When I was ten years old I got lost in Central Park. I was there with my parents at a food festival and we got separated. I don’t remember being panicked or frightened, though I probably was. Instead of finding a nice police officer, a group of hippies found me and brought me to their apartment near the park on New York’s then somewhat seedy upper west side. I remember that they pointed out the Dakota, telling me that this was where the movie “Rosemary’s Baby” was filmed. I remember their apartment to be huge, dimly lit but for a few black lights and that there was a large hookah on the coffee table in the middle of the room. When I couldn’t remember my grandmother’s phone number or where my Manhattan cousins lived they took me back to the park where we ran into my parents before they could drop me off at the cop shop.
This experience did not affect me in any way except that it was then I decided I wanted to be a hippy when I grew up.
As a teenager and young adult my experiences with the park was limited to the musical events that took place there every summer. I enjoyed seeing Blondie, Nick Lowe and Peter Tosh at Wolmans Skating Rink located near the south-east entrance to the park. In 1980 I was one of one million people on Sheep Meadow to see Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reunite after a separation of more than ten years.
Living downtown “my” park was usually Washington Square Park. I rarely visited Central Park in those years.
After I moved to California my Aunt moved into an apartment on Central Park South. I’d spend time on her fourth floor balcony looking out at the park, watching the seasons change. When she moved to the East Side I found myself missing that, missing the park in general. Wanting to reconnect, I decided on a bright and warm spring afternoon to take a walk in the park.
Central Park was the first public park ever built in America. In 1853 the New York State Legislature designated a 700 acre parcel from 59th Street to 106th Street at a cost of $5 million for the land alone.
In 1857 the newly formed Central Park Commission held a landscape design contest. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux developed the winning design. Land and design in place, it was time to start converting this untamed acreage into a beautifully landscaped park, enacting the visions of Olmstead and Vaux. There was only one pesky thing in the way – desolate as it was at the time, people were living there. The inhabitants were poor, mostly freed African slaves and Irish immigrants. Under the rule of eminent domain these 1600 residents were unceremoniously and in the case of Seneca village, violently, removed from the premises.
The work on the park continued through the Civil War and was completed in 1873. Soon thereafter unfortunately the park slipped into decline. By the turn of the century Manhattan’s citizens were no longer wanting to just take a walk in the park and look at pretty flowers. They wanted recreational activities, they wanted playing fields. The commission was dissolved in 1870. Calvert Vaux died in 1895. Maintenance efforts dwindled and eventually disappeared with few if any attempts to maintain the great lawns or care for the magnificent plants placed with great care and purpose by Vaux and Olmstead. For several decades authorities did little to nothing to prevent vandalism and littering.
In 1934 the park saw the first of many Central Park renaissances. Newly elected Mayor Fiorello LaGurardia unified the city’s parks department and appointed Robert Moses to rejuvenate Central Park. Moses did just that, undertaking major landscape renovations that included filling in the obsolete Croton Reservoir to create the Great Lawn as well as putting in nineteen playgrounds and twelve ball fields. Funds came from the New Deal as well as from public donations.
From that point forward Central Park would slip into disrepair and disrepute and alternately be pulled out of the trash and brightened up. Today it is under the stewardship of the Central Park Conservancy who for decades has rallied for major improvements to the park, its statues and arches, its gardens and its safety.
Deciding to enter the park at West 72nd Street I hopped on the Seventh Avenue line and got out at the iconic station there. As I ascended the steps into the bright sunlight I was surrounded by the somewhat quiet and tree-lined street, its brownstones and grand pre-war apartment building looming above my head. This was today’s upper west side, polished up and marked up since the day I strolled the same street with my new hippy guardians.
Where were you when you found out John Lennon was shot? I was in my dorm room at SUNY Stonybrook, the football game on mute, talking with my boyfriend who had the sound up on the game. He heard the announcement first, blurting it out almost at the same time the game announcer was – yes, interrupting the commentary on a football game to announce to all those listening and watching that a voice of our generation had been shot dead by a fan cum lunatic.
John Lennon was assassinated at the entry way to the building he’d called home since 1973; The Dakota. I paused for a few moments at that entry way, over thirty years after he stood right there signing an autograph for Mark David Chapman. My memory shifted as I looked up at the 124 year old German Gothic building to that time that it was pointed out to me as the location for Roman Polanski’s creepy movie Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski had in fact only shot the exteriors for the movie. The building was a perfect fit as the possible apartment house where all those devil worshippers lived and took advantage of young waifs such as Mia Farrow’s Rosemary.
