Central Park is one of those places that make New York such a great place to live. The huge park, 341 hectare large (843 acres), is located in the center of Manhattan. Its design has served as an example for city parks around the world.
The park boasts several lakes, theaters, ice rinks, fountains, tennis courts, baseball fields, many playgrounds and other facilities. It is also home to the Central Park Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Especially during the weekends, when cars are not allowed into the park, Central Park is a welcome oasis in this hectic city.
When the terrain for Central Park was bought by the City of New York in 1853, it was faraway from civilization, somewhere between the City of New York and the village Harlem. The area contained sheds from colonists, quarries, pig farms and swamps.
In 1857, the city of New York organized a competition for the design of this new park, which had to rival with the great parks in London and Paris. A design by Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, named ‘the Greensward Plan’ was chosen.
This plan featured an English style landscape with large meadows, several lakes and hills. Winding pedestrian roads were separated from main roads and the huge number of trees ensured the city’s buildings were not visible from within the park.
To convert the swampy area into the park the designers had envisioned, several hundred thousand trees were planted, more than 3 million cubic yards of soil was moved, roads and bridges were constructed and a large reservoir was dug out. It took more than 15 years before the 20,000 workers had completed the park. Central Park immediately became a popular place for all New Yorkers, attracting millions of visitors each year.
From Relaxation to Recreation
Frederic Law Olmstead’s goal was to create a place where people could relax and meditate. He saw the park as a kind of social experiment where people from both upper and lower classes would meet, a rather revolutionary idea at that time.
After the appointment of Robert Moses in 1934 as New York City Parks Commissioner, the focus of the park shifted from relaxation to recreation. During Moses’s 26 year tenure he constructed many sports facilities, playgrounds and the Wollman rink. He also renovated the Zoo, and installed several sculptures including ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
Decline and renovation
After the departure of Moses in 1960, Central park started to decline. Graffiti, garbage and criminality kept both citizens and tourists from visiting the park. In the 1970s the park became a symbol of New York City’s decline.
The tide started to turn in 1980 when a group of citizens created the Central Park Conservancy. Together with the city, it started a 50 million dollar renovation project. Several parts of the park, including Sheep Meadow and Bethesda Terrace were restored. Three employees were hired to remove the graffiti – it took them three years to complete this task. Criminality was reduced with the deployment of a large police force.
Thanks to these efforts by both the city and private groups, Central Park is now a relatively clean and safe place, visited by more than 30 million people each year.
Sights & Attractions
There’s plenty to see and do in Central Park. Sports facilities can be found all over the park but most of the interesting sights are found in the lower half of Central Park. You’ll come across historical buildings, statues, monuments, beautiful bridges, and of course plenty of nature. Some of it is quite rugged like the forest-like Ramble while other parts of the park are more manicured and feature beautiful flowers and shrubs.
There are eighteen gated entrances to the park. Each of them has its own name. Several of these gates are ornate such as the Vanderbilt Gate, Engineers’ Gate and in particular Merchants’ Gate at Columbus Circle.
Central Park Zoo
Many people enter the via the Scholars’ Gate at Grand Army Plaza, near Fifth Avenue, which leads to a nice pond with a beautiful stone bridge. More to the north is one of the park’s most popular attractions: Central Park Zoo. The zoo has exhibits divided into several regions such as a tropic zone and polar circle. Some of its popular residents include polar bears, snow leopards, red pandas and penguins. Just north of the Central Park Zoo is the Tisch Children’s Zoo, where small children can see and touch domestic animals.
West of the Central Park Zoo is the Dairy, a Victorian style cottage created in 1870. The picturesque building houses a Visitor Center where you can get maps, guides, gifts, and information on events that are planned in Central Park. The Dairy is located at a former pasture, where cows grazed to provide fresh milk for the city’s children, hence the name of the building.
