Exploring Central Park

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.

51 comments

  1. You have certainly hit the extremes of the NYC climate this year! I don’t suppose it is any use to say, it’s not always like this.
    Also, I REALLY want you to read Jack Finney’s Time and Again while you are still living in NYC. It’s the classic time travel novel – and NYC , past and present, is the major character.

  2. Oh that sounds wonderful (not the heat in your apartment though!); I can’t believe you are nearly into your fourth season there – is it nearly time to come home?

    1. Thank you! No, the apartment heat isn’t so great…sleeping last night was interesting – lots of tossing and turning!

      It is…I have 12 weeks left. It’s gone so fast, I can’t believe it!

  3. I’m so glad you had a great time in Central Park this weekend. Thank you for sharing the lovely pictures! I was envious of you already describing summer weather, as here in Saskatchewan, it can still get chilly, and it seems like spring just arrived; after hearing you describe 90 degree F heat, though, I was not envious at all. I hope you are able to get to the park as much as possible!

    1. Thank you Virginia! I’m glad you enjoyed the pictures. Yes, don’t be too envious – I would be very grateful for a chill wind right now!

  4. It sounds so wonderful – though I have been to NY but never to Central Park. Its on my list to see this place the next time I am there. I have tried reading outside in parks and outdoors but I get distracted easily

    1. Oh Vipula you MUST visit next time you come! You really do experience the ‘real’ New York on a stroll through. I am terrible at getting distracted – and also falling asleep! I didn’t really get much reading done at all!

  5. Oh, doesn’t that look inviting! You’ve done a very good job of making me want to pack up a picnic this very minute and head to a park. But I must say that I am far too nosy to get any reading done when there are people and dogs to watch!

    1. Thank you Darlene! I wish you were here to picnic with, I bet we’d have loads of fun gossiping about everyone we saw! Oh me too – I barely got a chapter read in the end, I was so busy looking around me!

  6. You have experienced the seasons of New York with such a sense of place that even many New Yorkers don’t, Rachel, and you’ve kept your readers captivated with your updates.

    I love Central Park, remembering walking through it on a lovely spring day and then taking a buggy ride in a hansom cab with Tom at night after a romantic dinner then walking through the Plaza Hotel. Hmmmm – I think I’ll have to work on another trip. See what you’ve started, dear Rachel?

    1. Oh, thank you Penny! You are too lovely!

      Fantastic – what beautiful memories you must have. I’m glad you’ve got to experience Central Park. It’s a special place indeed. Another trip must surely be on the cards…I am happy for you to blame me!!🙂

  7. Central Park is so iconic, isn’t it? It makes me think of all the films I’ve seen set in New York and it was lovely to have your descrition of everything that was going on there while you were settling down with your book.

    Lovely surroundings; lots of people to watch; a warm day; a shady tree; a good book; a picnic. Sounds idyllic!

    1. I know it really is. I still feel like I’m in a film set most of the time! I am just so lucky to live here.

      I had the best weekend! There’s nothing like lounging in a park to make you feel totally relaxed and chilled out!

  8. I grew up in London, lived in New York for 6 years, then moved back, so I can relate to what you’re saying. I think it goes further than the parks – the whole centre of London is not really for Londoners, except between 9 and 5, or unless you’re a gazillionaire. We all ebb and flow between the suburbs and the centre, whereas New York is really LIVED IN, and it makes such a difference. Enjoy the park – I’m missing it already! I also love that Manhattan has wonderful riverside parks all up and down each side of the island, so you’re never too far away from some peace even amid all the craziness🙂

    1. Oh absolutely – that is the huge difference. My friends and I keep saying that is what we will miss about New York – how lived in it is, and how much there is going on all the time, and how quick and easy it is to move between neighbourhoods. Sob! It won’t be the same. However London has many charms all of its own.

      I love the green spaces in New York – you really do need them here don’t you!🙂

  9. Twelve weeks only left and that’s it? Ugh, and you’ll be so HOT for most of them. If you ever want to come sleep at my place you can. I have a window unit. I am so glad I got this window unit. I cannot believe how hot it is, and it’s only May! Woe.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying Central Park so much! I’ve been terrible about getting myself up there to see it — I may wait until fall, though, to do any regular Park-going. It’s not that long a walk from work but it’s hoooooootttttttt.

