From Central Park to High Line Park: Summer BonanzaBy Lavina Melwani • Aug 26th, 2012 • Category: 24/7 Talk is Cheap - The Blog
The Greening of New York
Imagine thousands and thousands of stone, brick and glass skyscrapers rising in the concrete canyons of New York City, blocking out the sun and stars. The streets of Manhattan are gridlocked with vehicular traffic, horns blaring, tempers flaring, sometimes drowned out by the wailing siren of a rushing ambulance.
The pavements are an ocean of people, strangers jostling against each other, dashing to a million different places. Underground, in the bowels of the city, the frenzied activity does not ease as thousands more travel jam-packed in the rattling, snaking boxes of metal subways, crushed against strangers whom they may never see again.
For many in this space-challenged city, home may be just a match-box sized room shared with others in yet another tall tower for Manhattan has some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
Now imagine lush greenery, idyllic ponds on which swans and ducks glide, virtual forests of old trees and acres and acres of plush green grass where families can relax, dogs run about and children play ball. Here, unimpeded, you can see the stars and listen to a whole orchestra of birds. Welcome to the parks of New York City which are the virtual lungs of the city and provide the breathing room, the thinking room that millions living in the frenzied city require.
I experienced this first-hand when I visited the much-loved Central Park for the first time. It is an entire city, a virtual green emerald studded in the midst of tall skyscrapers. Putting on my comfortable walking shoes, I fell into the rhythms of the park where thousands let down their hair, walk, jog, bicycle and skateboard. Horse carriages circle the park, parents push baby strollers and sweethearts hold hands and converse earnestly on park benches.
NYC Parks – Central Park
Central Park, which has been around for 150 years, was the first public park to be built in New York. It receives about 35 million visitors annually from around the world. Movies have been shot here and plays have been written about it – it is very much a part of the city’s identity.
A recent study showed that that a majority of visitors use the Park for passive recreation, such as strolling, lounging, picnicking and exploring nature. According to Lane Addonizio of Central Park Conservancy, “The fact that a majority of people still want to use Central Park in the way its creators intended is a validation of our stewardship approach – to restore and manage the Park as a place for people to escape the City.”
And escapes there are galore, according to the season. Besides treating the park as one giant playground, visitors get to listen to free music concerts at Summer Stage, watch free Shakespeare in the park at Delacorte Theater, and even enjoy the nail-biting climax of the famous NYC Marathon. The park also houses Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon who was slain outside his home in the Dakota Apartments, just across from the park.
For children there is the famous musical carousel, over 21 playgrounds within the park and an ice-skating rink. There is also the Central Park Zoo and it’s strange to see monkeys and sea-lions lounging right in the middle of New York City!
Indeed, the park takes on many avatars and some years back the international artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude used the entire park as a canvas with the installation of over 7503 gates, each draped with thousands of free-hanging saffron fabric panels. The effect was stunning. Known as ‘The Gates’, this temporary art installation came and went like a dream. It was there only for 16 days but the city has never forgotten its magic.
Central Park Memories…
For me, Central Park holds memories of taking my children climbing on giant rocks, of chasing pigeons with a toddler, of strolling with a favorite visiting niece in the golden sunshine. A perfect end to a perfect day was sharing a glass of red wine with her at the Boathouse, an elegant restaurant within the park, next to a pond where young children run their mechanized toy boats and yachts.
Central Park is many things to many people and recently a pair of 25-year-old twins actually spent an entire night in two hammocks high up in the rustling elm trees! Although everyone has to leave the park by midnight, they managed to pull of this stunt! It’s only the birds which get to stay overnight, and Central Park is home to hundreds of migratory birds.
Indeed, New York City has been planned thoughtfully where open spaces and green spots punctuate the congestion of city living. There are more than 1,700 parks and recreation facilities across the five boroughs, many with skating rinks, golf courses, ponds, sports fields, swimming pools and even beaches. The parks have recreation facilities which are free for all children, and which adults can join for a nominal fee to access everything from swimming to tennis to fitness classes.
Given the many roles Central Park plays in the city’s life, one would think it was the biggest park in New York but there are at least four parks which are even bigger. Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is 2,765 acres to Central Park’s 800 acres, while Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, which houses the remains of the World Fair, is 1,255 acres
Everywhere you go, you find neighborhood playgrounds and small parks, veins of greenery which run through the city. In fact, it is mandatory for every tall building to have some sort of plaza or public space where people can sit, take a breather. So in hidden spots and crannies, you come across rock gardens, waterfalls and fountains, with benches and greenery.
New York’s Park and Recreation system has 1700 parks across the city of New York which comprises of five boroughs – Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. While the other boroughs are not as congested as Manhattan, they all have the need for open spaces and greenery.
Green Spaces in a Concrete City
What is particularly interesting is how parks embrace the neighborhood and take on the colors of the people living there. Tompkins Square Park in the middle of the East Village caters to the unusual and offbeat. Walk around the area and you see old men playing chess at tables set up there, artists showcasing their wares, and artisans selling fashion items and crafts. The park is also home to the outdoor drag festival Wigstock, the Howl Festival commemorating Allen Ginsberg, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.
NYC Parks – Bryant Park
Bryant Park which adjoins the New York Public Library let’s the city party at its scattered tables, let’s them see free open air movies on the lawns on a giant screen and also has an ice skating rink set up in winter. During the holiday season the park transforms into a festive holiday shopping bazaar with crafts and gift items for the bustling shoppers.
