A Walk in the Park

New York, Part I

Hundreds of miles of pavement and incredible real-estate prices may suggest that humans have placed an indelible stamp on New York City. But the wilderness is just biding its time.

All the great parks of New York seem like they’re set somewhere else. You are walking in any one of these parks, and you can appreciate how hard each blade of grass, each tree, each meandering rocky trail and drop of lake water aspires towards a bucolic ideal—an unnatural natural—so that you are no longer in the city, but a place outside of New York, outside of this world, even. From a plane you could look down and see Central Park in its perfect geometry, either caged by or spared from the collective ambitions of the tall, gray towers that surround it. Then your eyes might wander to the long sliver of parkland along the Hudson River, and then to the numerous sightings of trees and grass dispersed throughout the city. You see the green and wonder how any of it had survived the architectural multiplication. There is often a low stone wall or wrought-iron fence that marks the boundaries of each park and attempts to halt the advance of the city. Sometimes it works.

Prospect Park

If I had the time and strength, I would like to one day walk the entire 585 acres of this park, across the baseball diamonds and gentle hills of the meadows, and up steep paths that cut through the maze of wooded ravines, and keep on going until the grass under my feet gives way to shrubbery, and the ground becomes mud and then water. I would swim across the large lake at its southeastern tip and then rest on an island named for ducks that supposedly live there. There is a zoo on the eastern part of the park. It is not a big zoo, just a nail clipping of the park, but I could go there to feed alpacas and gawk at prairie dogs and red pandas in imperfect recreations of their natural habitats.

The indulgence of all things juvenile is not uncommon here. When the snow is plentiful, you could bring any handy smooth-surfaced object—the top of a garbage can, an unsheathed ironing board—and join the young and old hordes on top of Sullivan Hill, waiting your turn to shriek down the slope. I remember a wintertime crossing from the south side of the park, where with a couple of friends, I tested the strength of that year’s winter by jumping up and down as hard as I could on lake ice. It was a strong enough winter. One midsummer, a few years ago, I was picnicking in the Long Meadow with a group of Europeans and out of the trees walked a pair of blue-eyed Swedish boys, each gripping the handle of a wooden basket. They settled the basket down and took out the contents for a game of kubb: wooden blocks that would be arranged as targets for laterally thrown sticks. At some point, a soccer ball came out. A snap of the foot, and off it went, aloft, curving toward somebody’s quickening feet. Not long after, I was out of breath.

It occurred to me that we were playing on the very grounds where the insurgent Continental Army was almost lost. After a nighttime march around American positions, the British army, then the mightiest force in the world, surprised the ragtag rebel soldiers; all of a sudden, thousands of redcoats were behind the defensive lines. While Lt. Gen. George Washington and the rest of the Continentals retreated across the East River, hundreds who stayed behind to repel the attack felt the sharp piercing of bayonets and lead.

That was what I wanted to tell my friends, or maybe just anyone, but nobody would’ve wanted to listen. It seemed almost criminal to break the pastoral innocence—that blissful rejection of time, society and violent nature—that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had designed into the park. I wouldn’t have dared to interrupt our game to remind everyone about the 11-year-old who, on a dare, climbed into the park zoo’s polar bear den in 1987 and was eaten, or the time I read in the paper about a search for the body of a man who’d fallen through the ice in the lake. We were running and laughing, heads whipped backward, like the park was ours alone. We would not be disturbed by such things.

Tompkins Square Park

For a long time, this was the park to go if no other place wanted you or if you didn’t want anything to do with any other place. You could come here and find company in the social pool of Sid Vicious and Debbie Harry look-alikes, squatting hippies, heroin dealers, and homeless folk who lived in cardboard and plywood shanties. I’ve heard from old-time East Village settlers that you didn’t go into the park if you didn’t want drugs or didn’t live there, and Avenue A, which borders the west side of the park, was the unspoken boundary between some minimal amount of civilization and its complete collapse. This kind of defiant squalor has long taproots. Tompkins Square Park has been the center of much of New York’s social turbulence, from the bread riots in 1857 to the labor riots of 1874, when 1,600 policemen battled 7,000 angry, unemployed workers.

History repeated itself in 1988. An old tenement house near the north side of the park was converted into high-priced condos. These new neighbors complained about all-night punk rock parties and the shantytown. The police tried to reinforce a newly set curfew. On a late summer night, the sound of police whistles split the angry shouts of protesters. A helicopter with searchlights floated overhead, and the wind from its blades kicked up dust and shook trees. Mounted police charged full-speed at the crowd, who fought back with sticks and bottles. “Die, yuppie scum!” the crowd chanted.

