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Central Park Sellout

Central Park Sellout
October 14, 1997

It was always a paradox — a populist Arcadia built at a time when western expansion had begun the century-long desecration of the American frontier, a “wilderness” in the middle of an increasingly mechanized city, a utopian sanctuary no less artificial in its conception than the later rodent kingdoms of Disney would be. Anticipating Mickey and Goofy, Central Park was built with fake grass and man-made hills and artificial waterfalls. At one time, it even had a salaried shepherd tending to an ornamental flock.

It was a “natural” place intended to evoke what Freud would later refer to as the “old condition of things” — specifically the agrarian activities that gave shape to human life before “traffic and industry” deformed the planet. Central Park provided rolling meadows, scenic vistas, rustic overlooks, bridges with grottoes to shelter fictitious trolls. It gives the appearance of being a naturally occurring fragment of some imaginary countryside.

To create this distinctly New World fantasia it was necessary for Old World la­borers to hump in 10 million cartloads of soil. Designed to be many things, Central Park was foremost a kind of Rousseauesque frame for man’s encounters with his “true” self. Crossing its threshold, visitors entered into the spirit of what the landscape architect Frederic Law Olm­sted rhapsodically called a “wildness so hard to capture once put to flight.”

But the park may soon become as perma­nently tame as a golf course if the mayor ap­proves an eight-year exclusive management contract with the Central Park Conservancy. Giuliani’s signature would permit custody of the city’s most important public space quietly to pass into the hands of a private philanthropic elite. And then, with cottage garden plantings, proliferating signage, sweeps of Lawnmaster greens — and helped along by a special new pro­motional team — Central Park, the place, could soon become Central Park, the theme.

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A SATURDAY TIMES news report blandly summa­rized the future: “Formalizing a relationship that has been growing steadily for 17 years, the Giu­liani administration has decided to officially turn over responsibility for maintaining Central Park, the pastoral soul of the city, to a private group.”

Under the terms of the new agreement, the Central Park Conservancy will receive as much as $4 million a year from the city, half from the general fund and half in concessions revenues. This is in addition to Central Park’s share of the city’s overall parks budget, currently $2.9 mil­lion a year. (Of the park’s current $15.9 million budget, the Conservancy privately raises and funds about two-thirds.)

In the first year of the proposal, the city will pay the Conservancy $1 million, provided it raises and spends $5 million; the payments es­calate to as much as $2 million a year over the course of the contract’s term. The deal also calls for the conservancy to keep 50 per cent of any concession revenues above the current level, up to a maximum of $2 million a year.

Claiming that the city will retain control over all important decisions, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern insists, “This represents an ideal public-private partnership. They’re going to whitewash our fences and they’re going to pay to do it. There’s no surrender here.”

Yet the plan Stern negotiated with Conser­vancy head Karen Putnam this past summer — a time when most local community boards were on hiatus — bypassed city charter-mandated processes for establishing public policy and cir­cumvented standard competitive contracting rules to place the day-to-day maintenance of the city’s most heavily utilized public park under pri­vate control. The commissioner argued success­fully with City Hall that the conservancy’s record meritcd giving it a sole-source, no-bid contract.

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Since a partial management contract be­tween the Conservancy and the city was signed in 1993, there has not been a single public audit or review. Those agency operations not covered in its annual report are not publicly reported. If the mayor approves the long-term contract, it be­comes impossible to monitor Conservancy per­formance by means of state freedom of informa­tion statutes or open-meetings laws. And, while IRS statutes require not-for-profits to make tax returns publicly available, a visitor’s initial request placed at the Conservancy’s Arsenal office was re­cently turned away — until the visitor identified himself as a reporter. Furthermore, although the Conservancy chief — who also serves as the Cen­tral Park administrator — reports to the parks commissioner, she is privately paid, a fact that places her office another step away from accountability.

Where is the public in all this? After Con­servancy officials declined an appearance to an­swer contract questions at a City Council hearing, Council-member Ronnie Eldridge complained that “There used to be public scrutiny when we had a Board of &timatc. It’s very hard now for there to be any public oversight.”

For her part, Putnam counters that “the Conservancy has the most exhaustive review system of its own design. We do not move forward without approval front the Landmarks and the Municipal Art commissions.” Conser­vancy chairman Ira M. Millstein adds, “Never once have we tried to ‘take over the park.’ All we want to do is to keep it nice. We pay for the right to keep that park beautiful.”

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It’s Millstein’s sweeping assumption of no­blesse oblige that should sound an alarm, since the Central Park Conservancy board currently includes among its members the multimillionaires Richard Gilder, Michael Bloomberg, and Henry Kravis —  group not unaccustomed to having its collective way. “The Conservancy is increasingly alone in en­suring that the premier property in the city’s park system does not again become a humiliating ruin,” Gilder wrote in last winter’s City Journal, the pub­lication of the Manhattan Institute. Gilder went on to blame the park’s disastrous past not on dra­conian budget cuts but on shiftless, work-to-book unions. That particular problem will be tidily dis­pensed with under the new contract, which, among other conclusions, gives the private non­profit the right to fire city employees.

“As a principle, it’s a terrible mistake,” one former Parks Department official says of the contract, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Thee director of the Conservancy isn’t selected by the mayor. It’s too public a place to have a private entity in charge.”

