New York Icons: Central Park
The People’s Park.
4,000,000 plants, 25,000 trees, 1,600 “luminaries” (lamp posts), 1,500 species, 843 acres, 230 species of bird, 49 zones (each with a gardening team), 29 sculptures, 21 playgrounds, 18 gates (each assigned a name), 7 bodies of water, 7 meadows, 3 woodlands, 2 natural springs, 2 fenced-off areas, 1 formal garden, and numerous sporting facilities (baseball, volleyball, soccer, croquet, lawn bowls). $528 billion estimated park valuation (2005).
Appears natural but is almost entirely artificial. One of the largest populations of American Elm trees. A quarter of all US birds have been spotted in the park. Most visited urban park in the US. Most filmed location with over 500 movies (Manhattan, Devil’s Advocate, Sex and the City — in Die Hard with a Vengeance they actually drove a taxi down Bridle Path on 72nd and jumped a wall onto 59th!).
Lamp posts also give directions — the first two digits are the closest cross street, last two digits represent east (even) or west (odd). A single survey bolt remains (65th St transverse). Official audio guides feature Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Bloomberg. Constitutes its own census region (#143) with a population of 18 people spanning 3 households (officials have rejected this claim). Has its own NYPD precinct (fewer than 100 crimes per year, down from 1,000 in the early 80s) and volunteer bicycle ambulance service. No cars on weekends or weekdays after 7pm. Summit Rock the highest natural elevation.
Note: Asterisk denotes I’ve yet to visit properly
In 1853 1,600 Irish immigrants and property-owning slaves (some of the earliest) were displaced from their shanty towns (Harsenville, Piggery District, Seneca Village — formerly Goat Hill). Park construction started in 1857 and completed in 1873 by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (also the men behind Prospect Park). Taxpayers were shocked to discover the land cost ($5 million) was more than three times the estimated cost of the entire project. More gunpowder was used to clear the area than was used at the Battle of Gettysburg and 10 million cartloads of material was transported out of the park…by horse!
After opening, the park fell into decline until 1934 when Robert Moses was appointed. He is responsible for cleaning up the park, clearing shantytowns, sourcing donors and adding recreation areas. Moses’ departure in 1960 marked another 20-year decline. Thomas Hoving appointment in 1966 begun the “events era” in the park with kite flying, concerts, holiday celebrations, parties and various ‘love-ins’, ‘be-ins’, ‘fat-ins’ and ‘gay-ins’ — meant to challenge conventions of appropriate behaviour. If Moses was the city’s greatest park builder, Hoving was its greatest promoter.
In 1908, the first film Romeo and Juliet was shot in the park. In 1935, carriages were introduced (first female driver in 1967). In 1989, the notorious “Central Park Jogger” case wrongly convicted 5 juveniles to 6–13 years imprisonment (resulting in a $41 million settlement). In 1997, a bronze statue of Duke Ellington was installed at the grand north “Gateway to Harlem” entrance. In 2005, The Gates art installation ran for 16 days and comprised of 7,500 gates that stretched for 25 miles. In 2009, a new species of centipede was discovered in the park. In 2012, a hedge fund manager donated $100 million.
Tanner’s Spring is named after a man who fasted for forty days drinking only its water. Archeologists recently uncovered the oldest cobblestone highway out of the city, Kingsbridge Road. Each year there’s a secretive Christmas tree dedicated to pets.
Mentioned in Catcher in the Rye and the Coltrane song, Central Park West. Notable street performers include the “guitar man” (David Ippolito) and Thoth (subject of a self-titled 2002 Academy Award winning film).
Fort Clinton* (1812, rebuilt 2014)
String of military fortifications used by the British in 1776, during the Revolutionary War, and War of 1812. Named after DeWitt Clinton (mayor) to compliment Nutter’s Battery and Fort Fish, which were connected by gatehouses and blockhouses — one of which remains. Two cannons were restored and reinstalled after 40 years in storage.