The crowd has changed a lot since then. The police forcibly removed the shantytown in 1992, and the city renovated the park. Now there are smoothly paved basketball courts on the north side, playgrounds for the kids, and, for those in the transitional stage, a dog run, where moneyed bohemians let miniature dogs do their business freely. Come summer, the park’s inviting green lawns are covered by a patchwork of blankets, upon which those seeking to tastefully darken their pigments lie supine, loitering in abundant sunlight. I no longer put myself at the risk of bodily injury when I walk into the park at night; the greatest threat comes from being in the path of reckless Hare Krishnas parading down the sidewalk. The homeless people who hang about the park are now well-mannered, well-behaved. As cargo pants and Converses shuffle past them, they sit quietly next to their pushcarts on the sidewalk, practicing invisibility.

Broadway Mall Medians

There’s a park in the middle of Broadway, right between the busy lanes of northbound and southbound traffic. The medians may not look much like a park, but New York City’s parks department and volunteers tend to the long strip of green space.

In the five miles between 60th Street and 168th Street, an Upper West Side pedestrian crossing the street could decide to stop midway and sit on one of the benches that bookend each block’s median. Having entered this zone of neutrality, the resting pedestrian might stare ahead to admire the flowers and trees that extend up to the next intersection. Or the pedestrian could look in any direction to watch the endless pageant of taxi cabs and the assortment of neighborhood specimens—housewives clustering in front of the synagogue; island-born nannies pushing all-terrain strollers; middle-aged Dominican men in wife-beaters sitting cross-armed, chewed cigars hanging from their mouths; Latino deliverymen huffing for time; the traffic cop depositing slips of delayed I-can’t-believe-its behind windshield wipers; khaki-clad corporate henchmen on cell phones; roving gangs of uniformed private-school teens munching on bags of Japanese-style cream puffs, backpacks clapping against their backs; multiple collies, Labradors, poodles, chihuahuas and pugs savoring their break from confinement, towing dogwalkers in their wake; bums slumped on the sidewalk, fanning themselves with a free weekly and waiting for a jingle in the cup; out-of-work-actor types looking out from corporate coffee chain windows; time-warped old ladies decked in Jackie O.-inspired outfits; pretty, well-kept girls flip-flopping out of manicure shops; gourmands pushing carts filled with bags from any one of the 72nd Street gourmet grocery stores; vague artist/writer personalities, hands in pockets, strolling slowly to kill time; and many more.

The Broadway Mall medians were originally designed with a nod to the Champs-Elysées. At certain upward angles, our resting pedestrian, glancing around the parts of Broadway that have wholly retained their pre-war architecture, might feel transported far from present-day New York and might even think of Paris, or at least, a romanticized notion of that City of Light. Then, on returning that gaze to street level, the pedestrian will think: Paris was never like this.

Washington Square Park

In the 1950s, the urban planner Robert Moses wanted to build a freeway through Washington Square Park, but Jane Jacobs and other city activists put an end to the plan. Had Moses’s plan succeeded, who knows how the course of American culture of that age might have changed? After all, this park was where the mythical Joe Gould fed pigeons and where Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg hung out, and you could still sense the last smoldering remnants of that era, maybe in the figure of a greasy-haired man sitting at the end of a park bench, mumbling the words of a paperback book, as if in prayer.

I was at the park recently, treading through it in the last light of an afternoon. There’s a fountain in the middle of this park, before which on weekends you could find a variety of performances being played for the amusement of the crowd sitting on the fountain’s circular steps. I have seen acrobatic shows where hustling teenagers spend 10 minutes hyping up a somewhat extravagant somersault, an anticlimax, really, but one tolerated by a usually undemanding audience. Other times, I have seen breakdancing and Shakespearean monologues and small gospel choirs and political protests and all the color of a busy public access cable channel. Sometimes there are prophets, those who have seen the dirtiness of society and offenses against those in metaphysical power, and in their Samuel L. Jackson-honed delivery warn us of coming retribution. I wonder if this was how major religious figures may have gotten their start: a summer day, a general hunger for entertainment, a willingness to ease judgment.

That day, the fountain actually had water in it, maybe six or seven inches of semi-clear liquid. Four kids were splashing in the middle. They filled their plastic buckets and dumped them on each other, and didn’t stop doing it until, as child’s play goes, somebody started crying. Around them, people were taking in the sun. A lot of them had books in hand. Per capita, Washington Square Park, helped by its centrality to NYU, appears to have the highest number of readers in a city park. Maybe they were channeling the spirit of Henry James or the ghost of Edith Wharton, both of whom had written of the affluent society that once walked this park. These readers were reading books and tomes of all sizes, and also a lot of US Weekly and People magazines, all undoubtedly helping to launch a thousand senior theses.

