Central Park

Delacourt Foutain

The Waterfall: Central Park's Man-Made Natural Wonder

Back in my starving and suffering days in New York, I was always happiest in Central Park.

Between 1975 and 1977, we had double-digit unemployment and inflation. New York City went bankrupt.  I had no job, no prospects, an apartment I could not sell or afford, and my health was dangerously poor.

I always found relief, and often joy, in Central Park.

So did the entire city. On spring weekends, all the cliff dwellers came out of their caves to recreate in their own ways.

You can run, walk, ride a bike, or a horse, or a horse and carriage. You can row a boat on a pond, play bocce, tennis, soccer, or softball.  You can picnic on the grass in the Sheep Meadow.

You could buy joints at the Delacourt Fountain until Giuliani chased the dealers out.  You can go to the zoo or ride the Carousel, on huge wooden horses of many colors, all carved into action poses. You can sit and think or read or keep company on benches in dozens of different environments.  But you can’t drive a car.

You can buy ice cream, Italian ices, good hot dogs with sauerkraut, hot pretzels, chestnuts, peanuts, and popcorn from street vendors or refreshment stands.  There’s a half-decent inexpensive cafeteria in the zoo, and fine dining at the Tavern on the Green, by the pond.

There are even places in the Park where you can’t tell you’re in the middle of a giant, overcrowded city.  You can experience what the city was like before they built the city.

The genius who folded all these wonderful environments into a rectangle five miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide was Frederick Law Olmsted.

But the people make Central Park a wonder of the world.  There’s every kind of people in New York, and they all come to the park on spring weekend afternoons: black, white, yellow, brown, red, filthy rich, dirt poor, Yuppies, artists, musicians, show people, doctors and lawyers, advertising people, film makers, corporate executives, bankers, children, grandparents, great grandparents, and out-of-towners.

I saw Carol Burnette walking, folded up into herself, Ethel Kennedy sitting in the sun with a body guard nearby, Bill Moyers and Tony Randall, who lived on Central Park West.  The Park was lousy with soap opera stars before they started making them in California.

Central Park West is high rise apartment buildings for people with a lot of money and good taste.  Central Park South is expensive, commercial hotels and apartment buildings for people with money and little or no taste.  Along the east side of the park is Fifth Avenue, where filthy rich people live.

One Fifth Avenue building rejected Barbra Streisand, either because she was Jewish or in show business.  Co-op apartments are different from condos. They’re allowed to discriminate, and reject potential buyers without giving a reason.

Jackie Kennedy lived at 5th and 86th, right across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I doubt her co-op board said anything about her Jewish companion, Francis Templesman, or her Jewish son-in-law.

Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon both lived in the same Fifth Avenue high rise when Nixon was practicing law.   They never visited each other, even for coffee or a cocktail.

People play music with their instrument cases open for gratuities.  Last time, I heard a black family sing choral music, not professional but very sincere, good enough to keep me listening.

But the best musical experience I had in the Park was stopping to listen to two enthusiastic acoustic guitar players.  An old African American man, in an old sport coat and fedora, stopped to listen.  Then, he started to groove.  Then he started to move.  He conducted them with his body, hands, and vocalese, pointing at one or the other for solos.

As the boys played, they began rolling their eyes at each other because they were playing way beyond their ability.  They didn’t know where all that music was coming from, or how it was getting through their fingers.

The music drew a crowd, and the old man fascinated everyone. All the music was coming from inside him, and he did not have an instrument.  We wondered who he was and where he came from.

When he and the boys wound down, he acknowledged the crowd, hugged each boy, and said he would not say his name because people would know it. Then he moved on toward the fountain.

Not long after that, I gave up on New York City. I sold my apartment for what I paid for it, and drove a cab all night, sleeping on people’s couches during the day.  Before I was forced to sleep on the subway, my parents brought me to New Hampshire, where they had lived for the past four years.  I thought my life was over.  I was one of those New York snobs who thought civilization ended at the Hudson and East Rivers

My folks got me medical attention, and let me stay in their house for as long as it took to get healthy.  I got on my feet in due time, and took a wrong turn.  I lost a year going to North Carolina to study broadcasting.  I wanted to be a reporter, and TV was where the action was, I thought. I was wrong.  TV did not value what I was good at, and I could not wear a 40-regular suit.

I was best at getting close to people with a pencil and paper, finding out what they were about, or explaining concepts and ideas so people could understand them.