    1. I KNOW! We need to hang out more before I go! You are so sweet- I may very well take you up on that!

      Jenny! But you do have beautiful Prospect Park. And yes, it is far too hot. TOO HOT! I was not expecting this!

  10. What a wonderful post about Central Park. I will be in New York in a few weeks and I will be sure to visit the Conservatory Gardens. They sound beautiful and exactly what I will enjoy. So glad you are enjoying Central Park during your stay in New York. It really is so special.

  11. As a midwesterner used to open spaces, Central Park is always a beautiful refuge during my springtime business trips to New York. It’s an amazing city, but it makes me a bit claustrophobic! My husband used to work as an EMT with the Central Park ambulance corps back in his city-living days, so it’s a place of favorite memories for him as well.

    1. Oh it makes me claustrophobic sometimes too! That’s why I read all these books about the prairies! Central Park is such a special place for so many people – it will always hold a special place in my heart!

  12. It was fascinating for me to see Central Park through a newcomer’s eyes! I grew up a block from Central Park, on 86th Street between Madison and Park, so it was my back yard. In the 1950s my friends and I played on some rocks of Manhattan schist and glittery mica, near a magnolia grove, on a hillside that to my fury was PAVED OVER by the expanding Metropolitan Museum when they built their Temple of Dendur! My childhood memories are of catching tadpoles in the Belvedere Castle pond, and ice skating at Wollman Memorial Rink. No, a thousand memories of a lifetime flood back as I write…too many to tell. Last time I was there, in February, I walked in the snow with my friend who feeds the birds every day, and when they saw her, a DOZEN red cardinals (my favorite bird) came hovering around! By the way, do you know that the Conservatory Garden is home to a statue honoring Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden? Check it out. Warning: Some summers are truly nasty hot in New York, and I grew up before air conditioning. People sat out on the “stoops” of their brownstones and on fire escapes, and kids “swam” in opened fire hydrants. It was a different world…

    1. Diana, I love these stories of your fantastic sounding childhood in New York! You grew up in the heart of the UES – how magnificent! I would love to swim in a fire hydrant right now…and I love that the park was your back garden. Though how awful that the Met paved such a beautiful spot over! I didn’t realise such travesty was allowed to happen!

      1. Central Park’s space is generally sacrosanct, but you got me reading about why and how the city gave permission to expand the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to house the Temple of Dendur, and it’s a very interesting story. Apparently the ancient temple was threatened by the construction of the Aswan Dam and Egypt gave it to the U.S., to be moved piece by piece. The then-head of the Met, Hoving, won the big scramble to be the place to house it, and so they built this big glass monstrosity that covered up the pretty part of the park where I used to play! It doesn’t sound like anybody still objects except me. 🙂 Here’s a couple of websites about it – it’s really interesting and a piece of NY history:
        NYC - Metropolitan Museum of Art - Sackler Wing - Temple of Dendur
        http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/198003/a.temple.at.the.met.htm
        Diana

      2. Thanks Diana that’s really interesting! I LOVE the temple of Dendur and how the glass enclosure lets in the light and you can see the park outside…but I didn’t realise they had inflicted damage on the park to do so!

  13. Your post has reminded of the summer I finished my first degree and, living in a far from luxurious attic flat, I used to relish spending time (whilst awaiting those all important results) with a novel and a sarnie in the local park. Great for just “being” and for people watching, too.

    1. Hanging out in the park, any park, is one of summer’s chiefest joys for me. I remember in sixth form at school, when we were allowed out of the school grounds at lunchtime, we’d go off to the park and eat our lunch and feel very grown up and free. I have lots of happy park memories – and yes, they are the best place for people watching!

  14. Your description of London sounds charming! And the pictures of Central Park are gorgeous. Like, I think, many people who haven’t actually been there, my impression of Central Park is highly colored by having read Stuart Little at a young age. So do they still have boat races? :>

    1. London is a charming city, Nancy! I hope you will get to visit one day. I’m not sure about the boat races…I know there is a boating lake so perhaps there are!!

