LEONARD QUART: A day in Central Park

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By Wednesday, Apr 25 Viewpoints
Leonard Quart
Saturday in Central Park.

The day is a glowing one — a warm sun, clear skies — a good time to stroll in Central Park. I walk thru the 79th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance past rows of daffodils and a few flowering trees, and sit on a bench across from where the often-desolate wing (except for classes) containing the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas is housed. I try to finish a book but I get caught up observing the people that both sit down near me and those that pass by in an unending stream. It’s Saturday and the park is heavily used — many Asian tourists, a few bikers, a narcissistic skateboarder showing his moves, people walking with canes and others being pushed in wheelchairs, an obese older couple sitting eating immense sandwiches off a makeshift table composed of boxes, young families with strollers and baby carriages, and longtime Upper East Siders whose daily neighborhood park this is.

They are all strangers to me, but I like constructing short stories about them. A guy in his early 50s who looks a bit like that pleasant-looking rodent Michael Cohen sits near me making calls and eating Polly seeds. It’s easy for me to imagine him as a low-level lawyer and operator making sleazy deals. I know I have antipathy toward this type of person, so the story I construct will predictably only end badly for him with a loss of his license to practice and a short prison sentence.

I also observe a very thin, worn older woman with extremely long white hair who sits near me. She uses a cane and carries a tattered plastic bag. My story would begin with an aging actress who has had a breakdown and lives alone with little money in a railroad flat apartment on York Avenue. And she obsessively thinks back to when she was young and life had possibility. But even then there was always a dark underside that emotionally pained and subverted her, and ultimately led to a breakdown. The details that give these stories more texture and substance still need to be filled in.

A jogger runs past the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park. Photo: Leonard Quart

After sitting for a half hour near the Met, I walk through an underpass where a Korean cellist is playing Beethoven’s cello sonata No. 3 to the 55-acre, lush green Great Lawn. It’s where I once played softball and touch football as if my life depended on it (a foolish carryover from adolescence). The park the — from the late 60s through the mid-80s — was no oasis, but a chaotic, despoiled place. Much of the grass on the Lawn had been worn down by overuse (too many concerts and ball games, and little caretaking) and turned to mud. The trees surrounding it weren’t pruned, graffiti adorned many park buildings, garbage wasn’t collected and overflowed onto the pathways, and a number of park lights were shattered. In addition, thieves, vandals and muggers made the park feel ominous at times. It was generally an uninviting place — a park to play ball in and then quickly leave or take my daughter to the zoo or playgrounds near the entrance where one could easily escape if there was a sign of danger.

Central Park’s Great Lawn. Photo: Leonard Quart

But in 1997, a replanted, radiant Great Lawn was reopened and the nearby algae-ridden Turtle Pond was dredged and reconfigured. It was all done by the Central Park Conservancy under contract with the City of New York/Department of Parks and Recreation, sometimes engaging in joint ventures. But it was the Conservancy that raised millions from corporations, individuals and foundations that had the major responsibility for transforming the Great Lawn and the park itself.

So, on this Saturday, I look out at this controlled dreamscape of a Great Lawn and I see families and friends picnicking, people tossing Frisbees and some co-ed softball games taking place. In the far distance, I can see some of Central Park West’s striking landmarked buildings like the Beresford (capped by three distinctive octagonal copper-capped towers) and the Eldorado.

I can’t say there were any profound revelations amidst the wide range of activities and human dramas I observed that day. But being there renewed again my love for parks. I like the way the city and Central Park interact — the feeling that one can find both seclusion and peace (albeit harder on that Saturday) as well as communal excitement. Of course, I’m the kind of city person whose need for a natural world is often satisfied by a walk in park. I don’t expect most people to share that sentiment, but the day in the park provided me with that mixture of tumult and concord that I desired.


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