Great Lawn. This is most impressive as it was decked out in baseball pitches and looked over by the mid-town skyline (see photo). Here kids not more then seven or eight played baseball cheered on by their parents. Mothers with push prams looked gamely on while others read books on nearby benches. Food vendors were nearby selling ice-cream, burgers and hotdogs and it was at this point that I got lost and accidentally retraced my footsteps and ended up at the Jacqueline Onassis reservoir.
The huge expanse of water is separated from the park by a wire fence but I was more interested in finding my way south. A jogging track stretches all the way to 59th Street but was so busy that lane discipline is introduced. To cross from one side to another you have to cross the river of skateboarders, joggers, and rollerblades. I missed the Bethseda fountain but stumbled onto the Leob Lake which was surrounded by hundreds of people. A guitarist was entertaining the sunbathers in a scene that looked like something from the sixties. I settled down and rested my feet under the shadow of the Dakota apartment block.
It is these art-deco apartment blocks that loom over Central Park which give it it's character. The word which came to mind was Stalinist as they soar over the park's vegetation with their statues, balconies and intricate decoration but are some of the most expensive real-estate in the world. But as I approached the end the most impressive sight was the 'sheep meadow' at the southern end. Hundreds and hundreds of people were enjoying picnics in the sunshine. They looked like an affluent refugee camp.
It is people who make parks. New Yorkers seem to get every last droplet of pleasure out of this verdant oasis. And if this is taken into consideration, Central Park may not only be the most famous, but thanks to the people, it may be the most appreciated in the world . . .