Blockhouse №. 1* (1814)
Constructed during the War of 1812, “The Blockhouse” was assembled by volunteers who brought their own building materials (hence mixed red sandstone blocks) on the Great Hill — the site of an older Revolutionary War fortification, which sealed off lower Manhattan. At its height nearly 2,000 soldiers were garrisoned and it was completed two days before the Treaty of Ghent was signed to end the war — never used and abandoned almost overnight. Original bronze plaque above the door was stolen 1913; the replacement installed in 1999 was also stolen. Tours (inside) available.
Great Lawn and Turtle Pond (1842)
Formerly the Lower Reservoir before being drained and becoming a shantytown during the Great Depression. It was named Hooverville or Hoover Valley (after President Hoover), and had 17 shacks and even a brick building (“Rockside Inn”) running along “Depression Street”.
The Great Lawn has hosted Elton John (1980, 300,000), Simon and Garfunkel reunion (1981, 500,000), Anti-Nuclear Rally (1982, 750,000), Diana Ross (1983, 800,000), Plácido Domingo (1988), Paul Simon (1991, 600,000), Pocahontas premier (1995), Pope John Paul II (1995, 125,000), Garth Brooks (1997, 980,000), Sheryl Crow (1999), Sting (2000), Dave Matthews Band (2003), and “Live Broadway” (2006), Bon Jovi (2008), Black Eyed Peas (2011), Andrea Bocelli (2011), Global Citizen Festival (2012+, 60,000) — as well as The Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. In 1985 Bruce Springsteen was due to play, but called off due to estimated crowd of 1.3 million.
Global Citizen Festival offers free tickets and has featured: Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Black Keys, John Legend, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, The Roots, No Doubt, Sting, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Pearl Jam, Ed Sheeran, Hugh Jackman, Stephen Colbert, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Major Lazer, Metallica, Usher, Cat Stevens, Neil Patrick Harris, Salma Hayek, and Seth Meyers.
Turtle Pond (renamed from Belvedere Lake in 1987) was designed so no single vantage point can take in the full perimeter of the lake. An island in the middle is a sanctuary for turtle eggs.
The Arsenal* (1851)
Armory resembling a medieval fortress — complete with eagle, cannonballs and crossed sabers in a panel above the door. Previously the zoo (elephants!), the original Natural History Museum, police precinct, weather bureau and art gallery — currently the Parks and Recreation offices. Contains a 1930 mural in the lobby, Greensward Plan (original park blueprint, by appointment only) and a gallery on third floor.
The Ramble and Lake (1858)
A wild garden containing many non-native and exotic trees excellent for bird watching. The Lake was excavated by hand and features four rebuilt boat landings (with shelters), rowboats for hire during the warmer months, and ice-skating in winter. The “ground zero for outdoor gay sex” in the 1950–60s, the lawn was referred to as the “Fruited Plain.”
The Ramble Cave was previously located at the north end. In 1904, a man was found shot in the chest (survived) and it was sealed off in the 1930s due to cases of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior. Supposedly contains Native American traces, some steps remain visible beside the Ramble Stone Arch.
On the outskirts lies Cedar Hill (cedar trees, sloping area perfect for reading/sunbathing/sledding) and Cat Hill (crouching bronze panther statue named Still Hunt*).
North Woods* (1860s)
40-acre woodlands replicating the secluded Adirondack forests of central New York State. Contains the 100-ton Huddlestone arch built entirely of uncut boulders held together by gravity alone. The Loch (Scottish for “lake”) winds through the Ravine stream valley before pouring into the Meer.
Central Park Mall (1860s)
The “Promenade” designed for carriage to drop off New York elite at Bethesda Fountain to mingle with the less affluent. The largest remaining stands of American Elm trees and the only straight path within the park.
A Literary Walk contains sculptures of Fitz-Greene Halleck (poet, first American statue in the park), Robert Burns (poet), Sir Walter Scott (novelist) and Columbus (only non-writer). The Olmsted Flower Bed is located south of the Mall.
Umpire Rock* (1860s)
“Rat Rock” named after the rats which used to swarm at night. Before the inclusion of wood chips along the base climbers used to be fined for bouldering. Other rocks include Dog Rock, Duck Rock, Rock N’ Roll Rock, and Beaver Rock.
