Every square inch of Central Park has been fixed with purpose
Last month, Central Park was described alphabetically till the letter M. Let’s continue.
NOCTURNES: Beethoven’s bust might dominate the Mall, but the Park’s greatest nocturnal orchestral inspiration was Charles Ives’s 1906-composed Central Park In The Dark, seven minutes of haunting echoes and unconscious references. Those were more innocent days.
Ogden Nash penned a (now thankfully out of date) vitriolic nocturne:
“If you should happen after dark
To find yourself in Central Park,
Ignore the paths that beckon you
And hurry, hurry to the zoo.
And creep into the tiger’s lair:
Frankly, you’ll be safer there.”
OLMSTED: Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), a fervent abolitionist and a “passionate amateur gardener” designed Central Park (and many other parks around the world) with his London-born partner Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) (rhymes, appropriately enough, with “hawks”).
Omsted’s concept was briefly summed when he wrote: “Every foot of its surface, every tree and bush, as well as every arch, roadway and walk has been fixed where it is with a purpose.” Incidentally, not a single bust or monument to Olmsted or Vaux is within their most noble creation.
PIGEONS: Less kindly New Yorkers not only call them “flying rats” but joke about poisoning them. To this writer, they are amiable, silly friends. (And, to paraphrase Thoreau on squirrels, “They are killed in jest, but die in earnest.”) Each June, Pigeon Day is celebrated on Pigeon Hill, a winter sledding assemblage.
QUIET ZONES: A few years ago, the city fathers decided that Central Park was too noisy, and they decreed a few sections to be “quiet zones.” Well, the civil liberties organizations were hardly quiet about that, and the decree was undecreed. Music from beeping birds, barking beagles, bawling babes and booming boom-boxes serenade the visitor.
RAMBLE TO THE FOREST PRIMEVAL: West 77th St. opens to the Naturalist’s Gate, and the Ramble, Olmsted’s favourite place. He wanted a primeval New York, forbidding tree-cutting, stone-and-rock designing—alas, the “proper” cut trees, replaced rocks. Still, looking carefully you can still see Olmsted’s prized stone ruins.
SHAKESPEARE: Shakespeare almost is the park. The Shakespeare bust was built in 1870, and outside the Delacourt Theater is a bronze sculpture from The Tempest (Prospero and Miranda) and Romeo and Juliet. Two gardens host Shakespeare’s flowers, along with quotes from the Bard. And the squawking is from the European starling, introduced to fill the Park with Shakespeare’s birds. Not only did the starlings multiply to nauseating dimensions, but a flock was sucked into a plane, the crash killing the passengers. For 50 years, Shakespeare in The Park has delighted New Yorkers. This summer, it’s As You Like It (with music by famed Canadian banjo player Steve Martin) June 5-30; and Sondheim’s Into the Woods July 23-August 25.
TROLLOPE’S IN THE PARK: That title is not a typo. It refers to British novelist Anthony Trollope. In 1870, he wrote, “The first question asked of you is whether you have seen the Central Park, and the second is as to what you think of it. You cannot say it is simply beautiful. You must swear … it is more fine, more grand, more beautiful, more miraculous than anything else of its kind anywhere.”
UNDISCOVERED PLEASURES: Rare is the visitor among the 25,000,000 who come each year who does not find surprises. Walk through the arched Bethseda Arcade to the lake and look upward. On the ceiling are more than 15,000 individually painted tiles. Rarer is Wagner Cove, a hidden oasis by the lake with a tiny wooden house where, a century ago, passengers would wait to catch the boat across the lake. Rarest is Hallett Sanctuary, four acres near 59th St. and closed to the public. You can’t get in by yourself, but just maybe you can go on a guided tour to see the perfect ecosystem, and animals playing without nosy humans
VENALITY: Central Park has always been a knave’s paradise. To build it, 20,000 labourers threw out the Indians and freed blacks who inhabited its Seneca Village. They dug up hills and burned habitations. The despotic “Boss” Tweed placed his own corrupt cronies as commissioners. In the Depression of the 1930s, the precursor of Occupy folk, put up “Hoovervilles”—shanties—in the middle of the park, until chased out by the police.
WEATHER, WEDDINGS AND WATER: No weather is the wrong weather. Ice-skating and snow, flowers blooming, summertime near nudists, the leaves turning rainbow colours. The waters of the lakes are for boating (see Streisand/Redford in The Way We Were) or strolling. Then check out the Water Terrace, Olmsted’s creation. Down two grand staircases to a grand esplanade with a huge fountain blooming sprays …
Weddings can be arranged through Central Parks Tours.
X-RATED: Don’t look behind any of the 270,000 trees and bushes when the branches are rustling and the leaves are fluttering up and down.
YOUNG PEOPLE: For kids, this is paradise now. But they don’t need the children’s zoo, the “enchanted forest,” the Belvedere Castle, the boat-rides in the lake. They don’t have to listen to storytellers by the Hans Christian Andersen statue or ride the carousel or watch the marionettes or run on the Great Oval. The whole park is a parallel universe of sights and delights for (gulp, forgive the cliché) “children of all ages.”
ZOO: Not as large as the Bronx Zoo, but more accessible and more charming. Nearly 150 species, from polar bears to leaf-cutter ants in habitats from the Arctic to the rainforest.
POSTSCRIPT: How to sum up Central Park? Co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted had one salient credo: “Framed upon a single noble motive a park is a single work of art.”
That credo will rock!