New York City may be cosmopolitan and cutting edge, but many of the parks are seeped in history. Battery Park, from where people board the ferry for Liberty Island to visit Lady Liberty, was actually the hub for arriving immigrants long before Ellis Island was built or the Statue of Liberty existed. In fact Castle Garden, which is within this park, was the first immigrant depot back in 1855. Now the ghosts of the past have disappeared but crowds throng this park to visit Lady Liberty and stand at the water’s edge, right on the Southern tip of Manhattan.
Parks are also about preserving the past. One of the oldest parks is Union Square Park which opened in 1839, and has served as a community soap-box, space for parades, workers rallies and festivals. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It has seen many uses and was once a burial ground too. Walk in this city park and you see statues of famous men – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and our own Mahatma Gandhi.
A greenmarket sprouts up here every weekend, and crowds gather to purchase fresh organic produce. This park is very much a part of people’s lives and in fact, I recall both happy and sad times here. Right after 9/11, the pictures of the missing and the dead were affixed to the wrought iron enclosure of the park, with flowers and candles everywhere. Weeping strangers huddled together, united in their grief. I remember thinking how the park had become almost a church, a pilgrimage spot.
NYC Parks – Washington Square Park
Another park with a past is Washington Square Park where today New York University students mill about, children and dogs run about, and where vendors sell diverse treats from their carts (yes, Thiru the Dosa Man also has his cart in this area!)Hundreds of years ago this was a marsh, then a cemetery and has also served as a parade ground. It’s most famous feature is a huge arch honoring George Washington, after whom the park is named.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken on the ambitious goal of making New York America’s first sustainable city where every New Yorker will live within a ten minute walk of a park. He has launched PlaNYC which is a batch of 127 public-private innovative initiatives. One of them is MillionTreesNYC, which aims to plant a million new trees across the city, an environmental insurance which can benefit the city dwellers in many ways.
The city is being evaluated and changes made to increase the ecological footprint, bringing greenery where none existed. Harlem River Park, for example, is being built along 20 miles of waterfront along the Harlem River, with pedestrian access ways over the busy highway, thus opening up a new resource to the community. Engaging real people is an important strategy and while local universities are looking into habitat restoration, the local artists are leaving their imprint with vivid banners and murals celebrating the spirit of Harlem.
The High Line Park – A Novel Experiment
In an environmentally challenged world, nothing should go waste and in a time of recycling and conservation, the powers that be are turning creative. Thus you have the amazing High Line Park in Manhattan’s gritty West Side, where an abandoned, decaying rail road track laid out in the 1930’s above the city has been transformed into a refreshing park, hovering 30 feet above urban spaces. This park, floating in the sky, is accessible through stairways on several streets as well as elevators. Once again, in this private-public partnership, funds are being raised by a local group, Friends of the High Line.
I visited the park recently in the late evening and walked along the pathways with foliage on either side. With a full moon and the glittering city, not to mention the Empire State Building, all moving with you, it seemed surreal, as if you’re flying in the sky. Below you could see the taxi garages and the snarling traffic – but you were above it all.
The true jewels of the High Line Park are the 210 species of horticultural riches planted here which give a seasonal show, changing from green to the autumnal shades of gold, red and brown. City dwellers learn about the beauties of sassafras and sumac and flowering plants like toadlily and crocus, and can identify the plants with a special guidebook.
Michael Bloomberg, the multimillionaire mayor of New York, has always been an entrepreneur at heart, adept at transforming lemons into lemonades. An example is Freshkills, an ugly landfill which has swallowed all the garbage of the city into its belly and is now being reworked into a verdant park which will allow New Yorkers to enjoy kayaking, hiking and horse riding without traveling out of the city.
Thus, a forbidden space has been transformed into a life-enhancing park. At 2,200 acres, Freshkills Park, situated on Staten Island, is the largest park developed in New York City in over 100 years, and transforming the world’s largest landfill into a park shows the city is on the right track.
It is very much a work in progress and will take over 30 years to be completed, though people can already enjoy many portions of this area, which besides the landfill, also includes wetlands and waterways.
Aware of the preciousness of open spaces and greenery, residents of the city have undertaken to nurture small neighborhood gardens and vegetable patches which give you visual beauty and organic bounty. Schools are also passing the message to children – the other day my little kindergartner brought home green foliage that he had planted in an empty ice-cream container and every day he waters it and watches it grow on the window sill in his city apartment.
Ours is a small planet, we have to green it, preserve it and treasure it!
© Lavina Melwani
NYC Parks – Small Bites…
The High Line Park – Riches on the Tracks
The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the out-of-use elevated rail tracks during the 25 years after trains stopped running. The 210 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees in Section 1 were chosen for their hardiness, sustainability, and textural and color variation, with a focus on native species. Many of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are incorporated into the park’s landscape.
(Source: The High Line)
Strawberry Fields Forever
Strawberry Fields is a living memorial to the world-famous singer, songwriter and peace activist – John Lennon .A designated “quiet zone” in the Park, the memorial is shaded by stately American elms and lined with benches. In the warmer months, flowers bloom all around the area. Along the path near the mosaic, you’ll find a bronze plaque that lists the 121 countries that endorse Strawberry Fields as a Garden of Peace.
Source: (CentralPark NYC)
(This article first appeared in Housecalls magazine)