Making Tracks: Central Park #1 (It’s For You)

This is the first in what will be a series of walks dedicated to Manhattan’s backyard. It’s an ambitious project, but I’m excited to see how it grows and changes over the coming months. Happy to have you along for the journey!

adore the dark cold months. Give me chimney smoke and hot toddies over sun and beaches any day. My lifestyle is pumpkin pancakes. My sexual orientation is hygge.

The only time the fall and winter seasons have been anything close to resembling a problem for me has been while trying to get out of the house early enough to do walks so I can keep writing this freaking essays. Usually I care not a whit about the comings and goings of our celestial yellow goddess, but in the context of my nocturnal lifestyle and this essay series, I feel she has abandoned me. How on earth am I supposed to stomp around New York City while listening to Arcade Fire and taking Profound Notes on my iPhone if the sun decides to dip at 4:30pm?? It’s a conspiracy of the spheres to undermine my art, I tell you.

Fortunately, my friend Michael came to my aid by suggesting a meet-up in the park in the early afternoon, a time when I am usually enjoying my first bleary-eyed cup of coffee. Having a dear friend expecting me was just the motivation I needed to get up and dressed and out into the blinding sunlight.

We have a picnic table that we had visited one time before- two times made it “our table”. It’s just off a little path that runs north of The Great Lawn. When I arrived, an old man was taking a breather at the adjacent table, with his dog companion standing next to him on top of the table. Yes, I pet the dog.

Michael had brought two old camping stoves to test out while we talked. As he carefully administered white gas and pulled out his flint tool, we talked about subzero temperatures and new homes and how the mast of the Empire State Building was ostensibly designed as a mooring post for zeppelins (though none ever successfully moored there for longer than a few minutes). It was one of those conversations that twisted and turned as a phrase one of us would say reminded the other of something that excited us.

Michael and I like talking to each other so much that my plan for more daylight backfired somewhat. By the time he walked me over to my starting point, late winter sunlight was slanting over the buildings on Central Park West. We said our goodbyes, and he made his way east towards home.

Direction: north in Central Park, starting near 93rd st

Album: Goings- It’s For You

A nearly full moon hung in the still-light sky, too big and bright to wait for evening. I set out north on a path that curves out past the Central Park Tennis Center, with Central Park West nearby on my left.

It’s hard to know where to start an essay series on this park, with it being so chock-full of history, but the tennis courts feel as good a place as any- the story of their development is a reflection of the development of both Central Park and New York City as a whole.

noted white man Andrew Jackson Downing

I aim to give you as complete a history of Central Park as I’m able to throughout this series, but for now the main thing I want you to remember about its birth is that the seed of the idea came from a desire to be more like Europe. The story goes that an “anonymous gentleman” (folks think it was Robert Minturn) had done a tour throughout several European countries, and returned to New York with a steady conviction: New York City needed a Park. A big one, with promenades for the rich, and greenery for the working class to enjoy. This idea caught on, and soon multiple people, such as landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing (pictured), were writing into the papers calling for a large green space in Manhattan. To put it in basic terms, a bunch of rich white guys were jealous of Europe’s kickass parks. For good reason, too- in the 1800s, London had about 1400 acres of green space to New York City’s 100. I like to compare this feeling of inadequacy to looking at United States currency and noticing how boring and ugly it looks after you’ve been spending pretty Euros for two weeks with your theatre exchange group in Germany, the same group who said they were gonna tell on you for smoking a cigarette, but actually they were probably just messing with you, but you freaked out anyway, and and you freaked out so badly that you called your mother in tears and snitched on yourself, you fucking nerd.

But I digress.

The stated goals of these wealthy white men circled around a desire to bring the overall “civility” of the city up- the park would not only be a quiet respite from the bustle of the city, but it would also act as an attractive alternative from establishments of vice, like the public houses. They wanted to blend the classes, not in an effort to create more equity in the city, but in order to “class up” the working class. This is evident in the myriad of rules that sprung up around what people could and could not do in the park, many of which were not working class-friendly. For example, business carriages, often the only means of conveyance for working class families, who used them for both business and pleasure, were forbidden from entering the park, and treading/lounging on certain grassy areas was allowed on Saturdays but not on Sundays, the only day of the week that working class people had off from work.

An old-timey throwing of shade. (1869)

However, like true New Yorkers, people still did whatever the hell they wanted. In the first few decades of the park, minders attempted enforcing civility, but over time activities such as baseball and walking on the grass became more and more permissible.

Temporary tennis courts in the North Meadow, 1889

The rules started to bend and break over the years as the people continued to flaunt them, and even actively demanded changes to them. Tennis courts were officially permitted in the park in 1884, in the same area where they exist today- on the west side of the park, between 94th and 96th streets. They began as grass courts with temporary nets, then became paved courts in 1912.

Today the Tennis Center in Central Park boasts 30 paved courts and a Tennis House, built in 1930, that provides players with locker rooms and a proshop, and NYC History essay walkers with a free public bathroom (nice).