In a 1995 interview, the then Central Park administrator and Conservancy chief Elizabeth Barlow Rogers remarked that “we must avoid the privatization of public space.” Even Gilder himself — $17 million benefactor of the Great Lawn restoration — has paid lip service to this high-minded ideal. “New York’s parks arc in­valuable public amenities and must remain under close public supervision.”

However, according to Carolyn Kent, a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 9, which opposed the long-term contract, “We’re very deep into parks issues at this board, and we weren’t consulted. We were shocked. This is not a parochial issue where only the people who live in adjacent aparnncnt houses set the debate. Are only the wealthiest supposed to call the shots?”

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WHERE RUMINANTS ONCE cropped the Sheep Meadow, the 843-acre park is now dominated by a bureaucratic sacred cow. And it must be said that the Conservancy — brought in to save the ailing park in 1980 by Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, after Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested turning the place over to the National Parks Service — can legitimately claim responsibility for good works. The restoration of the Harlem Meer, the Dairy, the Bethesda Fountain, and the general reversal of decades-long Parks Department misfeasance were unforeseeable feats at a time when both the elms along Poet’s Walk and the city itself were afflicted with creeping rot.

Since then the economy has rebounded, and Central Park can once again merit the ap­pellation of “crown jewel of the nation’s urban parks.” With the conservancy’s successes came increasing pressure from the board to expand its powers beyond fundraising and general main­tenance to full-scale management. “What’s hap­pened,” says Moisha Blechman, of the New York City Sierra Club, “is that, ultimately, the people who gave the money said, ‘We want to control how the money is spent.’ It makes no sense in a wealthy city to have the takeover of a public entity by a private organization.”

Many things that now occur in the park make little sense, and few of them are held up for public scrutiny. The alienating effect of shutting off areas of the park for promotional events, for example, has some significant prece­dent (Simon and Garfunkel, Diana Ross, etc). But when a Garth Brooks fan complained to The New York Times of the 10 a.m. opening and 6 p.m. closing of the park on concert day, her let­ter cast a chill. “In the future,” wrote Darlene Geller, “perhaps passes can be given out at dif­ferent times and places beforehand.”

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Or perhaps in the future, Team Cheerios will be the order of a Central Park day. On a steamy afternoon in mid August, a giant yellow inflatable cereal box loomed above Bethesda Terrace, a sort of bloated corporate affront to the fountain’s famous Angel of the Waters. Idling on the nearby transverse, several Rollerblade vans advertised the brand’s newly purchased ($1.6 million to the Parks Depart­ment) slogan as “THE OFFICIAL SKATE OF NEW YORK CITY PARKS.” A New York Rangers slap-shot booth parked beneath some elms bore a huge Coca-Cola logo. The displays are here to celebrate a national youth-sports conclave. Oddly enough, it’s the one fact not ex­plained with any signs. A visitor who didn’t know better could easily imagine having wan­dered into a soccer-league fundraiser at the mall.

On another summer morning a beach vol­leyball tournament is underway near the Naum­burg Bandshell. There are bleachers and announcers and cancerously sunbaked people spiking balls into the imported sand. The event is underwritten by the hair-care magnate Paul Mitchell, whose workers have erected canvas tents in which they offer free trims and comb-outs. “One of Mayor Giuliani’s top priorities is to de­velop and nurture public-private partnerships that result in sustained improvements in the condition of our parks,” is how Parks Commissioner Stem reasons away this usurpation of public space.

Events like these are officially sanctioned by the Parks Department, and not the privately funded Central Park Conservancy, but the de­marcation between the two has increasingly be­come blurred. The $750,000 fee HBO paid for Garth Brooks’s concert, for instance was split by the parks department and a Conservancy trust. So was the $55,000 BMW paid to publicize a new sports-car test-drive through the park, the $100,000 Sony and Toys “R” Us paid to hold game exhibitions along the park’s Fifth Avenue entrances, and the $50,000 Breakstone paid to stage an annual Easter egg roll on park lawns.

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Editorializing on the need for creation of a “central park,” the influential 19th-century land-scape achitect Andrew Jackson Browning wrote that “deluded New York has, until lately, content­ed itself with … mere grassplats of verdure … in the mistaken idea that they are parks.” Deluded New York still contents itself with mere grassplats, or anyway settles for being herded from one pre­cious grassplat to the next, as the city’s greatest public space is segmented with fencing and sold off to, say, Anheuser Busch and Evian, two firms that jointly paid $100,000 to hold a beach vol­leyball tournament in a place without a beach.

“The commercialization of the park,” be­comes that much easier when planning and op­erations are conducted out of public view, says the Sierra Club’s Blechman. “An adventure play­ground goes through without community input. A power station just appears at 86th Street and Central Park West. You begin to get increased signage all over the park, done without commu­nity input. Central Park was not designed to have maps and directions everywhere. The Conser­vancy wants to obscure the natural wonder with huge signs telling you where you are.”

Where exactly are you? Are you feeling warm and fuzzy seated on the Christine Hearst and Stephen Schwarzman memorial bench at 76th Street? Are you stopping on your official skates of NYC parks for a sip of water from the Sidney and Arthur Diamond fountain? Are you memorizing the sentimental hokum of an anony­mous donor’s plaque — affixed to a bench near In­ventors Gate — informing parkgoers that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin”?

