CENTRAL PARK






The building of CENTRAL PARK was a brilliant idea and Central Park is one of the true marvels of New York City.  This park, which was designed to bring pleasure and social unity to the City, is visited by 40 million people each year and is the most visited city park in America.  Central Park has been described as "the most important work of American art of the nineteenth century."

What today is Central Park was once Seneca Village a community where free blacks and slaves lived in shacks and caves and which later became a shantytown for 5,000 squatters mostly Irish and German. (That area was on the West Side of Manhattan between 82nd & 89th Streets and Seventh & Eighth Avenues.) Central Park was first proposed by William Cullen Bryant in 1844 and conceived and designed by FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED and CALVERT VAUX as a "park for all the people." 

Just before the World's Fair, the Columbian Exposition, opened in Chicago in 1893, Daniel Burnham, the future architect of the Flatiron Building, described Olmsted as "an artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes, with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views."  (See Genuis of Place:  The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin.) 
 

Central Park’s creation took 16 years and it covers 843 acres and stretches 51-city-blocks beginning at 59th Street (between Fifth Avenue and Columbus Circle) and ending at 110th Street.  The lake, which attracted ice skaters, was the first area of the park to open on December 11, 1858.  Central Park has approximately 26,000 trees (including 1700 American Elms), 36 bridges and arches, 21 playgrounds, a lake and boathouse, a skating rink, a carousal, a castle, a large reservoir, a Conservatory and Strawberry Fields (a garden tribute to John Lennon who lived near Central Park at the Dakota apartment building, where he was murdered in 1980), several other gardens, a lavishly expensive and ornate restaurant --Tavern on the Green, a zoo that houses a gay male Penguin couple, and statues of Alice in Wonderland, Hans Christian Anderson, Mother Goose, Beethoven, Simon Bolivar and a Mall Promenade, running from 66th to 72nd Streets and lined with elm trees and known as Literary Walk with statues of William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and others.  It has been estimated that there are over 55 bird species living in Central Park.

Central Park is also part of the amazing story of the history of black Americans in New York City.  Seneca Village existed from 1825 through 1857. On September 27, 1825, Andrew Williams purchased three lots of land from John and Elizabeth Whitehead for $125.00. Native American, Irish and German immigrants also became a part of this community which consisted of three churches, a school for "colored" children and two cemeteries.  Seneca Village was destroyed to create Central Park.

At one time there was a casino (meaning “little house” not a gambling establishment) in Central Park.  Originally designed in 1864 as the Ladies’ Refreshment Salon, a restaurant for “women without male escorts,” the place near Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street was originally conceived by Frederick Low Olmstead and Calvert Vaux  as an exhibition and music hall.  In the 1920’s the casino became a popular nightclub with a ballroom designed by the Metropolitan Opera and stage designer, Josef Urban.  It was a popular hangout for Mayor Jimmy Walter and his mistress and later wife, stage actress Betty Compton (a performer in the Ziegfeld Follies, Funny Face and Oh Kay).  Located at the Rumsey Playfield, the site is where the Summerstage now stands.  Robert Moses, NYC Parks Commissioner, urban planner and master builder of New York City and Rockland and Westchester Counties, did not believe a casino “belonged in a public park” and in 1935 had it demolished except for its stained glass windows.    

Central Park’s beautiful locations have best been captured cinematically in the film version of the Broadway musical, Hair (1979), in which a group of 60’s hippies roam and dance around the park (dances choreographed by Twyla Tharpe).  This film about the Sixties in America was directed by a Czech film director, Milos Forman.

A Central Park's Bow bridge is surrounded by The Gates (top photo), saffron colored fabric panels, which were completed as a “temporary work of art” on February 12, 2005 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.  There were 7,503 gates which were 16 feet tall and 5 feet, 6 inches to 18 feet in width and covered 23 miles of Central Park walkways.  The Gates art installation was one of NYC Parks Department's temporary art programs.  Merchandising rights from the event were donated to NNYN (Nurture New York’s Nature) and The Central Park Conservancy.  One of the joys of experiencing The Gates was the crowd of happy faces it attracted to Central Park.  Central Park is viewed from above the observation deck of Rockefeller Center (Top of the Rock) in the third photo.  The bottom photo is a sunset at the Central Park Reservoir.

Raccoons -- especially in recent years -- have become a part of the animal population in the park. They live in the hollow branches of trees.  It is probably impossible to estimate the number of different species living in Central Park.  The park is an important migration route in the spring and fall from many different species of birds.  Turtles live in Turtle Pond and other parts of the park. 

Central Park is, of course, New York City's most famous park.  There are many others of various sizes such as Union Square Park that are also rich in history.  Others, like Abingdon Square Park are small but wonderfully charming spots to sit and read a book or people-watch. 

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