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Central Park Conservancy

Central Park

Central Park is a large public, urban park in New York City, with about twenty-five million visitors annually. Most of the areas immediately adjacent to the park are known for impressive buildings and valuable real estate. Central Park has been a National Historic Landmark since 1963.

The park is maintained by the Central Park Conservancy and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. While much of the park looks natural, it is in fact almost entirely landscaped. It contains several natural-looking lakes and ponds, extensive walking tracks, two ice-skating rinks, the Central Park Zoo, the Central Park Conservatory Garden, a wildlife sanctuary, a large area of natural woods, a reservoir with an encircling running track, and the outdoor Delacorte Theater which hosts the "Shakespeare in the Park" summer festivals.

The park also serves as an oasis for migrating birds.

Central Park today

Central Park is a large public, urban park (843 acres, 3.41 km², 1.32 mi²; a rectangle 2.6 statute miles by 0.5 statute mile, or 4.1 km × 830 m) in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, almost 4/5 of the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park and just over 1/3 of the size of London's Richmond Park, but just 1/5 of Los Angeles's Griffith Park. With about twenty-five million visitors annually, Central Park is the most visited city park in the United States, and its appearance in many movies and television shows has made it famous.

The park is maintained by the Central Park Conservancy, a private, not-for-profit organization that manages the park under a contract with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, in which the president of the Conservancy is ex officio Administrator of Central Park.

Central Park is bordered on the north by West 110th Street, on the south by West 59th Street, on the west by Eighth Avenue. Along the park's borders however, these are known as Central Park North, Central Park South, and Central Park West respectively. Fifth Avenue retains its name along the eastern border of the park. Most of the areas immediately adjacent to the park are known for impressive buildings and valuable real estate.

The park was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who went on to collaborate on Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Central Park has been a National Historic Landmark since 1963.

While much of the park looks natural, it is in fact almost entirely landscaped. It contains several natural-looking lakes and ponds, extensive walking tracks, two ice-skating rinks, the Central Park Zoo, the Central Park Conservatory Garden, a wildlife sanctuary, a large area of natural woods, a billion gallon reservoir with an encircling running track, and an outdoor amphitheater called the Delacorte Theater which hosts the "Shakespeare in the Park" summer festivals. Indoor attractions include Belvedere Castle with its nature center, the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, and the historic Carousel. In addition there are numerous major and minor grassy areas, some of which are used for informal or team sports, some are set aside as quiet areas, and there are a number of enclosed playgrounds for children.

The park has its own wildlife and also serves as an oasis for migrating birds, especially in the fall and the spring, making it a significant attraction for bird watchers; 200 species of birds are regularly seen. The 6 miles (10 km) of drives within the park are used by joggers, bicyclists and inline skaters, especially on weekends, and in the evenings after 7:00 p.m., when automobile traffic is banned.

The real-estate value of Central Park is estimated to be $528,783,552,000 according to the property-appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

History

Early history

The park was not part of the Commissioners' Plan of 1811; however, between 1821 and 1855, New York City nearly quadrupled in population. As the city expanded, people were drawn to the few open spaces, mainly cemeteries, to get away from the noise and chaotic life in the city. Before long, however, New York City's need for a great public park was voiced by the poet and editor of the then-Evening Post (now the New York Post), William Cullen Bryant, and by the first American landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, who began to publicize the city's need for a public park in 1844. A stylish place for open-air driving, like the Bois de Boulogne in Paris or London's Hyde Park, was felt to be needed by many influential New Yorkers, and in 1853 the New York legislature designated a 700 acre (2.8 km²) area from 59th to 106th Streets for the creation of the park, to a cost of more than US$5 million for the land alone. The park is the largest on Manhattan Island.

Initial development

The State appointed a Central Park Commission to oversee the development of the park, and in 1857 the commission held a landscape design contest. Writer Frederick Law Olmsted and English architect Calvert Vaux developed the so-called "Greensward Plan," which was selected as the winning design. According to Olmsted, the park was "of great importance as the first real Park made in this century—a democratic development of the highest significance…," a view probably inspired by his stay, and various trips in Europe in 1850. During that trip he visited several parks, and was in particular impressed by Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, England.