What if you’ve had enough of “kinship” with 8 million fellow individuals — not to men­tion their products, their philosophies, the oppressive din of their names? “Donor naming has become commonplace in hospitals and synagogues, why not the park?” says commissioner Stern. “Commercialize forever if you want to,” responds attorney Robert Makla, founder of the historicist Greensward Foundation. “Name everything. Give money and ask for a plaque. The point of Central Park is to cross the street and leave the commercialization behind. Stop identifying with Time Warner and Garth Brooks and Disney. Evoke nature, not an indi­vidual. Take a look. Do Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux have their names anywhere?

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They do not. As Carolyn Kent of Commu­nity Board 5 notes, “The problem is there’s no landscape historical staff at the Conservancy to keep the park from becoming a graveyard of memorial plaques.”

Central Park, as biographer Lee Hall writes in Olmsted’s America, was not “created in a social vacuum, or under ideal protection by governing authorities.” It was created on “an undercurrent of political pork barreling, vote trading, and power brokerage.” Lacking the grotesque bra­vado of the Tweed clubhouse, the current power brokers assert a subtle aesthetic hegemony over a piece of Manhattan larger than Monaco.

For “safety,” they seal the park perimeter dur­ing ethnic parade days. They install “temporary” snow fencing that becomes a de facto fixture of the landscape. They festoon fences with self-­celebrating signs and install English-style cottage gardens where the park’s designers mandated na­tive plantings. Increasingly, perhaps in imitation of the 19th-century parks “sparrow cops,” they exhort parkgoers to indulge only in proper forms of public behavior. Sports or unleashed dogs are sternly discouraged, while “relaxing, sunbathing, daydreaming?” are deemed okay.

“The Conservancy is not, must never be al­lowed to be, and should not be seen as, an elitist organization of East Side snobs acting like Lord and Lady Bountiful,” warned William Beinecke, the founding chairman of the conservancy. Yet, as one Upper East Side activist remarks, “the Con­servancy’s history of communicating with groups and individuals is very poor. There are many unanswered questions about how park money will be allocated, how they’re going to spend concession revenues, who decides which of these big public events are held in the park. No one has seen this contract and yet the people from the Conservancy refuse to discuss it. Once the contract is signed, they say, they’ll talk.”

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BEFORE THERE WAS a Central Park Conservan­cy, there were the volunteer Friends of Central Park, and before them there was an activist-­historian named M. M. Graff. Although you’ll find no citation on Graff in the Encyclopedia of New York City, she remains a figure of some rev­erence among people who love the city.

It was Graff who conducted crucial surveys of Central and Prospect parks, compiled defin­itive guides to the bridges, trees, and trails, and also wrote pithy biographies of the park’s cre­ators, pronouncing them “visionaries endowed with highest order of and dedication” and then promptly cutting artistry them down to size. Calvert Vaux, claims Graff, saw the park as an opportunity to advance the art of landscape architecture. Frederic Law Olmsted was moved by democratic ideals.

For decades Graff fought to preserve the balance of these differing visions as realized in a park that is part aesthetic conception, part ex­perimental proving ground.

“The Conservancy is bad and Parks is worse,” Graff says now. “The trees are in terri­ble danger from automobile emissions, but no­body says a word. I hear they’re going to put up signs for traffic, how to get here and there. Ob­viously, once that happens, that’s a place you can put advertising, too. They consistently cheapen and vulgarize the park experience, but Land­marks and the Municipal Art Society do noth­ing to stop them. Only Robert Makla speaks up and everyone hates his guts. I’d like to get out and help, but I’m brushing 89. Frankly, I don’t feel Central Park has much future anymore.” ♦

1997 Village Voice article by Guy Trebay about privatizing public parks

1997 Village Voice article by Guy Trebay about privatizing public parks

1997 Village Voice article by Guy Trebay about privatizing public parks

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Riffs: Be Grateful You’re Dead

RIFFS: Be Grateful You’re Dead

The Grateful Dead have lost a lot of weight. Pigpen is almost svelte, and Bill the Drummer doesn’t look so good. Musically they’ve added so much weight that their old album (new one due in July) now sounds like your speakers have turned to sieves. You first heard it in December those two night at the the Village Theatre. What is the the same is the purity. No tricks, just music, hard, lyric, joyous — pure and together, dense and warm as a dark summer country night. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.

That spiraling new riff that comes through almost everything they play now — including the old stuff, pushed hard by Bill and the New Drummer, winds above you, around you, swoops you into a driving, pulsing, always always musical solid state of energy — enough to (incredibly) lift at least one New York audience to its feet dancing last week. Sunday in the park. They nearly caused a civic disturbance by stopping when the permit said they had to (disturbance cooled by Bill Graham). It was beautiful. The audience — a little wiped out from hours of Butterfield Blues, Airplane, crush, and waiting — milled and sat. The Dead played: it was New York, but it was a free concert, in a park on a sunny Sunday. The Airplane, back in the bandshell listening, grooved. The Dead started cooking. Suddenly teeny bopper was up down front, all lime green and longhair and motion. The row of photographers in front of her were up. Then the audience, not in rows, but en masse, was up, dancing, screaming, frenzied. A firecracker went off onstage. Bubblegum flew. A drumhead popped and drumsticks flew. The band grooved on. Everyone onstage was dancing. Suddenly it was over. There WAS something like it once before. Newport, Duke Ellington, Jonah Jones wailing in the wings on rolled-up newspaper, 27 choruses by Sal Salvadore. The audience was wild. The Newport cops requested and got an end to that. There was no riot then. But that was Newport, and New York audiences don’t come lightly to their feet. There was no riot this time either, of course — there was football in the meadow and a promise of three nights at the Electric Circus.

