In 1811, by municipal decree, Manhattan Island, between 14th and 155th Streets, was cordoned off into a carefully plotted rectilinear street grid — avenues run north and south, streets east and west. The first New World city to adopt such a plan, New York was ripe for commercial expansion north from the oldest settlements at its southern end, where the burgeoning maritime and trade economy was poised to rocket the metropolis into the Industrial Age. This street plan also made it almost impossible for adventurous adolescents to get lost, at least geographically, which I happily discovered in the autumn of my 16th year.
That is, of course, excluding Greenwich Village, where inattentive pedestrians can easily find themselves at the intersection of Bleecker Street and the Yellow Brick Road (I’m pretty sure I have at least spoken to one person who identified himself as a ‘munchkin’) or at the unlikely intersection of 4th and 10th streets. So, as the grid plan approaches its bicentennial we can look back on the steady, profitable and orderly march north of New York’s commercial and cultural centers – with the exception of the meandering anarchy of Broadway, which winds diagonally down and across Manhattan like the sash of a slightly tawdry, but still alluring, beauty queen. The only interruption of this topographical regimentation is the verdurous expanse of Central Park, one of the most famous public spaces on the planet, on what is probably the most valuable three square miles of real estate in the solar system. As they say in Brooklyn, you can’t make this stuff up.
The idea for a ‘Central Park’ was hatched only forty years after the grid was laid out, when 59th Street represented the fashionable northern suburbs — what Greenwich, Connecticut, is today. It was well out of reach of the downtown poor, so it seemed the perfect place to build a spectacular public park for the privileged. Yes, despite the altruism of its earliest supporters Central Park was originally constructed as a beautifully landscaped front yard for the Astors and Vanderbilts living on Mansion Row along Fifth Ave. However, time does march on, as does transportation technology, and by the turn of the 20th century, Lower East Side tenement dwellers started making their way uptown, rendering the new park democratically central.
While there are still rich people living along Fifth Avenue, they now summer in the Hamptons, at the upscale end of Long Island. This leaves the park to the struggling middle class, the working poor having been priced out of Manhattan almost entirely. In any case, for those of us without access to fashionable vacation homes the park is our sole respite from the inevitable bouts of metro-malaise — a place where congested avenues morph into shaded promenades and cross streets turn into bucolic walkways. The mighty grid gives way to a deftly constructed system of pathways that take the grateful pedestrian (in this case me) into a verdant world of rambling clarity.
Here, I can escape the gasp and clatter of the teeming city streets, an abbreviated walkabout to clear my mind. That, or at least a place to breathe deeply without first checking for the proximity of idling taxis.
Often my excursions lead up the East Park Drive towards the quieter, more rustic northern end of the park. It was originally part of the Boston Post Road, an essential artery of the early colonies. It had also been the path of the retreating Revolutionary Army in 1776, as well as the avenue of its triumphant return seven years later. Sometimes I am not alone.
We had shared walks in the park many times before. This day was different. We had reached an impasse. An unannounced visit, a few things stuffed into a bag and the return of my keys. I asked if we could talk. We walked towards the park in silence. The purposeful click of her heels became muted as we entered the park. Still no words came, no argument or rationale, to rescue the inevitability of the moment. A breeze met us, wind through the early autumn trees, rustling like a giant skirt. I heard an impatient sigh. A lone leaf sailed by, clearly an early adapter. I stopped to watch. She didn’t. Didn’t slow down, didn’t turn her head. Simply tossed “goodbye” over her shoulder and kept walking. I threw “good luck” at her retreating figure and turned back.
Five months later I sat looking out over the Great Lawn, a rolling green expanse at the park’s center. Tablet perched on lap, pen intently gripped in my right hand, staring west, as if the sun setting over New Jersey could inspire some insight into my straitened existence.
A squirrel perched nearby, anticly alert and entirely indifferent. The occasional dog-walker passed and I ruefully eyed their charges, their panting insouciance mocking my studied distemper. A woman strolled up and I allowed myself an appreciative glimpse of her legs. Hmm. My glance up was met by bright, green eyes and the slightest of wry smiles. She sat down at the end of my bench and removed a small, leather bound notebook from her bag. A pretty, smiling, writing, woman. Hmmm. Wait, no, that’s what got me on the bench, alone, staring at New Jersey in the first place – my hard learned misogyny would not be so easily breached. I stuck to my disdainful observation of the canine parade.
I think I sensed them before they came into view, a subtle shudder travelling up my spine and tingling the base of my scalp. Then I heard it, a scurrying, scuttling sound punctuated by a series of high pitched yips. I turned to see a phalanx of tiny, furry, clearly insane white dogs all desperately straining at their leashes, the ends of which were masterfully clenched in the hand of a very large man. He was not fat so much as perfectly symmetrical, his mid-section equal to his height. He wore a Hawaiian shirt so large that the entire cast of “South Pacific” seemed to be waving from its billowing expanse. I watched as he sailed by, the manic dogs straining frantically in front of him, their tiny paws scrabbling across the smooth pavement. Suddenly one broke from the pack and rushed towards me. He was about to leap into my lap when his tether reached its limit. “Come, Bernardo, don’t bother the nice man…”
With that he was tugged back, pulled into a precarious standing position. His tiny, bulging black eyes stared into mine for just an instant before he fell back. But for one moment there was no mistaking his yearning, the silent, desperate plea: “Kill me, please, just kill me…”
Yes, well, perhaps my inference of the dog’s mental state was slightly influenced by my own. But there was no mistaking the singularity of the event, which seemed almost biblical, the portent of greater events to follow. As I gazed after them in mute wonder I heard a voice from the far end of the bench.
“End of Days,” she pronounced. I turned back towards the woman, now staring in, what I assumed to be, mock horror.
“It’s the sign.”
“What sign is that?”
“Don’t you read the Bible? The six poodles of the Apocalypse, obviously.” Her wry smile returned.
I looked back for one more beat, then something broke, and it wasn’t God’s wrath.
“Yes, I believe you’re right,” I answered. “Second book of Gromitious…” Sorry, short notice, I hadn’t bantered in a while. But then again, we were just volleying for serve.
“Nothing to do now but wait for the rapture, I suppose,” was the reply, her smile joined by slightly raised eyebrows.
“Um, maybe a coffee beforehand would be acceptable, don’t want to nod off at the right hand of the almighty, after all.”
We rose from the bench and she fell in beside me as we walked north to meet the returning army.
Central Park’s 843 acres cover 6% of Manhattan. It features a variety of terrains and vistas, ranging from the beautifully sculptured balustrades of Bethesda Terrace to the woodsy solitude of the Ramble. Here, New Yorkers, however jaundiced and jaded, can escape the clamorous confines of the urban environment and access an insight into ourselves, not to mention the restorative glimpse of an occasional raccoon.
And sometimes, Central Park just lets us off the leash.