When I came back to New Hampshire for Christmas that year, people treated me like I was home. “Where have you been, what were you doing, how long are you staying?”  Nobody ever treated me like I was home before.  I finished my year in North Carolina, and came back to New Hampshire to live.

I got a Masters in non-fiction writing and started writing for newspapers. I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up.  In New York, I was occasionally brilliant.  As I got older and sicker, the brilliant spurts got farther apart, and harder to psych myself into.  I wanted to stop being occasionally brilliant, and become the kind of craftsman who did solid professional work every day.

When my colleagues in the newsroom called me a “word smith” (high praise from peers), they meant I’d become the kind of writer I wanted to be.

7 Comments for this entry

  • Ken!Brait1 says:

    I love your piece on Central Park;
    it is my favorite park and Central Park is the reason that I became a landscape architect.
    My father first took me there when I was 11 years old and told me that the “natural scenery” created was to provide relief to all citizens from the urban hell we had built.
    Later at Oberlin, I took a course on the history of American architecture and the teacher (Mr. Severens) dedicated three classes to landscape architecture. I was reintroduced to Central Park and their creators, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, his English partner.
    That was it… I decided to become a landscape architect.
    Olmstead is considered to be the father of American landscape architecture although Andrew Jackson Downing came before Olmstead;
    Downing actually brought Vaux (a landscape designer) over from England.
    Olmstead was actually a journalist; he traveled to England and saw some of the great parks there, came back and changed fields.
    He became one of the most prolific park designer as well as urban planner in the US.
    He was a strong believer in egalitarian ideals and believed that green space should be equally accessible to all citizens.
    Olmstead is also responsible for our great National Parks.
    Central Park is an incredible American success story; it is there that you can watch “the melting pot”. (is this your title?)
    Not long ago my girlfriend and I were invited to the boat house for a wedding celebration. As part of the celebration we were treated to a ride in a true Venetian gondola, which was gifted to the people of New York from the people of Venice;
    my girlfriend sang me an air from Don Giovanni…I was in heaven!

    Joel

    PS Ironically one of Olmstead’s last work was the Biltmore estate in N.Carolina; not very egalitarian.

  • Ken!Brait1 says:

    This comment comes from Joel Legalle, a landscape architect living in Pittsburgh, a good friend of mine from Oberlin College. It came to me in an e-mail, and I got his permission to post it.

    Ken B.

  • Ken!Brait1 says:

    Karen Dandurant That was amazing Ken. I felt like I was there again. You describe it exactly as I remember it. Thanks.

  • Ken!Brait1 says:

    Lori Dramstad wow, ya got me guessing as to who… and I Am going to get there someday!

  • marta braiterman tanenbaum says:

    Olmstead also designed Tappan Square in the center of the town and college of Oberlin, Ohio. There’s not much to the design; it’s just a flat square of land. The vision was understanding it could be the green center of the town and the college, at the same time, instead of separating a college behind a walled gate. There were a few houses on the square when Olmstead saw it, and he advised those houses be bought and levelled so it would make a green square and attract no more new homes. As well, the college was advised to “finish off” the last of four sides of the square by building its next several college buildings, facing inward towards the square with front doors from there. He wanted to bring the square alive so people had to criss-cross it daily to go from building to building.

    Even today, the town and college of Oberlin have positive and close town-gown relationships. Students who miss their families can walk and see other town families with children, walking their dogs and stop to chat. Whatever is worthy of town-center activity on a green is seen by college students going here and there to class. When the college performs outdoors, such as a college-run circus event, the families come out to see it on their own space.

    Ken, from your article it sounds as though Central Park is so vibrant. Olmstead’s genius worked in the great city of New York and a tiny rural Ohio town. He understood what people needed: accessible green space where they lived each day. Very different from visiting a national forest or park, which is also great but different.

    I enjoyed your article rejoicing in Central Park, as well as the reply from your Oberlin College friend.

    Thank you.

    Landscape Architects sometimes change how people relate to their green spaces without ever planting a single shrub!

  • Ken!Brait1 says:

    Marta is my sister, and we are both Oberlin College graduates. Her first career after college was landscape architecture. I never knew any of what she says here.

    When Marta was a regional planner, and I was still in New York, I begged her to come let me show her the greatest achievement of the father of American landscape architecture. She never did. She did not like New York City. We were both New York snobs, but in opposite directions.

  • marta braiterman tanenbaum says:

    I’ve always liked NYC!

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