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The night before, in a set without a break that lasted over two hours, they played one epic number that lasted over one hour. The Dead were at Stony Brook, but the audience was nowhere at all, perhaps partly because the lightshow, which was good, very good in its own right, but inexperienced, was off on some trip that intruded on the music instead of backing it.

Tuesday the Dead opened (at a stiff $4.50 a head) at the Circus, which has good acoustics and is a generally relaxed place to listen. Their first tune is always a shambles — “You’ll have to wait till we figure out who we are and what we’re doing here,” says Jerry Garcia. When they find out, Garcia climbs all over your head with those beautiful riffs shot out of outer space; Bob Weir is there, always there, building, building; Phil Lesh, those long sets; Pigpen, riding everything. There’s the Dead, and then there’s everybody else.

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Wednesday, after one set that was nearly perfect, they busted eardrums with a full-volume “Viola Le” — retaliation on a non-dancing audience, not their best sound or act. It’s a drag that they’re dragged by non-dancing. New York’s not quite ready, but if they stayed here it would happen sooner. It’s still hard to move and hear simultaneously, but at least they raised one audience last week,

Thursday they played a touching “He Was a Friend of Mine,” then I understand some Kew Gardens mama invaded the stage and broke up the last set. Lesh booted her where appropriate, drumsticks flew again (aimed this time), Weir got beaned by a flying cymbal, the drummers stalked off. I wouldn’t know. Suffering a back strained by nearly a week of sitting backless and standing for the Dead, I was kacked out in the dark rear of the Circus. Where do THEY get the energy?

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Merging of Messages, Proliferation of Protest

Saturday in New York: Merging of Messages, Proliferation of Protest
May 2, 1968

I remember a year ago, when the march began in the Sheep Meadow, and the people walked through the midtown streets until they came to the plaza of the United Nations to hear the man they now mourn repeat as a litany, “Stop the Bombing!” Last Saturday, half a world away, the bombs still fell on the rutted earth of Vietnam, and the people came back to the Sheep Meadow, now to hear the widow of Martin Luther King speak of the road ahead.

“My husband always saw the problem of racism and poverty at home and militarism abroad as two sides of the same coin,” she said. “The inter-relatedness of domestic and foreign affairs is no longer questioned. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all the devastating potential.”

The mood of the demonstration this April was confident yet cautious. There was not the same exhilaration in finding many thousands of people of like minds together, for it was no surprise. In 12 months peace had become popular. Lyndon Johnson had an­nounced his retirement, and pow­erful candidates were campaign­ing for peace. Now the Mayor greeted the march, and reiterat­ed his call for an end to the war. Finally there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel.

So encouraged, 90,000 people came to the Sheep Meadow last Saturday to press for final resolution.

“You who have worked with and loved my husband so much,” Mrs. King said to the people, “you who have kept alive the burning issue of war in the American conscience, you who will not be deluded by talk of peace, but who will press on in the knowledge that the work of peacemaking must continue until the last gun is silent… I come to you in my grief only because you keep alive the work and dreams for which my husband gave his life.”

Helicopters circled noisily overhead as the two massive feeder marches poured into Central Park and filled the 12-acre Sheep Meadow as a diverted river might create a lake. More than 120 groups were represented at the march: veterans, draft resisters, religious groups, the black community, the Puerto Rican community, women’s groups, labor groups, professional groups, and a mammoth contingent of high school and college students, primed for the occasion by a national student strike against the war on Friday. The marchers remained in the Sheep Meadow for more than three hours, to hear more than 20 speakers and en­tertainers from the platform built on the hill on the south side of the Meadow.

Although a separate group, the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist March, which split with the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee in protest over Mayor Lindsay’s appearance at the demonstration, encountered police violence at Washington Square, the Sheep Meadow rally was not marred by serious violence. There were, however, several incidents involving a group of pro-war youths who infiltrated the march.

Shortly before the main groups of peace marchers arrived, a group of 150 youths, many waving American flags, charged up a hill on the southwest corner of the meadow toward a large ban­ner reading “Revolutionary Lit­erature” which had been set up by the Socialist Workers Party. They crashed through the banner and scattered the literature.

Purely by coincidence, coming up the other side of the hill were the survivors of the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist March, which had lost 80 members to the police at Washington Square. The Coali­tion, which includes Youth Against War and Fascism and the U.S. Committee to Aid the NLF, marched behind a banner which read “The Streets Belong to the People,” and carried several NLF flags and placards of Che Guevara. The attacking youths seemed astonished, but charged ahead, and the two groups clashed, fists swinging. It was a melee, as police rushed in to break up the fight. The pro-war youths pulled back to the top of the hill, where they burned an NLF flag, and the Coalition pushed across the now crowded meadow, their flags and placards bobbing above the heads of the demonstrators.