Several influences came together in the design. Landscaped cemeteries, such as Mount Auburn (Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Green-Wood (Brooklyn, New York) had set an example of idyllic, naturalistic landscapes. The most influential innovations in the Central Park design were the "separate circulation systems" for pedestrians, horseback riders, and pleasure vehicles. The "crosstown" commercial traffic was entirely concealed in sunken roadways (today called "transverses") screened with densely planted shrub belts, so as not to disturb the impression of a rustic scene. The Greensward plan called for some 36 bridges, all designed by Vaux, ranging from rugged spans of Manhattan schist or granite, to lacy neo-gothic cast iron, no two alike. The ensemble of the formal line of the Mall's doubled allées of elms culminating at Bethesda Terrace, whose centerpiece is The Bethesda Fountain, with a composed view beyond of lake and woodland was at the heart of the larger design.

Before the construction of the park could start, the area had to be cleared of its inhabitants, most of whom were quite poor and either free African-Americans or immigrants of either German or Irish origin. Most of them lived in smaller villages, such as Seneca Village, Harsenville, the Piggery District or the Convent of the Sisters of Charity. The roughly 1,600 working-class residents occupying the area at the time were evicted under the rule of eminent domain during 1857, and Seneca Village and parts of the other communities were torn down and removed in order to make room for the park. The person responsible for carrying out the evictions was the great-great grandfather of future New York Yankee Joe Pepitone.

During the construction of the park, Olmsted fought constant battles with the Park Commissioners, many of whom were appointees of the city's Democratic machine. In 1860, he was forced out for the first of many times as Central Park's Superintendent, and Andrew Haswell Green, the former president of New York City's Board of Education took over as the chairman of the commission. Despite the fact that he had relatively little experience, he still managed to accelerate the construction, as well as to finalize the negotiations for the purchase of an additional 65 acres (26 ha) at the north end of the park between 106th and 110th Streets, which would be used as the "rugged" part of the park, its swampy northeast corner dredged and reconstructed as the Harlem Meer.

Between 1860 and 1873, the construction of the park had come a long way, and most of the major hurdles had been overcome. During this period, more than 500,000 cubic feet (14,000 m³) of topsoil had been transported in from New Jersey, as the original soil wasn't good enough to sustain the various trees, shrubs, and plants the Greensward Plan called for. When the park was officially completed in 1873, more than ten million cartloads of material, including soil and rocks which were to be removed from the area had been manually dug up, and transported out of the park. Also included were the more than four million trees, shrubs and plants representing the approximately 1,500 species which were to lay the foundation for today's park.

Interestingly, sheep actually grazed on the Sheep Meadow from the 1860s until 1934, when they were moved upstate since it was feared they would be used for food by impoverished depression-era New Yorkers.

20th century

Following the completion of the park, it quickly slipped into decline. One of the major reasons for this was the lack of interest of Tammany Hall, the political machine which was the largest political force in New York at the time.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the park faced several new challenges. Cars had been invented and were becoming commonplace, bringing with them their burden of pollution. Also, the general mental view of the people was beginning to change. No longer were parks to be used only for walks and picnics in an idyllic environment, but now also for sports, and similar recreation. Following the dissolution of the Central Park Commission in 1870 and Andrew Green's departure from the project and the death of Vaux in 1895, the maintenance effort gradually declined, and there were few or no attempts to replace dead trees, bushes and plants or worn-out lawn. For several decades, authorities did little or nothing to prevent vandalism and the littering of the park.

All of this changed in 1934, when Republican Fiorello La Guardia was elected mayor of New York City and unified the five park-related departments then in existence, and gave Robert Moses the job of cleaning up. Moses, then about to become one of the mightiest men in New York City, took over what was essentially a relic, a leftover from a bygone era.