Park Drive (1860s)
Six miles long with races (foot/bike) on weekends. McGowan’s Pass (or “McGown’s”) is a steep hill and popular training route named after a tavern that closed in 1915 initially named the “The Black Horse” but popularly known as “McGowan’s”.
Harlem Meer* (1861)
Named after the former (separate) village of Harlem and the Dutch word for lake. Built as an extension to south Central Park it has catch-and-release fishing, performance festival (Sundays), Halloween pumpkin sail, and the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center visitor center (built 1993).
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (1862)
Billion-gallon former temporary reservoir that now supplies water to the park. West side “Rhododendron Mile” (named after the plant) and 1.58-mile Shuman running track which, until 2003, was surrounded by an unsightly 7-foot fence obscuring views. Commemorated in 1994, famous joggers include Jackie Onassis, Madonna and Bill Clinton.
At the time it was unthinkable that a billion gallons of water would last less than two weeks — today it’s speculated to last just four hours!
Bow Bridge (1862)
Magnificent 60-foot cast-iron bridge connecting Cherry Hill with the Ramble. Original cast-iron urns disappeared in the 1920s and replaced with replicas in 2008 — with the entire bridge restored in 2015. Featured in the films Manhattan, The Way We Were and Keeping the Faith.
Sheep Meadow (1864)
“The Green” or “The Commons” was originally a rocky swamp and the most expensive park landscape to construct. Two hundred sheep grazed from 1864 to 1934 before moving to Prospect Park for protection from impoverished Depression-era locals. Twice daily a shepherd would hold up carriages (later automobiles) to herd animals to and from the meadow. Home to statues of Mazzini (Italian patriot) and Indian Hunter (first in the park by an American artist). No organized sports or gatherings are allowed.
Site of folk dancing festivals (1910–20s), Truman speech (1945, 500,000 people), Barbra Streisand (1968, 135,000), televised moon landing, AIDS walk (1995), Pocahontas premier (1995, Disney paid $1 million), Black Hawk helicopter base of operations during 9/11, largest water fight (2008), Great Bed-in (2009, 40th anniversary of Lennon/Ono bed-in), 1,300 children promoting Disney’s Animal Kingdom (2009). A 2012 cheese consortium stunt saw a flock of sheep grazing once again on the meadow.
Belvedere Castle (1869)
Translating to “beautiful view” in Italian, a former fire tower is now a decorative building capping Vista Rock (second highest point in the park) containing a small exhibition room and observation deck. Weather bureau equipment still resides in the main turret (the highest point in the park). Home to “Spooks at Belvedere” haunted castle during Halloween, Count von Count in Sesame Street and Gargamel’s lair in the recent Smurfs film.
Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre* (1877)
Originally imported from Sweden for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Home of marionette theater troupe since 1947, which holds shows in the theatre and PuppetMobile around the park.
Cleopatra’s Needle (1881)
One of a three (London, Paris) Egyptian obelisks dating to 1450BC all sharing the same name — a misnomer with no relation to Cleopatra who reigned 1,000 years later. Moved to Alexandria before making a two year journey (Vanderbilt covered shipping costs, 5 months from Staten Island!). The oldest outdoor structure in New York, a time capsule is buried beneath and a 2014 restoration revealed hidden hieroglyphics and replaced the tip.
Glen Span Arch* (1865)
Marking the southern boundary of the Ravine, originally wooden it was partially reconstructed around 1885.
Huddlestone Arch* (1866)
Marking the northern boundary of the Ravine and built entirely of huge, uncut boulders without the use of mortar or other binding material. Only gravity and pressure keep the massive boulders in place — one of which is said to weigh 100 tons!
Gapstow Bridge* (1896)
Iconic bridge offering skyline views.
Metropolitan Museum of Art (1902)
“The Met” is the largest (over 2 million square feet) museum in the US and one of the most visited in the world. Founded in 1870 (originally on Fifth Avenue) the collection consists of works of art from classical antiquity and ancient Egypt, paintings and sculptures from nearly all the European masters, and an extensive collection of American and modern art. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden hosts a single-artist exhibition each year (past includes Lichtenstein, Stella, Koons). Free (suggested donation), open late with special events Fridays (MetFridays).