I left the park through its southwestern corner, where the chess players gather. Maybe another Bobby Fischer, once a visitor to these very tables, was in the making, but the commotion was centered around a television crew filming some guy playing chess with one of the hustlers. I didn’t recognize the guy. He might have been a celebrity of some sort, but in that company he was likely just another sunglasses-wearing chump getting his ass kicked.

Central Park

As early as the mid-’90s, a sane, self-preserving person did not cross Central Park at night. Central Park had a reputation, somewhat deserved, of being a place of gruesome happenings. At night, you could take a stroll alongside its stone wall on Fifth Avenue and look into the park and imagine the dark business being undertaken beyond your eyes’ reach. Was that a cry from a bush? A groan? In the archives of the New York Times, I sampled two decades’ worth of discoveries: bodies found with bullet wounds to the head, throats slashed, covered with newspapers, violated, stabbed in various ways, bound hand and foot, and hung from a tree. Central Park incidents captured national tabloid headlines: a 13-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. mugged, the “Preppy murder” case, the Central Park jogger rape and assault case, and incidents of teenage packs “wilding”—assaulting and robbing whomever they could, for kicks. In the 1960s and 1970s, the New York Police Department recorded between 800 and 900 felonies in Central Park each year (in addition to the crimes that went unreported). Like in the rest of New York, things have changed in Central Park. In 2005, 95 “hard crimes” were reported by the park’s police precinct, continuing a declining trend that has lasted for more than a decade.

Maybe the intentions of Olmsted and Vaux had finally won out. As Olmsted remarked in 1870, “No one who has closely observed the conduct of the people who visit the park, can doubt that it exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city—an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance.”

Vines will crawl across Fifth Avenue and up the sides of gray buildings, and new breeds of Manhattanites will scamper into the sunlight from our manmade caves.It must be because of this influence that I can now cross the park without necessarily thinking of scenes from The Warriors or Charles Bronson in Deathwish. At night, I have lain in the cool grass as operatic arias floated over the heads of the wine-guzzled, gossipy crowds on the Great Lawn, and I’ve waited for hours on hard ground with the youthful thousands for entry to Summerstage rock shows, and I have stood in long snaking lines for relief in the humid hulls of Porta-Potties. You are never alone in Central Park; the multitudes are a constant. Who has time to mug a jogger when one has to always watch out for the hail of foam footballs? The park built to ease the suffering of the people has been claimed by the people, and there are quite a few of us.

Last year, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude finished their installation of “The Gates,” I joined the many tourists who walked the pilgrimage through the park. Like many of them, I readied my camera and clumsily snapped away. All those photographs, I knew, added to a communal scrapbook of this park. It’s impossible to guess how many old albums languish in the mustiness of closets and attics, the only sunlight there being from pictures of a fine, well-lit day in Central Park, long ago. This park was the Edenic start for thousands of bloodlines. You are an immigrant, freshly arrived, light-pocketed, and where else would you have taken the nice girl you met at the Automat? You take a picture, and a quarter-century later your son could be taking essentially the same picture. Think of all the marriages proposed here; I know of more than a few. Think of the shy kisses, the arm-in-arm strolls around the rim of the Reservoir, and probably more than a few hard slaps. Think of the ashes of these beloveds clandestinely scattered on these grounds. There are ghosts in the park, and the preserved scenery in turn helps preserve them.

Do not forget, though, that all this, in the end, is scenery. Before the park was conceived, this was land deemed disposable by real-estate interests, who offered little resistance against plans to put such a large acreage out of their hands. The woodlands, swamps and rocky outcrops proceeded to be transformed into a refuge from industrial corruption, and while little of that original nature is left, I suspect it’s not completely gone. I take a look at the photos from “The Gates” again and follow the many saffron-bedecked trails that wound through the park. Those crisscrossing trails appear to be nothing more than ropes binding a giant in slumber. Each day hundreds of Central Park Conservancy workers tend to these 843 acres, and for the time being, the ropes are tight, and the scenery holds. A coyote was spotted in the northern tip of the park. It was hunted and died in captivity.

The ice will not hold forever. There are still limits to nature in this park, but know that when we are gone—whether by our own slow doing or sublime catastrophe—these grounds will ripen. Vines will crawl across Fifth Avenue and up the sides of gray buildings, and new breeds of Manhattanites will scamper into the sunlight from our manmade caves. From Central Park outward, New York will crumble into old Gotham into New Amsterdam into a forested island of no particular distinction. For now, we still have our fantastic control.

Next to the park’s Turtle Pond, Belvedere Castle rises like a homegrown Elsinore. If you go inside, you can push a button and listen to songs sung by paper mache birds perched on a fake tree.