Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Central Park: A welcoming oasis

Yesterday I had my second Pfizer vaccine. Visions of traveling again bubble up, and I think back to my last adventure…
I meet up with my old friend Jane in Manhattan on my way home from a trip to Oxfordshire, England. After breakfast at a bakery cafe, she suggests a walk around Central Park Reservoir. It’s a crisp spring morning and I love the thought, yet I hesitate. The park’s violence and neglect were well-publicized when I lived here in the early 1980s.
Since then, Jane assures me, the park has experienced a renaissance. A lifelong New Yorker, she knows this city, so I defer to her and we head off.
As we enter off 85th Street on this bright day, joggers and cyclists form a continuous parade along a tree-lined road now closed to cars except during rush hour. A gently sloping trail winds up to the reservoir, which abounds with people of every age and ethnicity. Arriving at the water, we ask a young woman to snap our photo, then return the favor as she — and her sari-clad family — strike a celebratory pose, huddling into each other with the reservoir behind them, their saris fluttering.
Trees and vegetation line our pathway in soothing shades from limes and emeralds to deep blue-greens. The urban skyline creates a backdrop above the greenery, yet it never intervenes with the immediate view or luscious feeling.
Strolling along, the breeze energizes us. As we reflect on our lives over the course of our forty-year friendship, I find myself intoxicated with the magnificence of this park. It seems to embrace the teeming masses of New Yorkers with such ease. I feel as if I’m no longer in the city at all.
Seeing my delight, Jane diverts from our personal stories to explain how Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park over 150 years ago, when roads traversed by horse and buggy could nonetheless become noisy and hectic. A self-taught landscape architect with no formal training but far-reaching insight, Olmsted had park roads dug below ground level, so visitors are surrounded only by natural elements, escaping the chaos of city life. I am enraptured with this place.
The New York City of Olmsted’s day was already hugely diverse and divided, its ethnic and socioeconomic groups living out private lives in their own strata, neighborhoods separated by unspoken boundaries. “He couldn’t force people to interact, yet he was able to create a lovely oasis where they would at least see their neighbors,” Jane explains. His purpose was to support a more democratic society.
As we amble around the reservoir, exotic ducks float peacefully — mergansers, mandarins and teals. Such vivid creatures in the midst of Manhattan! They, too, have discovered the wonder of this place.
Trees of many species hover above us, providing welcome shade as the day warms. Jane points out that Central Park’s American elms are the largest remaining stands in the Northeastern United States. Their isolation in the center of the city protected them from the Dutch elm disease that ravaged so many others.
As we complete our two-mile circuit I long for more, so we head toward the park’s west side. Our path meanders and I wonder where we are. Central Park’s landscape is intentionally chaotic, Jane tells me, inviting visitors to wander, get lost and find themselves, perhaps in a new, undiscovered space. Most park visitors live in New York City, many returning regularly, yet there is always a freshness here.
We reach Turtle Pond, where dozens of turtles sun on the rocks and shore. One of them ambles up to a man eating a sandwich. He offers a piece of lettuce, and the reptile grabs it in her jaws, chomping the greens as she trudges toward the pond.
As we prepare to exit, I catch glimpses of a young Spanish-speaking couple sprawled on a shaded blanket smiling at each other, a group of children running and laughing alongside the water, elderly friends strolling a path arm in arm, lost in conversation. It’s clear they all feel comfortable, refreshed and embraced here. And they are seen.
I have recently visited lovely British gardens, yet the most accessible and wondrous landscape I discovered on this journey is located in the middle of Manhattan.

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