Museum highlights include Egyptian tombs and mummies, Greek and Roman statues, the Temple of Dendur, King Henry VIII armor, Washington Crossing the Delaware (Leutze), Water Lilies (Monet), Death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David), Madame X (Sargent), and Autumn Rhythm (Pollock). Since the 1990s there have been series of allegations and lawsuits about its status as an institutional buyer of looted and stolen antiquities leading to the repatriation of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of antiquities.
Shakespeare Garden (1913)
4-acre garden containing plants mentioned in the works of Shakespeare — each with a plaque and corresponding quote. Something in bloom all year round. Whispering stone bench (sit either side and whisper into the bench).
Conservatory Water (1916)
Cancelled glass conservatory and reflecting pool turned model boat pond. Kerbs Memorial Boathouse (1954) houses over 100 sailboats (for rent), cafe, and patio. Central Park Model Yacht Club (celebrating their 100th anniversary) holds races on Saturdays 10–1pm. Seasonal miniature jellyfish and ice-skating during winter.
Alice in Wonderland climbing sculpture (1959), Hans Christian Anderson sculpture reading The Ugly Duckling (1955, site of storytelling series for children). Featured in Stuart Little and Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Nearby Pilgrim Hill has a sundial and white granite bench incised with equinox shadow lines.
Naumburg Bandshell (1923)
Replacing the 1862 Mould Bandstand which hosted free Saturday concerts attracting up to 45,000 people. Named after a wealthy merchant banker and host to Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, Central Park Brass, New York Classical Theatre, Public Theatre, Delacorte Theatre (1961, Shakespeare in the Park), MLK speech (1967), John Lennon memorial (1980) and SummerStage (1980s).
The Pond and Hallett Nature Sanctuary* (1934)
3.5-acred fenced-off bird sanctuary off-limits to the public since 1934, but reopened in 2016. Tours available.
Contains gates and benches crafted from wood, Gapstow Bridge (1896), a 75-year-old felled oak tree from Hurricane Sandy, waterfall and bronze busts of Thomas Moore (poet) and Victor Herbert (composer). In 2006, a Coyote nicknamed Hal (for Hallett) was spotted and captured after two days.
Tavern on the Green (1934)
Originally a sheepfold for the sheep of Sheep Meadow. Second-highest grossing independent restaurant in 2007, $2 million sexual harassment lawsuit in 2008, bankrupt in 2009, visitors center 2010–14, attempted purchase by Trump in 2001, reopened 2014.
The original class-enclosed Crystal Room was illegally built and demolished in 2010. Site of the 2005 Marathon Eve Dinner (10,000 guest pre-marathon pasta party) and reviewed by the New York Times 5 times — never receiving more than a single star.
Frequented by Grace Kelly, John Lennon (birthdays), DeNiro, Pacino, Brook Astor and Fran Drescher. Appears in Ghostbusters, Wall Street, Arthur (remake), Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Seinfeld and parodied in Futurama (“Cavern on the Green”) and The Simpsons (“Tavern on the Scream”).
Central Park Zoo* (1934)
Originally an 1860s menagerie before becoming New York’s first zoo. Reopened 1988 and originally free (the Dancing Crane Cafe is still accessible), notable attractions include Hattie the elephant (1920–22), the first gorilla born in captivity (Pattycake), an indoor rain forest, ant colony, penguin house, polar bear (Gus — now a pair of grizzlies), and snow leopard. Most larger animals were relocated to the Bronx Zoo. The Children’s Zoo (renamed Tisch Children’s Zoo in 1997) opened in 1961.
Nearby Gorge Delacorte Musical Clock (plays every half hour 8–5pm) and statues Honey Bear and Dancing Goat (1935) and Balto (1925) — a sled dog that gained fame after journeying over 600 miles through a blizzard to deliver medicine to Alaska (1925).
A famous newspaper hoax in 1874 caused panic by reporting a mass escape of animals killing several people, in TMNT Bebop and Rocksteady are abducted from the zoo, and the inspiration for the song At the Zoo (Simon and Garfunkel, 1967).
Rumsey Playfield (1935)
Former Ladies’ Refreshment Saloon (where women could dine without a male escort), “Casino” (“Little House” in Italian, the park’s first formal restaurant), Art Deco night club (featuring two orchestras) and current entertainment bandshell.
