Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Celebrating 150 Years of Central Park

On a clear, brilliant Saturday evening, when the big sky held court to intermittent blinking planes and the Big Dipper, New York’s Central Park celebrated its 150th anniversary. The night was a beautiful finale to a celebratory day of events, as New Yorkers arrived throughout the day, 250,000-strong, to show their appreciation for the planned, 843-acre park that Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux built. The president of the Central Park Conservatory estimated that 25 million people enjoy the park annually, a stunning figure for any tourist destination; the park, though, is quintessential New York City.
I enjoyed the Great Lawn’s culminating concert with a friend on this fair evening; Marcelo Alvarez and Salvatore Licitra promoted their new album “Duetto” by showcasing their tenor voices on several famous arias and other songs from the album. Customary for a New York summer evening in the park, we brought a blanket and some food (sandwiches and fresh fruit), then wandered the great expanse to find a place to camp ourselves for the coming dusk.
From the constant energy and motion of the city, Central Park is the sanctuary that welcomes New Yorkers into nature. Marshlands before shaped by Olmstead and Vaux, Central Park is now a well-designed collection of lakes and open spaces, bridges, baseball fields, fountains, groves, and playgrounds – everything one needs from a park, intended for everyone. And this is the beauty – all New Yorkers share in its pleasures, rich and poor, especially on the weekend when the park is teeming with chortling children, doting parents, and the rest who are reading the New York Times.
As the darkness fell on this brilliant day, I reflected on my own experiences with the park – running around the bottom loop, journaling beneath the Shakespeare statue at the start of The Mall, bantering with friends while people-watching at the Pond, eating a deli sandwich and enjoying the sun at the Sheep’s Meadow, and drifting into beautiful music on a calm evening at the Great Lawn. I thought about the typical day that I was spending on the park’s anniversary – running at noontime while dodging the masses meandering on the paths, eating lunch while making phone calls on a park bench near Central Park South, and the sweet concert on the Great Lawn under the stars.
I allowed the lilting Italian of the operatic pieces to wash my mind of thoughts, better to experience the sweet taste of mango on my tongue, and to ascend into that big, clear sky of opportunity as I closed my eyes. The stage seemed to float on the rise and fall of “Nessun Dorma” sung in harmony and force; Marcelo and Salvatore commanded their voices with such composure, symbolizing the hope that the visionaries of 1853 put into the idea of building an urban oasis central to one of the greatest cities in the world. 150 years has carried Central Park as strongly as the two tenor’s voices on this night, and both park and voices kept their promise under the big sky.
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