  15. JEALOUS! Just finished ‘Wait for Me!’ – loved it. She is so wonderful and dignified and she had such a fascinating life. Hitler, JFK, Rita Hayworth! Thanks for the sweet postage offer too. It is crazy how much some places charge. I saw somewhere charging $60 for UK shipping – on clothes! x

    1. Sorry…come on over and experience the beauty!!

      Glad you loved Debo’s memoirs…I thought exactly the same! You are welcome and I really do mean it – postage charges are EXTORTIONATE and there’s no reason for them to be – I can get stuff to you super cheap so don’t hesitate to ask!

  16. Hmmm.

    That top bridge picture reminds me of a movie scene – Ghost Dog, where he’s training a young companion to shoot people.

    Am I right, y’all, who live over there?

    Parks are lovely. Anyone who identifies how nice they are and participates in their niceness is noteworthy.

    Ideally I suppose one would have a garden. I don’t; but we had a nice one as a child and its a pleasant memory.

    1. Oh thank you Bop! Glad you liked it. I have no idea about that film I’m afraid, but there are lots of similar bridges throughout the park if that helps!

  17. Actually I like the Temple of Dendur now…and the whole wing is beautiful. But it did pave over the schisty mica rocks where Mark Mellinger and I, age ten, pretended we were mining on the moon, about ten years before anyone landed there for real. (Kids played a lot of “rocket ship” games then, it was in the air.) And I should say that there were no opened hydrants and people sitting on stoops on the Upper East Side – that was in poorer neighborhoods, of which there were so many more in Manhattan then. Why, I remember the Second Avenue and Third Avenue Els, elevated subways, under which were warrens of slummy tenements where immigrants lived – from places like Germany and Ireland! There, and on the Upper West Side, where I lived after I was married (and which received a new wave of immigrants around 1960, from Puerto Rico this time), you saw the hydrants and poor kids running around playing stickball. The UES was posh, then as now. I lived with my grandparents in this nine-room apartment with a long hallway down which I roller skated in those metal ball-bearing screw-on skates (think how the downstairs neighbors must have loved me!), went to Hunter College Elementary School (for the gifted, God help us), and also to the very ritzy Viola Woolf dancing school, where we learned to walk with books on our heads and curtsey. And I belonged to a Girl Scout troop whose leader was a Marilyn Monroe peroxide blonde who awarded us merit badges in Make-up. I think my favorite growing up in New York-in-the-1950s memory was being taken to the Museum of Natural History on wet weekends…it was a musty grand old place then, not slicked up as it is today, and we knew every old taxidermied animal tableau. I actually had a very tragic and dysfunctional childhood, but I can look back on the richness of New York in those days, with pleasure. And I haven’t even started telling about my teenage bohemian days at the High School of Music and Art, hanging around Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1960s. If you look at my avatar picture on Facebook, though, taken when I was 16, you’ll get the idea!

      1. Well, I’ve written a few books, but the one about my grandmother (Onoto Watanna) is the only one that touches on my own life! YOU should write a book!

    1. Diana: I, too, grew up on the Upper East Side, (74th street and Fifth Avenue). I went to P.S. 6 and then Wagner JHS. After that I went to Columbia Prep on the West Side Your memories take me back to my own childhood of days at the Museum of Natural History, rollerskating in the park and ice skating at Wollman Rink (50 cents for the afternoon!) I also went to Viola Wolfe and attended Temple Emanuel. Thank you so much for bringing it back to me.

  18. What a lovely post. I’m so glad you’re able to have the time to explore the park fully. As a tourist, I was only able to see the famous bits in the Southern half, but did make it up to the ‘Marathon Man’ reservoir. If I’m ever able to visit the city again, I must explore it further, you’ve made it sound wonderful.

    1. Thank you, Annabel! Glad you enjoyed it. You saw the best bits really, but Central Park is massive and there is much to see above the midtown level – I hope you get to see all of it one day soon. You must come back! One visit to New York is never enough!

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