The Coalition rallied among the trees at the east side of the Sheep Meadow and told demonstrators about the police action at Washington Square. Meanwhile, the pro-war group circled around the south side of the meadow and a few minutes later attacked again. Several fistfights were broken up by police, and the attackers, some still carrying American flags, pulled back. While people from the main rally urged the Coalition to return to the Sheep Meadow, the two groups hurled sticks, cans, and handfuls of sod at each other. The Coalition chanted, “Remember Washington Square!” and “Up Against the Wall,” and the pro-war group yell­ed, “Why don’t you go to Viet­nam?” and “Support Our Boys in Vietnam.” The police finally persuaded the pro-war group to leave the park.

Meanwhile, Mayor Lindsay had arrived at the rally, where he was greeted by loud applause and scattered booing. He spoke briefly, reaffirming his opposition to the war and his support for the men who are fighting in Vietnam.

Other speakers included the comedian Dick Gregory, the Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Franz Schurmann, Professor of East Asian Studies at Berkeley, who described his recent trip to Hanoi, actress Viveca Lindfors, who spoke of a recent meeting with North Vietnamese and NLF women in Paris, Linda Morse of the Student Mobilization Committee, and Michael Ferber of the Resistance.

Near the end of the rally, a group of students from Columbia urged demonstrators to join them in a march to the site of the controversial gym construction in Morningside Park. They led a group of about 1500 demonstrators out of the west side of the meadow, and began to march up the West Drive of Central Park. Soon several mounted policemen began to follow the group. A student with a bullhorn said that they would follow the West Drive up to 108th Street, unless the were stopped by police, in which case the demonstrators should disperse and reassemble outside Columbia. Several blocks later, they were stopped by police who ordered them to disperse, and the demonstrators left the West Drive and walked over the grass to the west wall of the park which they helped each other climb. The student with the bullhorn gave subway instructions, and the group slowly began to disperse, most of them walking slowly up the sidewalk on Central Park West.

But the police began to arrive in force, in many patrol cars and with several paddy wagons. Police were pushing the march­ers on from behind, and at 84th Street their path was blocked by more police. A paddy wagon pulled up and plainclothesmen began to arrest the marchers. I counted 20 who were led or shoved into the wagon. The re­maining marchers rushed over the park wall and climbed up a steep rocky hill on the edge of the park, and dispersed among the trees on the top of the hill, they chanted “Sieg Heil!” at the plainclothes police, who were still catching marchers. Suddenly, the police leaped over the wall and began to scramble up the steep hill in pursuit of the marchers, who fled into the woods. The plainclothesmen caught a few and dragged them, half sliding themselves, down the hill to the waiting wagons.

An hour later, about 500 of the marchers assembled on 116th Street between Amsterdam and Morningside Avenues. The demonstration at the gym site — a handbill, printed by the United Black Front, said they were going to fill in the hole — had been called off because of the number of police in the area, and students from the “liberated areas” on campus came out to address the marchers from a mall on the third story of the building overlooking 116th Street.

A student spoke to the march­ers through a bullhorn and said that the Strike Committee asked that they not attempt to enter the campus. The marchers applauded. Then he introduced former SDS National Chairman Tom Hayden who, the student said, was also chairman of Mathematics Liberated Area.

“The morale inside the five liberated areas is fine,” Hayden told the marchers. “There is plenty of food. The barricades are built firmly and strongly. We are prepared to resist until the end.”

Hayden said that the back windows of the Math Area were open overlooking Broadway, and there was a dialogue going on with people in the street. “You can go over to Broadway if you want to talk to people inside the building,” he said. “The discus­sions are good. That’s the way to get in.

“There has been no political break in the situation, so the students have no alternative but to hold on. Their existence and re­sistance is on the line.

“This situation is one in which Vietnam is coming home to America. This situation is one in which those people who claim to be the administrators in this society call in the police to pro­tect them from their own people.

“This should be an example to you. The best way you can express your solidarity is to spread this through the city and country, to spread this so there won’t be enough police to deal with the situation.

“If we go down,” Hayden con­cluded, “we want the rest of the city to go down with us.” It was a weekend in which the issues seemed to merge. The rally in Sheep Meadow was a demonstration against the war, but at the same time it was used to enlist support for projects ranging from the Poor People’s Campaign to nuclear disarmament to the student occupation of Columbia. Mrs. King not only called for an end to the war, but called upon Congress to restore the recent cuts in the welfare section to the Social Security amendments, and asked that Congress establish a guaranteed annual income.

“Never in the history of this nation,” she said, “have the people been so forceful in reversing the policy of our government in regard to war. We are indeed on the threshold of a new day for the peacemakers.

“But just as conscientious ac­tion has reversed the tide of public opinion and government policy, we must now turn our attention and the soul force of this movement of people of good will to the problems of the poor here at home.…

“With this determination,” she concluded, “with this faith, we will be able to create new homes, new communities, new cities, a new nation — yes, a new world which we desperately need.”

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From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

I Walked Through Central Park at Night

I went over the wall at 59th Street and Columbus Circle and angled northeast through Central Park. It was 9:15 on a warm Saturday night. Harlem was two and a half miles away. If I maintained my usual block-a-minute sidewalk speed, I would exit onto 110th Street in just over an hour. Unless something went wrong. 