The Mall, a wide boulevard lined with American elm trees, brings you from the Dairy to the Bethesda Terrace, one of Central Park’s architectural highlights. The terrace has a central covered arcade flanked by two staircases that lead to a plaza. The focal point of the plaza is the Bethesda Fountain, installed here in 1873. The fountain’s statue, Angel of the Waters, was created in 1842 by Emma Stebbins to commemorate the opening of the Croton water system, which for the first time provided New York with clean water. Bethesda Terrace overlooks The Lake and the Loeb Boathouse, where you can rent rowing boats or even a gondola.
Remote controlled model boat enthusiasts head to the Conservatory Water, a pond situated east of The Lake. There are two statues near the pond that are very popular with children. At the west side of the pond stands a statue of Hans Christian Andersen while a sculpture group of Alice in Wonderland and her friends can be found just north of the Conservatory Water. Children love to climb on the giant mushroom. Another famous statue in Central Park shows Balto, a Siberian Husky sled dog who in 1925 helped transport medicine across Alaska to deliver a serum necessary to stop a deadly outbreak of diphtheria.
Sheep Meadow and Great Lawn
Just west of the Mall is one of Central Park’s largest open spaces: Sheep Meadow, an expansive pasture popular in summertime with sunbathers. The Great Lawn, more to the north and at the geographical center of Central Park, is even larger. The oval lawn, created in 1937, often plays host to free summer concerts.
Metropolitan Museum and Cleopatra’s Needle
The most important monument in Central Park is Cleopatra’s Needle, an authentic Egyptian obelisk, located east of the Great Lawn. The 20 meter tall granite obelisk was originally erected at Heliopolis and later moved to Alexandria. In the mid-nineteenth century it was donated to the US as a gift from Egypt. The obelisk stands near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the world’s most important museums, with an enormous collection of artwork from all continents, covering a period from prehistory to today.
Strawberry Fields is a memorial garden situated near the entrance to Central Park at W 72nd Street. It was created in honor of John Lennon, who was shot dead in front of the Dakota Apartments, where he lived. The tear-shaped garden was dedicated in 1985 as a garden of peace. It is named after a Beatles song written by John Lennon.
The famous mosaic with the word Imagine (another Lennon song) was a gift from the city of Naples in Italy.
Bow Bridge and Ramble
There are many bridges in Central Park – each with a unique design. One of the most interesting is the 18 meter (60 ft.) long cast-iron Bow Bridge, that spans The Lake between Cherry Hill near the Bethesda Terrace and the Ramble, a 15 hectare (38 acre) large woodland. Here Central Park is at its most natural, with narrow paths winding through thickets of trees. This is a popular place for bird-watching: the Ramble is on a trans-Atlantic migration route and more than 250 different bird species have been spotted here.
Just north of the Ramble is the Belvedere Castle, situated at the highest point in the park. The castle was created in 1869 as a lookout tower after a design by Calvert Vaux. The tower overlooks Turtle Pond, named for the many turtles that live here.
Shakespeare Garden was created in 1913 as the Garden of the Heart. Three years later, on the 300th anniversary of the Shakespeare’s death, it was dedicated to the famous play writer. The garden contains plants that were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Stairs connect the garden with the Swedish Cottage, a replica of a Swedish school from the nineteenth century. It was transported to Philadelphia on the occasion of the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 and it eventually ended up here in New York’s Central Park.
The upper part of Central Park is less visited and there are also less interesting sights. One major exception is the Conservatory Garden, the only garden in Central Park with a formal layout. It is divided into three sections: a central Italianate garden flanked by a French-style garden to the north and an English-style garden to the south. The gardens are adorned with several beautiful fountains, including “Three Dancing Maidens”, created in 1910 by the German sculptor Walter Schott.
Charles A. Dana Discovery Center
Further up north, bordering Harlem, is Harlem Meer, one of the largest lakes in Central Park. The pretty Victorian-style building near the lake is much younger than it looks: it was built in 1993. It is home to the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, an environmental educational center targeting families and children.