According to historian Robert Caro in his 1974 book The Power Broker:

Lawns, unseeded, were expanses of bare earth, decorated with scraggly patches of grass and weeds, that became dust holes in dry weather and mud holes in wet…. The once beautiful Mall looked like a scene of a wild party the morning after. Benches lay on their backs, their legs jabbing at the sky...

In a single year, Moses managed to clean up not only Central Park, but also other parks in New York City: lawns and flowers were replanted, dead trees and bushes replaced, walls were sandblasted and bridges repaired. Major redesigning and construction was also carried out: for instance, the existing Croton Lower Reservoir was filled in so the Great Lawn could be created. The Greensward Plan's intention of creating an idyllic landscape was combined with Moses' vision of a park to be used for recreational purposes—nineteen playgrounds, twelve ballfields, and handball courts were constructed. Moses also managed to secure funds from the New Deal program, as well as donations from the public, thus ensuring that the park got a new lease of life, prospering under the wings of a powerful and new defender.

1960–1980

The 1960s marked the beginning of an “Events Era” in Central Park that reflected the widespread cultural and political trends of the period. The Public Theater's annual Shakespeare in the Park festival was settled in the new Delacorte Theater (1961) and summer performances were instituted on the Sheep Meadow and then on the Great Lawn by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Increasingly through the 1970s, the Park became a venue for events of unprecedented scale, including political rallies and demonstrations, festivals, and massive concerts.

At the time, the City of New York was in the throes of economic and social crisis. Residents were fleeing the City and moving to the suburbs. Morale was low and crime was high. The Parks Department, suffering from budget cuts and a lack of skilled management that rendered its workforce virtually ineffective, responded by opening the Park to any and all activities that would bring people into it—regardless of their impact and without adequate management oversight or maintenance follow-up. Some of these events became important milestones in the social history of the Park and the cultural history of the City. Many were positive experiences fondly remembered by the individuals who participated. But without essential management and enforcement of reasonable limitations, and combined with a total lack of park maintenance and repair, they also did an incredible amount of damage.

On Saturday, February 8, 1964, as part of the Beatles' first visit to America, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr visited Central Park while entertaining photographers and members of the press. George Harrison stayed back at the group's suite at the Plaza Hotel, due to a bout with influenza. On Lennon's birthday, October 9, 1985, Yoko Ono helped inaugurate the Strawberry Fields memorial, created as a tribute to him following his murder on December 8, 1980.

By the mid-1970s, New York’s fiscal and social crisis had contributed to severe management neglect. "Years of poor management and inadequate maintenance had turned a masterpiece of landscape architecture into a virtual dustbowl by day and a danger zone by night," said the Conservancy president. Time had hastened the deterioration of its infrastructure and architecture, and ushered in an era of vandalism, territorial use (as when a pick-up game of softball or soccer commandeered open space to the exclusion of others) and illicit activity.

Several citizen groups had emerged intent upon reclaiming the park by fundraising and organizing volunteer initiatives. One of these groups, the Central Park Community Fund, commissioned a study of the park’s management that concluded by calling for the establishment of a single position within the Parks Department responsible for overseeing the planning and management of Central Park, and for a board of guardians to provide citizen oversight. The Koch administration was receptive, and in 1979 Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis established the office of Central Park Administrator, appointing to the position the executive director of another citizen organization, the Central Park Task Force. The Central Park Conservancy was founded the following year to support the office and initiatives of the Administrator and to provide consistent leadership through a self-perpetuating, citizen-based board that would also include as ex-officio trustees the Parks Commissioner, Central Park Administrator, and mayoral appointees.'''

1980–present

The Park's transformation under the leadership of the Central Park Conservancy began with modest but highly significant first steps toward reclaiming the Park, addressing needs that could not be met within the existing structure and resources of the Parks Department. These included an initial focus on hiring interns and establishing a small restoration staff to reconstruct and repair unique rustic structures, undertaking horticultural projects, and removing graffiti, under the broken windows premise. Currently "Graffiti doesn't last 24 hours in the park," according to Conservancy president Douglas Blonsky.