Its address is One West 72nd Second Street and was built between 1881-1884. The exclusive building looks huge but houses only 65 apartments – well, must mean those apartments are huge and each different from the other. It was built at a time where this part of the city was desolate and rural, built to attract Manhattan’s wealthy and influential to points North of midtown. As the “residences” always have been owned by their occupants, it very well is the first cooperative apartment building in the city. Aside from John Lennon those occupants/owners have included Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Judy Garland, William Inge, Boris Karloff and Gilda Radner.
I crossed Central Park West and entered the park and almost immediately found myself at Strawberry Fields.
Strawberry Fields is a 2.5 acre memorial to John Lennon. In 1981 city council member Henry Stern dedicated the area between 71st Street and 74th Street as “Strawberry Fields”, named for the popular Beatles song. It was landscaped by the Central Park Conservancy and with a $1 million donation from Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono. The mosaic, situated smack in the middle of the area and surrounded by benches and greenery was designed by a team of artists from Naples Italy. It was officially opened on October 9, 1985; the day John Lennon would have celebrated his 45th birthday.
I was somewhat taken aback by the sheer number of people milling about. There was not a seat to be had and barely an opportunity to snap a photo of the Imagine Mosaic without someone sitting in the middle and flashing a “peace sign”. Despite the number of people though the designated “Quiet Zone” was respected. The only sound above a whisper that I heard was the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar being delivered soulfully by a middle-aged man seated on one of the benches.
I continued my walk along Terrace Drive south then east. I passed statues of Daniel Webster and one called “The Falconer”. I stopped and enjoyed the views of the lake, home to lazy boaters and even lazier ducks. Soon I was at what has been known as the “heart of Central Park”.
In their original plan Olmstead & Vaux envisioned a sweeping promenade leading to a terrace overlooking the lake. Construction of Bethesda Terrace began in 1859 and was completed in 1863 and is one of the park’s main formal architectural features. The upper and lower terraces are connected by two grand staircases who’s carvings depict the change of seasons, the times of the day and the birds that can be seen in the area.
Sitting out in the middle of the lake is one of the park’s most recognizable features – Bethesda Fountain. The largest fountain in New York it stands twenty-six feet high and ninety-six feet wide. The statue was commissioned as part of Olmtead & Vaux’s original design and commemorates the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842. It was designed by Emma Stubbins in 1868 and was dedicated in 1873.
The original purpose for this area of the park was a social one. This is where the elite could have their parties, folks could gather by the lake. Under the terrace sits the Bethesda Arcade, replete with frescos and beautifully tiled ceilings.
As with the park in general, Bethesda Terrace slipped into decline. By the 1970’s it had become a mecca for drug deals – keeping with the original intent of the designers as a social gathering spot, but in a much darker way. It was happily restored in the early 1980’s by the Central Park Conservancy.
While enjoying the vibe of the terrace, the lake and the fountain I heard music, quite clearly in fact. I knew it could not be coming from the bandshell – that was cordoned off as a staging area for the following day’s AIDS Walk. I followed the gospel tune, ending up in the arcade below the terrace. There was a young women, playing a guitar and singing, her voice pinging perfectly off the magnificent ceiling tiles and wonderfully weathered frescos. I was transported momentarily to the times of Olmstead and Vaux, finding myself at a Victorian party, swirling dancers around me while the last light of the day bled through the archways.
Veering north off of Terrace Drive and onto East Drive I stopped for a few moments at the dock by the Loeb Boathouse. In 1874 Calvert Vaux designed a formal building for boat docking and storage. The original building fell into disrepair by 1950 and was torn down. Today’s Boathouse – a restaurant and the go to spot in the park to rent row boats or gondolas – was rebuilt in 1954 with financing by Carl Loeb.
That same year the Kerbs Boathouse was built by the Conservatory Water which houses an impressive collection of model boats. The original park plan called for a formal flower garden and large glass house for tropical plants. An ornamental pond was constructed as a reflecting pool for the conservatory but when plans for the building were abandoned the pond became a popular spot to run and race model boats, inspired by those found in Parisian Parks.
Just north of the conservatory water is one of my favorite spots in the park, the Alice in Wonderland Statue. The statue was commissioned in 1959 by Guy Delacorte as a gift to New York City’s children. It was created by Jose de Creeft and stands eleven feet tall.
The statue was designed for children to climb on and wander within. Alice’s arms are smoothed out in spots from a half-century of children gripping them for balance. On this day there were swarms of kids all over the statue, parent giddily snapping photos as they posed with Alice and her cohorts. It was equally difficult to get a clean shot of the bronze beauty as it was the IMAGINE mosaic. I so badly wanted to sit on the mushroom at Alice’s lap but was not about to fight off small children for the privilege. I had to be satisfied with the memory of doing this long ago when I was a child.
As is the case with so many other places I’ve been I left Central Park that spring day wanting more. My visit there has inspired me to return to explore other areas, places in that park where I’ve never been – and there’s quite a few. Look out North End. I’m a comin’.