Location for Eddie Duchin, Ethel Merman, Curtis Mayfield, Toni Morrison, The Beastie Boys, Vampire Weekend, Good Morning America (TV) and the SummerStage festival (since 1986, the largest free performing arts in NY).
Conservatory Garden* (1937)
The only formal garden spanning 6-acres divided into three distinct sections. Named for a conservatory that once stood on the site and accessible through Vanderbilt Gate — a forecourt to the Vanderbilt mansion (the grandest on Fifth Avenue). Neglected and reopened in 1987, a designated quiet zone.
Comprises of an Italian garden (12-foot jet fountain, pergola with medallions inscribed with the original 13 states), French (tulips in spring, chrysanthemums in fall, Three Dancing Maidens fountain), English (Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain dedication to The Secret Garden, 1926).
Wollman Rink* (1949)
Originally “The Wollman Theatre” (named after a wealthy family) and host to summer outdoor concerts by Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, Lionel Hampton, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Dinah Washington, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Tammy Wynette, Peggy Lee, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and Leonard Cohen.
Currently owned by Trump, the Victoria Gardens Amusement Park during summer and an ice-skating rink during winter. Featured in Love Story and Serendipity.
Michael Friedsam Memorial Carousel* (1951)
Fourth carousel on the same site — the first powered by hidden animals under the ride (trained to start/stop by operator foot tap)! Second and third iterations were steam-powered and both destroyed by fire. In 1951, a 1908 Coney Island ride with 57 hand-carved horses (once of the largest in the US) was installed. Over 250,000 rides per year, owned by Trump.
Loeb Boathouse (1954)
Originally built in 1874 and destroyed by fired in 1950. Rents rowboats, kayaks and authentic Venetian gondolas. Houses a restaurant overlooking the Lake with formal dining room and fireplace during winter.
Ladies’ Pavilion (1950s)
Overlooking the Ramble Lake at the rocky promontory The Hernshead (“Heron’s Head”) is a wrought iron shelter for ladies waiting to change streetcars. Relocated from Columbus Circle.
Bethesda Terrace and Fountain (1964)
“The center of the center” and “social and spiritual center of Central Park,” originally the Water Terrace prior to “Angel of the Waters” in 1873 — the only major sculpture in the original design and first woman (Emma Stebbins, who was in a “Boston marriage” with a world-famous actress) to create a major work of art in New York.
Four cherubs represent Temperance, Purity, Health and Peace — while panel carvings represent the Seasons, Times of Day, and Ages of Mankind. A reference to the Gospel of John’s angel blessing, the pool was designed to grant healing powers to the nearby Lower Reservoir. Nearby Cherry Hill Fountain (scenic carriage turnaround).
The terrace spans two levels, has two grand and one lesser staircase, and had an outdoor restaurant in the 60s. Deterioration and drug trafficking in the 1970s saw the fountain run dry for decades. Featured in Home Alone 2, Ransom, Stuart Little 2, Avengers, John Wick, Amazing Race, and many video games (Mafia II, GTA IV, CoD:MW3, Cyrsis 2).
Lasker Rink* (1966)
Swimming pool during summer, skating and hockey (annual Central Park Classic) rink during winter. Owned by Trump.
Strawberry Fields (1985)
Commemorating John Lennon’s 45th birthday (he was assassinated nearby) with trees donated from countries around the world. Imagine mosaic from Italy.
Mount Saint Vincent Plaque* (1995)
Former site of the Academy of Mount St. Vincent — founded by nuns and built in 1847, it was the first institution to offer higher learning for women in New York. Later used as a restaurant, hotel, art gallery and even military offices during the Civil War. Destroyed by fire in 1881, now a compost site.
Bank Rock Bay and Oak Bridge (2009)
Narrow inlet encircled by trees popular with bird-watchers located at the north end of the lake. The original 1860 Oak Bridge footbridge was originally built of white oak with decorative cast-iron railings (second-oldest in the US), replaced in 1935 and again in 2009 (only the stone supports are original).
- centralpark.com/events (tours, special events, etc.)