I circled a deserted playground and waded through weeds, aiming for the Carousel, which I knew was up ahead in the shadows. So far I had seen no one, but there was probably nothing to worry about in any case. Central Park at night has a deadly reputation, but fear is in fashion. How many people have actually walked through the park at night to find out for themselves what goes on behind the trees? 

I found a paved walkway and followed it in a long curve to the left. There was the Carousel, on the far side of an empty softball field. A string of streetlamps showed the way. Still no one in sight. To my right were outcroppings of rock and shrubbery in heavy shadow, with a whole choir of urban insects warbling away in the darkness. I glanced back through the dry foliage at the illuminated towers of Central Park South. I was leaving the light behind, and as I turned back to the night, my imagination spontaneously generated three muggers and a homici­dal maniac and placed them in the bushes to my right. They were watching me walk along my little lighted path like a shooting-gallery target. 

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Now wait a minute. That’s why the people in this town have been abandoning their streets and parks. Fear. Why not imagine somebody nifty in the shadows instead of cooking up an ambush? 

Why not? I’ll tell you why not. Because if Doris Day leaps out of the bushes at me, all I’m going to get is a chorus of “Que Sera, Sera.” But if a mugger jumps me, I’m dead. Therefore I imagine the worst, so if it happens I’ll be ready to deal with it. Understand? 

I was almost to the Carousel and almost was close enough. A man suddenly appeared from the shadows and moved toward me on a collision course. I held my ground for a couple of seconds, then my nerve collapsed. Without missing a beat I stepped off the path and scrambled up a hill into the obscurity. A felon in the hand is worth two in the bush. But this shortcut was not in the script. I had planned to stick to walkways and confront anyone who came my way. 

Some plan. You went over the park wall at 59th Street because there were four guys by the entrance who looked as if they ate bottle caps for breakfast. 

If I appeared calm and confident, I would look like “Death Wish” warmed over. Someone walking alone in the park at night must have a good reason for not being afraid, right? Let them worry about me. They don’t know that I’m armed with only a Bic ballpoint. 

Great. And when they pull out their Saturday Night Specials, you can whip out your Bic and describe them to within an inch of their lives. 

At the top of the hill I paused by the Park Drive, just below the chess house. I turned north, but before I could move I heard the unmistakable snick of a switchblade knife snapping open. I sprinted up the road and looked back over my shoulder to catch a traffic-signal control box in the act of changing colors. On cue, a convoy of cars came rushing around the corner and raced past me. I relaxed a little. If I were mugged among the cars, there would be someone to ignore my cries for help. Home again. 

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Then I was alone with the crickets and immediately spotted three perpetrators walking south on the other side of the road. As they came abeam, they called across to ask directions. They were young. Two males. One female. I asked them if they weren’t afraid to walk in the park at night. They weren’t. You’re from out of town, I said. They were. Suddenly I was seized by an overwhelming urge to mug them. They waved and walked south. 

I headed north, past a jogger in a yellow sweatshirt and a horse-­drawn cab whose aroma preceded it by 50 yards. My spirits were up again. Look at all those windows over there on Central Park West, filled with people wondering who’s out there in the park. Well, I’m who’s out there tonight, fellow citizens. I crossed the 66th Street transverse road and skirted the eastern edge of the Sheep Meadow. I looked around in the dim light. Except for the memories of too many demonstrations, it was empty. Nine-thirty on a Saturday night and there was no one in sight. 

I walked down the brightly lit Mall to the bandshell. Ranks of loosely arranged benches faced an empty stage. In the front row two men sat smoking a cigarette. I stopped to ask them from the middle distance if they weren’t afraid to be in the park at night. They shook their heads and said that they had come to hear the bands. “What bands?” I asked. 

“Lost Hope and New Horizon,” the first man said, inhaling smoke. “No, man, New Hope and Lost Horizon,” the second man said, exhaling smoke. “But they’re gone now. Everyone’s gone.” 

So was I. Across the 72nd Street transverse and down the first few steps to the Bethesda Fountain, and stop. There was no one in sight except the angel on top of the fountain sculpture. The plaza was deserted. Abandoned to the amber custody of four big sodium lamps, a science-fiction scene the day after the plague arrives from Altheranon IV. In a flash my courage had collapsed again. I didn’t want to walk down those steps. I felt safe on high ground and didn’t know much about the park north of 72nd Street. It seemed insane to go down to the empty plaza. If this park were safe at night, there’d be more people around enjoying the spectacular chiaroscuro scenery, right?

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Not necessarily. Maybe they don’t know it’s safe in Central Park at night. 

Oh, yeah? Well, maybe they know it’s dangerous in Central Park at night and you don’t. 

Come on, move. You can’t stay here. 

I trotted down the steps, crossed the plaza in the eerie yellow twilight, and followed a walkway around the lake. Dark undergrowth on both sides of the path, curves ahead and behind to obscure a clear view of anyone coming. Modified panic began to set in. What was I doing in here? Walking to 110th Street, that’s what. 

Relax. Eight years on the Lower East Side taught you something about street smarts. 

Right. And those street smarts are now screaming “Schmuck! Get out of the park!” 

Steady. Enjoy the sights. Reflected light on the lake. Beached boats. And the boathouse itself, coming up fast. 