By the early 1980s the Conservancy was engaged in design efforts and long-term restoration planning, using a combination of its own staff and consultants. Through this work, the Conservancy provided the impetus and leadership for several early restoration projects funded by the City, while at the same time preparing a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the Park. With the completion of this plan in 1985, the Conservancy launched its first capital campaign. Through the campaign, the Conservancy assumed increasing responsibility for funding the comprehensive restoration of the Park, and full responsibility for designing, bidding, and supervising all capital projects in the Park.

The restoration of Central Park has been accompanied by a crucial transformation of its management. As the Conservancy rebuilt the Park beginning in the mid-1980s, it instituted a revolutionary new zone-management system, in which Central Park was divided into territories, in which a designated supervisor was held responsible for maintaining restored areas; and as citywide budget cuts in the early 1990s resulted in attrition of the Parks Department staff responsible for routine maintenance, the Conservancy began to hire staff to replace these workers. Management of the restored landscapes by the Conservancy’s "zone gardeners" proved so successful that core maintenance and operations staff were reorganized in 1996 and a zone-based system of management implemented throughout the Park, now divided into 49 zones. Consequently, every zone of the Park now has a specific individual accountable for its day-to-day maintenance. Zone gardeners supervise the volunteers assigned to them (who commit to a consistent work schedule), and are supported by specialized crews in areas of maintenance requiring specific expertise or equipment, or more effectively conducted on a parkwide basis. Today the Conservancy employs four out of five maintenance and operations staff in the Park, and effectively oversees the work of both the private and public employees under the authority of the Central Park Administrator (a publicly appointed position reporting to the Parks Commissioner) who is also the President of the Conservancy. As of 2007, the Conservancy had invested approximately $450 million in the restoration and management of the Park; the organization presently contributes approximately 85% of Central Park’s annual operating budget of over $25 million.

The system was functioning so well that in 2006 the Conservancy created the Historic Harlem Parks Initiative, providing horticultural and maintenance support and mentoring in Morningside Park and St. Nicholas, Jackie Robinson and Marcus Garvey Parks.

Activities in the park

Carriage horses

New York City has had carriage horses since 1935, but the tradition has recently come under a firestorm of controversy, with activists and politicians questioning its humanity. They are a symbolic institution of the city. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 the city ground to a halt, and in a much-publicized event, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani went to the stables himself to ask the drivers to go back to work to help return a sense of normalcy.

Recently several factors have begun to turn public opinion on the trade. First, the history of accidents with the horses in traffic has come under scrutiny with recent deaths. Second, an expose of the industry by award-winning activist filmmaker Donny Moss provided evidence of alleged abuse. Third, protests from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and celebrities like Pink, Cheryl Hines, Kristen Johnston and Alec Baldwin have raised the issue's profile. Media accounts have corroborated some charges, but they have also shown that the standards vary from stable to stable.

Both activists and horse owners who pride themselves on humane conditions agree that part of the problem is toothless enforcement of the city code. Supporters of the trade say it needs to be reformed, not shut down, and that carriage drivers deserve a raise, which the city has not authorized since 1989. Paris, London, Beijing, and several U.S. cities have banned carriage horses.

Sports

Central Park is perhaps cherished most by athletes. The Park Drive, just over long, is a heaven for runners, joggers, bicyclists, and inline skaters. Nearly every weekend, races take place in the park, many of which are organized by the New York Road Runners. The New York City Marathon finishes in Central Park outside Tavern on the Green. Many other professional races are run in the park, including the recent USA Men's 8k Championships. A long tradition of horseback riding in the park was kept alive by the one remaining stable nearby, Claremont Riding Academy until it closed in 2007. At the northern part of Central Park between 106th and 108th streets Lasker Rink and Pool is a large ice skating rink which converts to an outdoor swimming pool in Summer and serves the neighboring communities.

