I love Central Park. I have now been in New York for every season, and despite the fact that Spring seemed to come and go in a day, it truly is beautiful at all times of year. In the Autumn, ablaze with gold and orange and red and full of crunchy leaves and dusky twilight, it is breathtaking. In the Winter, blanketed with sparkling snow, the branches like black lace against the dark skies, it is truly a wonderland. In the Spring, with the smell of fresh mown grass and the bright pinks of the cherry blossom trees, it is a feast for the eyes and a much needed signal that winter is over. In the Summer, it is a green paradise, its paths canopied with trees, the sunlight dappled across lush meadows, the fountains bubbling, the air filled with the shouts of baseball players, the whoops of running children, and the chatter of New Yorkers as they stroll, picnic, lounge, sunbathe, walk their dogs, meet their friends, play with their children…it really is the pleasure ground of the city.
What is so different about London from New York is that New York is a compact city built with the needs of its residents in mind, whereas London evolved organically over centuries, was not specifically designed for modern city living, and is more a series of connected villages than a centralised hub. As a result, people are more neighbourhood centred, and go to the multitude of large suburban parks in their local areas, such as Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common, Richmond Park, or Greenwich Park. The central London parks are formal places with flower beds and ‘keep off’ signs and fences and ornamental lakes, places where people go on their lunch break from work for a quick sit down and a sandwich rather than to play football on the weekend or top up their tans. They’re not really in residential areas and aren’t convenient for a weekend’s picnicking. If you live in Manhattan, however, unless you live way downtown, you’re never more than a thirty minute stroll away from an entrance to Central Park. In a city where the majority of people live in purpose built apartment blocks with no outside space, unlike in London, where it’s fairly unusual not to have any private outdoor space at your disposal, the park assumes an importance none in my home city can possibly rival.
I grew up in pleasant 1930′s London suburbia, and despite the fact that my back garden was more concrete than grass, and only sported a few measly daffodils that sprung up miraculously year after year, it was still a much appreciated space where my brother, sister and I could play outside for hours, where we could have big family BBQs, where we could have our birthday parties and dance under the sprinkler and lie on the cool grass spotting shapes in the clouds. When I moved into my first flat I realised how depressing it is not to have a garden, and now that it is pushing 90F outside and I am living in an apartment with no air conditioning, I am pining for a garden even more. Thankfully, this is where Central Park comes in. Stretching from 59th street to 110th street, and spanning from 5th Avenue to 7th Avenue, it’s a colossal rectangle of delight that offers everything from a reservoir to a boating lake, woods to meadows, baseball pitches to tennis courts, fountains to castles, formal flower gardens to wildflower rambles. I just can’t get enough of it, and it’s where I spent all weekend.
Every time I go to the park, I try and explore somewhere new. Living as far up the park as I do, I get to experience a section that is not as widely explored as the mid points where the Boating Lake, fountain and Sheep’s Meadow are. My nearest entrance is by the reservoir at 96th street, but it’s about equidistant to the Vanderbilt Gate at 105th street too, and this part of the park is absolutely stunning. On Sunday I packed myself a book and a little picnic and set off for some much needed alone time. I entered at 105th street and was surprised to find the formal Conservatory Gardens, a beautiful space, much like the gardens of an English stately home, with paths meandering around gorgeous fragrant flower beds filled with the heavy heads of peonies, roses, and lupins nodding in the heat. There are shady paths covered in green canopies, fountains, hedges, and wrought iron benches in hidden nooks. Harlem Meer stretches out, surrounded by little hillocks and mature willows and other beautiful trees I can’t name (I’m not great on nature – I blame growing up in a concrete jungle), and behind this are acres and acres of meadows, billowing out as far as the eye can see, punctuated with rocks and trees and stunning vistas that took my breath away.
As I settled down with my book in the shade, I found myself delighting in the mixture of people around me and the different ways in which they were using the park. I saw a large family celebrating a birthday; they had brought fold out tables and chairs and were having a meal together. I saw friends meeting for a picnic, chatting happily. I saw children playing football, fathers and sons playing baseball, children screeching with delight as they ran in and out of the spray created by a fountain, three couples getting married in the conservatory garden, two men torturing themselves doing their daily workout, plenty of people jogging and cycling, many a couple out for a romantic afternoon stroll, and lots of individuals who were just alone, taking the chance to read quietly or just have some time to themselves in a peaceful setting. Central Park is in many ways the heart of the city; a vital place that is used and appreciated in so many different ways by everyone who lives here. New York is an overwhelmingly busy, noisy, stressful place where privacy and peace are hard to come by. Being able to spend an afternoon sitting in a place where the traffic noise fades to a barely discernable distant hum, your eyes can see nothing but greenery and you can smell the fresh scents of grass and flowers rather than sewage, is truly priceless. I am eternally grateful for Central Park. I can tell I will be spending a LOT of time there this sweaty summer.