I walked around to the left, heading for the Ramble, but the appearance of three men on the path ahead inspired me to change plans and cross the road. I went down toward Fifth Avenue and drifted right, around Cedar Hill, toward the Metropolitan Museum. I knew I was letting myself be driven away from the middle of the park. 

Who are you afraid of? You’re 6-foot-3 and weigh 190 pounds. 

Who am I afraid of? I’m glad you asked. I’m afraid of an asthmatic midget with a firearms fetish. No, that’s not it. I pass murderers on the street every day. What I’m really worried about are the headlines if anything happens: “Stupid Writer Killed in Park.” I’d probably end up with a smart-ass epitaph as well: “He Died to Prove What Everyone Already Knew.” That’s it. You get no sympathy these days unless you’re bumped off within 50 feet of your front door. When artist Roger Hane was murdered for his bicycle in Central Park last summer, I remember someone wondering why Hane was foolish enough to enter the park in the first place. And that was in daylight. 

I slowed my pace to size up three men on the path ahead. One was leashed to a black-white pair of Scotties, the second lounged under a tree, the third turned his back as I approached and began to bend over and touch his toes. A few yards off to the right an exit onto Fifth Avenue urged me to step out into the light, just for a minute. No. Once out I’d never go back. I followed a graffitied fence around the construction site behind the museum and struck for the open country beyond Cleopatra’s Needle. Two men and a Saint Bernard were gamboling on the greensward just ahead. Dog owners generally aren’t dangerous unless you try to explain responsibility to them, but I gave them lots of room just the same and passed between the trees to the Great Lawn. It was deserted. No one in sight. Incredible. The park can’t be that dangerous, can it? 

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As long as you asked, there were 4 reported murders in Central Park last year, along with 18 rapes, 513 muggings and robberies (about 40 percent of which involved the forced transference of bicycle ownership), 66 felonious assaults, 64 burglaries, 325 larcenies, and 7 auto thefts. Through October 10 of this year there have been…

That’s enough. Forget it. 

Oh, no. You asked the question and since you are now walking through the bushes near the south gatehouse of the Central Park reservoir, you should know. Through October 10 of this year there have been 2 murders, 19 rapes, 486 muggings and robberies, 25 felonious assaults, 32 burglaries, 141 larcenies, and 5 auto thefts. And since a federal survey showed that more than twice as many felonies are committed in New York City as are reported to the police, you can reasonably double those numbers to get a more accurate estimate of the crime problem in Central Park. 

Up a steep slope and onto the lighted path that circles the reservoir. A chain link fence to my left, dark shrubbery to my right. From somewhere below came a long scream played to the tune of slide­-whistle police sirens coming down Fifth Avenue. I tried to concentrate on the beauty of the reservoir, but I couldn’t relax. When a man appeared on the pathway 50 yards behind me, I dropped down the slope and found myself in the soft cinders and sand of a bridle path. The way to Fifth Avenue was blocked by another fence. I trotted along in the darkness, looking for a way through, but there was none and my imagination suddenly invented a land parachute. It straps to your back like the real thing, and when you get into a jam in street or park you pull the ripcord and a giant helium balloon pops out and lifts you straight up into the air. 

Relax, will you? What are the chances of something happening? One in 10,000? 

Fine. If someone hands you a 10,000-cylinder revolver, do you play Russian roulette? If you win, you get to keep what you already have. If you lose, you lose everything. Some odds. 

The darkness on the bridle path was too much. I went back up to the reservoir walkway, but now there was someone in front of me as well as behind. Off to the right was the Guggenheim Museum, coiled in the light of Fifth Avenue. 

Isn’t that interesting? And while you were eyeballing a crummy museum, the guy behind you got 30 feet closer. 

Down the slope again, across the bridle path and YAAAAAAH!! Two people burst out of the underbrush to my left and ran off into the trees. My heart whirred without bothering to beat. Too stunned to run, I kept moving north and found myself hemmed in by the trench of the 96th Street transverse, and as I searched west for a bridge, two hounds came up behind me, barking and snapping at my heels. 

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“Thunder! Lightning!” a man called from somewhere out of view. The dogs retreated. I picked up a two-foot length of wood from the middle of East Meadow. Empty. No one in sight. At the north edge of the meadow I followed a path through dense thickets of anonymous greenery until it abruptly ended at an iron picket fence. Now what? I had to ask. Someone whistled twice from the shadows, just as I had coincidentally decided to double-time in the opposite direction. I found another walkway with lights and steered north by northeast. I relaxed again. For one thing, I had run out of new emotions. For another, the north end of the park is not necessarily the most dangerous. It is if you’re riding a bike, but other serious crimes are evenly distributed to all parts of the park. Except for public lewdness. That’s a West Side specialty in the Seventies. 

The path rose gradually upward. I was climbing the Mount. Not far to go. There were deep pools of shadow on both sides, and I used my wooden club to push aside the overhanging foliage. The big danger now was running into a reporter from the Amsterdam News heading south and beating each other over the head in mutual surprise. A minute later I saw the red and green lights of Fisherman’s Cove Restaurant with the Harlem skyline beyond. Down the north slope of the Mount and I was out of the woods. Almost. To reach 110th Street I had to double back into the park around one end of Harlem Meer or the other. I went east, circled the water and headed back toward 110th. Four men stood talking on the path in front of me so I kept one hand under my jacket, which meant I was carrying either a Luger or lice, and walked past them to the street. It was 10:30. Pretty good time. And the park really wasn’t that bad at all. 