Entertainment

Each summer, the Public Theater presents free open-air theatre productions, often starring well-known stage and screen actors, in the Delacorte Theater, summer performing venue of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Most, though not all, of the plays presented are by William Shakespeare, and the performances are generally regarded as being of high quality since its founding by Joseph Papp in 1962.

The New York Philharmonic gives an open-air concert every summer on the Great Lawn and the Metropolitan Opera presents two operas. Many concerts have been given in the park including Elton John, 1980; the Simon and Garfunkel reunion, 1981; Diana Ross, 1983; Garth Brooks, 1997; Dave Matthews Band, 2003, Bon Jovi 2008. Since 1992, local Singer-songwriter David Ippolito has performed almost every summer weekend to large crowds of passers-by and regulars, including visitors from around the world, and has become a New York icon. Often he is simply referred to as "That guitar man from Central Park."

Also each summer, City Parks Foundation offers Central Park Summerstage, a series of free performances including music, dance, spoken word, and film presentations. SummerStage celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2005, having welcomed emerging artists and world renowned artists over two decades, including Celia Cruz, David Byrne, Curtis Mayfield, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars, and Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer winner Toni Morrison.

With the revival of the city and the Park in the new century, Central park has given birth to arts groups dedicated to performing in the park, notably Central Park Brass, which performs an annual concert series, and the New York Classical Theatre, which produces an annual series of plays.

The numerous portrait artists who work in Central Park have been interviewed and documented by Zina Saunders as part of her Overlooked New York project.

Central Park is also home to the famed New York City restaurant, Tavern on the Green, which is located on the park's grounds at Central Park West and West 67th Street.

Climbing

Central Park's glaciated rock outcroppings attract climbers, especially boulderers; Manhattan's bedrock, a glaciated metamorphic schist, protrudes from the ground frequently and quite considerably in some parts of Central Park. The two most renowned spots for boulderers are Rat Rock and Cat Rock, near the south end of the park.

Children

In addition to its 21 unique playgrounds, Central Park offers dozens of activities for children, including performances by master puppeteers at the historic Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre. The famous Central Park Carousel has thrilled children since the original one was built in 1870.

Central Park Reservoir

See: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

Sculptures

Though Olmsted disapproved of the clutter of sculptures in the park, a total of twenty-nine sculptures have crept in over the years, most of which have been donated by individuals or organizations (and not the city itself). Much of the first statuary to appear in the park was of authors and poets, clustered along a section of the Mall that became known as Literary Walk. The better-known sculptors represented in Central Park include Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John Quincy Adams Ward. The "Angel of the Waters" at Bethesda Terrace by Emma Stebbins (1873), was the first large public sculpture commission for an American woman. The 1925 statue of the sled dog Balto who became famous during the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska is very popular among tourists, reflected in its near polished appearance as the result of being patted by countless visitors. The oldest sculpture is "Cleopatra's Needle," actually an Egyptian obelisk of Tutmose III much older than Cleopatra, which was donated to New York by the Khedive of Egypt. The largest and most impressive is equestrian King Jagiello bronze monument on the east end of Turtle Pond. North of Conservatory Water, the sailboat pond, there is a larger-than-life statue of Alice, sitting on a huge mushroom, playing with her cat, while the Hatter and the March Hare look on. A large memorial to Duke Ellington created by sculptor Robert Graham was dedicated in 1997 near Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, in the Duke Ellington Circle.

For 16 days in 2005 (February 12–27), Central Park was the setting for Christo and Jeanne-Claude's installation, The Gates. Though the project was the subject of very mixed reactions (and it took many years for Christo and Jeanne-Claude to get the necessary approvals), it was nevertheless a major, if temporary, draw for the park.

Crime

Although often regarded as a kind of oasis of tranquility inside a "city that never sleeps," Central Park was once a very dangerous place — especially after dark — as measured by crime statistics. The park, like most of New York City, is considerably safer today, though during prior periods it was the site of numerous muggings and rapes. Well-publicized incidents of sexual and confiscatory violence, such as the notorious 1989 "Central Park Jogger" case, dissuaded many from visiting one of Manhattan's most scenic areas.

