I spend so much time in Central Park that some friends have suggested I become a tour guide (albeit an unpaid one Mr U.S. tax man). How much do I really know about this amazing open space slap bang in the middle of highrise Manhattan? I thought I’d do a bit more digging (I’ll drop the puns at some point) and see what else I can learn about Manhattan’s major outdoor attraction and maybe I can assist a few more tourists in the process.
The land that was to become America’s first landscaped public park was set aside in 1853 with a competition arranged soon after to design a beautiful and tranquil space for Americans to gain health and social benefits associated with being outdoors. It must have been quite a sight back in those days, before Manhattan was built upon the way it is today and incredible forethought was required to put aside so much valuable land. To be fair, it was probably a bit more of a stinking marshland in those days but just think of all the real estate space they denied themselves in future years. If this all sounds too good to be true it, of course, is. Entire villages were uprooted to make way for the park and it was the poor freed slaves and Irish immigrants that were hastily removed to make way for a middle class white American dream. During the great depression a shanty town, known as Hooverville, appeared in the park once again. Those who had lost so much made a home where they could, and Central Park was a free space. Despite a successful attempt to remove the vagrants and revamp the park in the 1930’s it became, once again, a dangerous and sorely neglected ruin by the 1960’s. Vandalism, graffiti, dust bowls for lawns and a reputation for illicit activity rather than the benefits of the great outdoors blighted the park.
In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was set up, and the park hasn’t looked back. The lawns were reseeded, fountains refilled, and thousands of new trees and shrubs planted to replenish the 843 acres of parkland. The restoration, started then, continues to this day. In 2004, the staggeringly beautiful tiles in the Bethesda arcade were restored and rehung. In 2009, Oak bridge was recreated from original drawings. Just last year, Bow bridge received a total overhaul and, even now, the conservancy is in the process of recreating all the gazebos and rustic huts that are scattered throughout the park from original photos and drawings.
So that’s the history and the salvation, but what does Central Park have to offer a tourist or a native New Yorker? Here’s a list of just some of the things you can enjoy in this great expanse of inner city green.
Sports: The number of car free hours has increased steadily since the 1960’s making Central park a great place to jog, cycle or walk. Sitting by the loop road I have seen just about every conceivable method of locomotion and you can’t argue with the sheer numbers of people who use the park every day to get fit or train for one of the many races that happen in the park throughout the year. If team sport is more your bag, the great lawn has plenty of softball pitches, and others are scattered throughout the park. Other team activities, such as volleyball, basketball, handball and even Quidditch (I’m not even joking) happen regularly. Two ice-skating rinks provide winter fun, transforming into a Lido and a funfair in the summer.
Relaxation: With hundreds of acres of lawns, and over 9000 benches, it’s easy to find somewhere to chill. If you prefer relaxing on the open water, hire a boat from the Loeb boathouse or a motorised model boat at the Kerbs boathouse. If chess is your thing, head on down to the Chess and Checkers house to hire a set. The park has plenty of restrooms, so no need to rush back to the hotel/ apartment when the need arises. There are a number of cafes and restaurants throughout the park (let it be known a few also sell alcohol), plus a large quantity of street vendors should you have forgotten your picnic. In a park utilised by so many people on a sunny Sunday, you can still always find a quiet corner if you know where to look.
Horsepower: Not the vehicular type. You can hire one of the many horse-drawn carriages that frequent the park (the jury is still out on this one – recent proposed changes to protect the horses more were, in the end, rejected). You can also book an escorted horse ride along the parks 1.6 mile bridle path. You may see the park rangers patrolling the park on their horses if you are lucky. If the four legged transportation isn’t your thing, you could, instead, hire a rickshaw. Use extreme care with these entrepreneurs. The price quoted per minute on the sides of these vehicles is ridiculous. Arrange a set price for a specific distance before getting in. Tips will be extra!
Entertainment: Apart from the myriad of entertainers that fill the park throughout the year, including street musicians, artists, acrobats and people dressed bizarrely as unicorns in stilettos, there are also numerous park organised events. The Delacorte theatre operates free Shakespeare performances in the summer and other plays do pop up around the park occasionally. The New York Philharmonic gives free concerts on the great lawn as do other classical orchestras at the Naumburg bandshell. Summerstage hosts top music artists and food events, while the great lawn plays host to massive rock concerts. Film nights and firework displays plus weekly tours and social events including Tango dancing and yoga, fill the park with life and fun. If you have children, Central Park has many excellent play areas where parents can let the little darlings run riot in the relative safety of a fenced off area while sitting on the periphery and staring at their smartphones.
Romance: I imagine that many tourists see a wedding in central park and feel truly blessed to be present at such a special occasion. When you’ve seen 6 brides in a day, you tend to get a little more jaded. However, Central park is a truly beautiful and magical location to tie the knot with the added bonus that you can get married pretty much anywhere you like. Most people still choose certain more obvious locations, such as the Conservatory garden and the Ladies pavilion, but if you want to do it in the middle of the lake on a boat, I guess you can… Or you could swear undying love to your belle or beau with a plaque on one of the many benches or floor tiles across the park. I’ve seen it all in central park – proposals, weddings. It is a beautiful and memorable place so long as you don’t mind sharing your day with a few thousand onlookers.
Wildlife: The park is filled with all sorts of critters showing just how successful it is as a man made created natural environment. Numerous bird species live in its leafy canopies including the red-tailed hawk which I regularly see enjoying the thermals above the park. A wonderful seasonal visitor are the tiny hummingbirds that hover around the lake during the summer months. Mammals include Raccoons and, allegedly, chipmunks and opossums but you are more likely to see squirrels and rats. Rumour has it that occasional Deer and Coyote have been spotted within Manhattan’s boundaries. One of my favourite summer spots are fireflies which light up the evening forests like little fairies. If you like your wildlife a little more controlled – how about a trip to the Zoo. It’s not quite “Madagascar” but the sea lions are lovely!
Finally, in a park designed for all sorts of activity, what’s not allowed: Sleeping in the park (well, between 1am and 6am anyway). The park is closed between these times and I wouldn’t suggest breaking the curfew. Smoking. Yes! I know! Brilliant! Except a few people (often, but not always, tourist) didn’t get the memo. Cycling on the paths – I’m looking at you again tourists! I see your rented bikes. Obvious alcohol consumption – as with anywhere, public drinking is prohibited – just pop it in an innocent looking soda bottle (I didn’t say that).
Enjoy everything that Central Park has to offer. Always check out the calendar to see what is happening while you are in the city – you never know what you might miss!