Thursday, June 9, 2011

Horseback Riding and Canoeing in NYC? You bet!

A day in Central Park
Tourists traditionally associate New York with skyscrapers, Broadway shows, and Fifth Avenue shopping rather than horseback riding, rock climbing, or canoeing. Yet all of these seemingly unlikely NYC activities are available in the middle of Manhattan – in Central Park, the first urban landscaped park in the United States.
Originally conceived in the early 1850s by the wealthy Gothamists as an answer to Europe’s belief that Americans lacked appreciation for cultural refinement, the project spanned more than a decade and cost more than ten million dollars. The New York high society embraced the idea of a charming, perfectly manicured Euro-style public ground where they could “be seen,” socialize, and enjoy their carriage rides. Thus, the city acquired about 800 acres of land in the middle of Manhattan deemed unsuitable for commercial building.

Bike Rentals in Central Park

Back then it was a rocky, swampy, yet quite inhabited piece of land with a population of over 1,500 people, including renters, squatters, an African-American settlement, a school, a convent, and three churches. But the city authorities had spoken and so all of the residents were evicted to make room for the common good. While the homeowners were paid for their property, many believed their compensation was far below the actual cost of their homes.
Commenced in 1857, the park’s construction was led by the superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. Bridges were constructed to integrate into the surrounding landscape, swamps were drained and converted into lakes, and four roads were built to carry the cross-town traffic below park level. Built by Irish, German, and English laborers who were paid about a dollar a day (talk about cheap!), the park was opened to public in 1858 – that winter, wealthy New Yorkers went ice-skating on its 20-acre lake.
Park entrance at Columbus Circle

Located too far uptown for the working class, the park remained the destination of the wealthy during its first few years. Although Saturday concerts attracted the middle-class, taking the subway was too much of an expense for blue collar workers who didn’t benefit from the park until years later.
In the beginning of the twentieth century and following Calvert Vaux’s death, the park slipped into decline due to lack of dedicated maintenance effort. The authorities did little to replace dead trees or prevent littering – until Fiorello La Guardia was elected the mayor in 1934 and charged Robert Moses, the master builder of New York, with the task of cleaning out the decaying relic.
Within a year, Central Park underwent a major facelift: flowers were replanted, dying plants replaced, and bridges repaired. It also made a kid-friendly shift – despite the heavy opposition that insisted that the park was to provide a countryside escape rather than a child-rearing facility, the first playground equipped with jungle gyms and slides was installed. Moses envisioned the park as a great place for recreational activities, so he constructed 19 playgrounds, 12 ball fields and handball courts, and one of the largest merry-go-rounds in the country. He also drained the obsolete Croton Lower Reservoir, turning it into the Great Lawn, which later hosted performances by Diana Ross, Bon Jovi, and Garth Brooks as well as annual concerts by the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. The Public Theater's annual Shakespeare in the Park festival commenced in 1961 and summer performances took place on the Sheep Meadow.

Pedicabs are illegal in Central Park - according to the latest
NYC legislature, but continue to be a thriving business!

In the 1970s, the park became a venue for events of unprecedented scale, including political rallies and demonstrations. Coincidently, it also suffered another decline. Due to budgetary constraints, gardens were left unattended, statues were covered by graffiti, and the homeless moved in, bringing along petty and sometimes not so petty crimes. People began to avoid the park, especially after dusk. Luckily, a renaissance ensued: in 1980, The Central Park Conservancy, a private, not-for-profit organization was founded with the mission to restore, manage, and preserve this urban gem. As of 2007, the conservancy had invested approximately $450 million for park restoration and management. 
Going with the traffic

Nowadays, Central Park provides a nature escape in the midst of the urban metropolis as well as a recreational oasis. Couples, sunbathers, and yoga enthusiasts sprawl on the park meadows with their pets, carriages, and mats. The park's rock outcroppings attract climbers. The Loeb Boathouse rents out rowboats and kayaks. The horse carriages, which can be found all around the area, offer historical rides. Horseback riding is permitted year-round - the recently rebuilt Central Park bridle path is more than six miles long and the Bronx Riverdale Equestrian Centre rents out horses.
Going against the traffic
In winter the park boasts two ice skating rinks, one of which converts into an outdoor swimming pool once it gets warm. In summer it hosts free chess sessions with local grandmasters who play on 30 boards at a time. Much beloved by both children and adults is the Central Park Zoo, which features daily sea lion feedings and hosts a chilled penguin house, a Polar Bear pool, and an indoor rainforest where tropical birds walk over to visitors to be petted. And, of course, there is “street theater,” practically never mentioned in official guidebooks but happening all over the park. It ranges from musicians to mimes and from magicians to the “New York neighborhood acrobats” who twirl on their heads, dance on their hands, and prove to their spectators that “white men can’t jump.”

Parked at the park

1 comment:

  1. I love Central Park, but the canoeing is news to me. I heart NY!