As crime has declined in the Park and in the rest of New York City, many negative perceptions have waned, and the use of common sense is enough to reasonably protect visitors from harm. The park has its own New York City Police Department precinct (Central Park Precinct), which employs both regular police and Auxiliary officers. In 2005, such safety measures held the number of crimes in the park — which has more than 25 million visitors annually — to fewer than one hundred per year (down from approximately 1,000 in the early 1980s); this very low crime rate has made Central Park one of the safest urban parks in the world.

Other issues

Permission to hold issue-centered rallies in Central Park has been met with increasingly stiff resistance from the city. In 2004, the organization United for Peace and Justice wanted to hold a rally on the Great Lawn during the Republican National Convention. The City denied UFPJ's application for a permit, stating that such a mass gathering would be harmful to the grass, and that such damage would make it harder to collect private donations to maintain the Park. Courts upheld the refusal.

Since the 1960s, there has been a grassroots campaign to restore the park's loop drives to their original car-free state. Over the years, the number of car-free hours has increased, though a full closure is currently resisted by the New York City Department of Transportation.

The Central Park Medical Unit is an all-volunteer ambulance service that provides completely free emergency medical service to patrons of Central Park and the surrounding streets. CPMU also operates a rapid-response bike patrol, particularly during major events such as the New York City Marathon, the 1998 Goodwill Games, and concerts in the park.

Central Park has one of the largest remaining stands of American Elms in the northeastern U.S., 1700 of them, protected by their isolation from Dutch Elm Disease. Central Park was the site of the unfortunate unleashing of starlings in North America (cf. Invasive species). Central Park is a popular birding spot during spring and fall migration, when birds flying over Manhattan are attracted to the prominent oasis. Over a quarter of all the bird species found in the United States have been seen in Central Park. The Red-tailed hawk known as Pale Male was the object of much attention by the media, the ornithologist-author Marie Winn and other Central Park birdwatchers. There are 215 bird species in New York City's Central Park.

In 2002 a new genus and species of centipede was discovered in Central Park. The centipede is about four-tenths of an inch (10 mm) long, making it one of the smallest in the world. It is named Nannarrup hoffmani (after the man who discovered it) and lives in the park's leaf litter, the crumbling organic debris that accumulates under the trees.

Since the late 1990s, the Central Park Conservancy, the United States Department of Agriculture, and several city and state agencies have been fighting an infestation of the Asian long-horned beetle, which has been reported in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, including some parts of Central Park. The beetle, which likely was accidentally shipped from its native China in an untreated shipping crate, has no natural predators in the United States and the fight to contain its infestation has been very expensive. The beetle infests trees by boring a hole in them to deposit its eggs, at which point the only way to end the infestation is to destroy the tree.

On June 11, 2000, following the Puerto Rican Day Parade, gangs of drunken men groped and sexually assaulted women in the park. Several arrests were made shortly after the attacks, but it was not until 2006 that a civil suit against the city for failing to provide police protection was finally settled. ,

Central Park constitutes its own United States census tract, number 143. According to Census 2000, the park's population is eighteen persons, twelve male and six female, with a median age of 38.5 years, and a household size of 2.33, over 3 households.

Notes

References

  • Kelly, Bruce, Gail T. Guillet, and Mary Ellen W. Hern. Art of the Olmsted Landscape. New York: City Landmarks Preservation Commission: Arts Publisher, 1981. ISBN 0-941302-00-8.
  • Kinkead, Eugene. Central Park, 1857-1995: The Birth, Decline, and Renewal of a National Treasure. New York: Norton, 1990. ISBN 0-393-02531-4.
  • Miller, Sara Cedar. Central Park, An American Masterpiece: A Comprehensive History of the Nation's First Urban Park. New York: Abrams, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-3946-0.
  • Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8014-9751-5.
  • Swerdlow, Joel L. Central Park - Oasis in the city. National Geographic Magazine May 1993

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