Sure. That’s why your shirt is sweat-plastered to your skin and why you just tightened your belt two notches. 

If you’re going to use the park at night, however, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind. First, go in with a positive attitude. Expect to be safe and have a good time. 

Is that why you left your wallet home? 

Second, bring a friend or two with you. Although 12 million people use Central Park each year, between 59th and 110th Streets on a warm Saturday evening in October I passed only 26 people, including those glimpsed at a distance. 

That’s right, folks. Pile into Central Park at night. It’s much more efficient for muggers and victims to meet in one place. 

Not so long ago, large numbers of people felt safe using the park at night. If large numbers of people use the park again, it will be safe again. And that’s the end of the story. 

Not quite. Someday you’ll have to tell them what happens when a sweating six-foot white man carrying a two-foot wooden club climbs onto a crowded Fifth Avenue bus in Harlem.

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RUNNING OUT OF TIME

If you’re not into New Year’s Eve parties but still want to do something special, sign up for the New York Road Runners’ Midnight Run in Central Park. Start off with a party at 10 p.m., complete with music and DJ, and get ready for the countdown to the new year — the four-mile run starts at midnight to the accompaniment of fireworks, with glasses of champagne offered at checkpoints throughout. Note that this is a race for fun (and prize money, if you’re a veteran runner). The festival is free to the public, and the best view of the fireworks will be just south of 72nd Street.

Wed., Dec. 31, 10 p.m., 2014

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Picnic Spot

It may be an old standby, but with breathtaking views of the city skyline all around, and a 15-acre expanse of grass studded with sunbathers, it’s hard to find a better picnic spot than Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Taking its name from the actual sheep that once grazed there, the area is open from May until mid October, which means you’d better hurry up if you want to enjoy it this year. And if you do, make sure to appreciate how it got there; when Central Park was constructed, Sheep Meadow was the most expensive element in the park, and its development meant a massive undertaking removing rock outcroppings and trucking in fill to make the place suitably level. (It also meant the expulsion of groups of poorer residents who called the area home at the time.) So kick back, relax, and admire what’s possibly the best view in the best city park in the best city in the world. Cuz it’s the best.

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BLOODY GOOD SHOW

Blood Orange is Devonté Hynes, a singer, songwriter and producer who has helped shape the careers of sultry pop wanna-be’s like Sky Ferreira as well as more R&B-leaning artists like Solange Knowles. But when he’s on his own? Hynes gets in a groove and stays there, carving out a space for love and heartache to linger and murmur to one another. His latest album is 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, a critically acclaimed ’80s-inspired disco affair that explores the underbelly of America’s relationship to the LGBT community. He’s a deft performer with a lot of soul, who will assuredly woo Central Park tonight.

Sat., Aug. 16, 7 p.m., 2014

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OUT AND ABOUT

It’s summer, and time to get off the sofa. The folks at Discover Outdoors have a mission: to connect the community and improve quality of life through meaningful outdoor experiences. They’ve been hosting the Outdoor Rise Annual Adventure Festival since 1982 with an eye to protecting the environment as they inspire urban adventurers to do everything from yoga and photography to Bronx River Boat rides and rock climbing. Today, you can start early at a yoga retreat in Central Park, followed by trail running in Forest Hills, an adventure photography course, and an Outback cooking lesson (“Learn to be a backcountry gourmet”). If you’re not afraid of a little water, try stand-up paddle boarding at Pier 66. At 8 a.m., continues through Friday, various locations.

Mondays-Fridays, 8 a.m. Starts: June 23. Continues through June 27, 2014

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WALK THIS WAY

The folks at Free Tours by Foot offer a guide into every wonderful aspect of New York City, including food, history, graffiti and street art, subway art, Central Park, and neighborhoods including Harlem, Brooklyn Heights, and Williamsburg, just to name a few. The best part of all: Each tour is pay-what-you-will after you’ve completed your walk. How can this be? Their website states: “We offer tours at no upfront costs for one very important reason, so that everyone can enjoy a fun, creative and educational walking tour experience no matter what their budget is.” So enjoy a real experience into the city with knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and entertaining guides. For a complete list of times and tours, visit freetoursbyfoot.com/new-york-tours.

Mondays-Sundays, noon. Starts: May 25. Continues through Oct. 1, 2014

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ESCAPE NEW YORK

This Mother’s Day, why not skip the usual flowers and instead give your mom an arrangement of gyoza? The fried dumplings, along with ramen, miso soup, and other treats are on offer at the eighth annual Japan Day, a Central Park–based celebration of the island nation. For Japanophiles, the festival hits all the right notes: A stage features performances that range from taiko drumming to a rendition of “Fortune Cookie in Love,” the hit song from J-Pop powerhouse AKB48. Activity booths run the gamut from culturally edifying to simply cute, with calligraphy workshops, Kabuki face-painting, origami lessons, and the chance to take a photo with Japanese idol Hello Kitty. Everything is free of charge, but get there early: Last year’s Japan Day had lines that rivaled the Cronut’s.

Sun., May 11, 9:30 a.m., 2014