Goings’ bright poppy synth and guitar riffs in my ears imbued the scene around me with an electric energy. The bare trees, dead leaves, and bundled up humans seemed more lively while observed with this soundtrack.

I glanced down a small hill to my right as I walked, and observed some dogs going along on their evening walks. Three hounds were enjoying a bit of freedom, bounding a rolling with one another, while a white dog nearby strained on his leash, yearning to take part.

“I won’t be the only one who feels alone

I won’t be the only one”

As I photographed the dogs from afar I noticed the lamp posts had come on. Damn these short days. I crossed over the 97th St transverse and entered the central area of the North Meadow.

“Either way, it’s getting late”

My walk through this area was in December, before the large snows of February. The small dusty baseball diamonds that cover the field sat vacant within gates that closed off the meadow for the season. If you are a bird enthusiast, you’ll know this area as the location where a Snowy Owl was spotted in Central Park for the first time in 130 years.

This area shares a similar story as that of the tennis courts farther south- the park designers originally wanted no part in allowing recreational activities to occur on the fields, but were worn down over decades of the park bending to the will of the people.

NYC went through something of a “baseball boom” in the mid-19th century- by the end of the 1850s, a new baseball club was being formed practically every week, officially making Baseball the Podcasts of the 1800s. A lot of these baseball clubs were formed by adults, but as the park eased its rules around sports activities, the only people originally allowed to play baseball on its fields were young boys who could provide proof of good social standing via a note from their teacher. Such a hilariously odd stipulation, I feel, and one that excluded many working class children, many of whom stopped attending school after elementary grades.

A bunch of n̶e̶r̶d̶s̶ sweet little boys with notes from their teachers saying they can play baseball.

That rule, of course, eventually faded away, and by the 1930s the park had formal baseball fields in the North Meadow (one of the very first projects led by infamous NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses).

If you visit Central Park, one thing that is readily noticeable is how much “wilder” the northern end is as opposed to its southern counterpart. This part of the park was the last part to be constructed- the very northernmost area, between 106th and 110th streets, wasn’t even part of the original plan; the city was able to buy that land a couple of years after construction began. This area was still heavily landscaped by the park designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, but their plan for this area was always to have a more natural feel.

Olmstead and Vaux’s Greensward Plan- top is how the land looked before construction, bottom is their proposed plan. The North Meadow is on the right. These plans were drawn up before the additional land from 106th-110th was purchased.

“Such a temporary mood change.”

The thing about Central Park is you constantly feel like you are a part of the B roll of some Kate Hudson romantic comedy. I took a left to get myself moving north again, and suddenly found myself staring at a small pond, dotted with walkers, with a flock of geese flying by. This is The Pool.

not pictured: the geese that flew by

The water situation in Central Park is complex to say the least, and I had to read up on the formation of The Pool a few times before I really understood what was going on.

While the original land of northern Central Park was very swampy and required a very sophisticated drainage system in order to landscape the area, it lacked very few natural watercourses that ran through its boundaries and were subsequently kept above ground by the park designers. There was one exception- Montayne’s Rivulet, a natural spring that originated on the Upper West Side and flowed through the park to meet the now non-existent Harlem Creek on the east side of the island, which in turn flowed south and east before emptying into the East River. Olmstead and Vaux diverted Montayne’s Rivulet to form The Pool, the Loch (back then a rather substantial lake but now only a stream), and finally the Harlem Meer, a large lake in the northeast corner of the park. The rivulet continued to feed these new man made bodies of water for a while, until developing real estate ventures on the west side got rid of it. The Pool, Loch, and Meer are now fed by a pipe of city water, hidden in a little grotto on one end of The Pool.

“At least I see it for what it really is”

Author’s Note: At this point in my walk the album ended- it is a very short album- and I started it over, but didn’t bother with writing down any more lyrics.

I turned right, away from the Pool, and found myself on a little path that led to the Glen Span Arch.

The Glen Span Arch. The little creek flowing underneath it is the Loch.

In the waning light, the shape of the old stone bridge resembled that of an affable giant who has just opened up a path to you after you’ve cleverly solved his riddle. Well done, bold adventurer.

Glen Span Arch seen with its original design, 1875

Adhering to the natural “rustic” aesthetic of the northern park, architect Vaux and his assistant Jacob Wrey Mould’s original design for the bridge included wooden trestles and railings. That whole look got thrown out around twenty years later, when the top part of the bridge was rebuilt into the design we see today.

The Glen Span Arch is one of the entrances into one of the more “wild” parts of the park- The Ravine. I followed the little Loch as it ran beneath the arch and into the forested area.

Just me and that big ol’ moon.

The Ravine is a dense deciduous forest nestled within the greater area called The North Woods. Oak, elm, maple, hickory, and ash trees fill the area, with narrow paths curving through them, and the little Loch gurgling underfoot. I stopped on a small bridge that spanned the Loch and suddenly found myself relatively alone, which is a strange feeling when you’re in the middle of a city, even one that is experiencing a pandemic. As darkness rapidly gathered around me, I turned off my music for safety.

In the center of the Ravine it is quite easy to feel like you’re in the middle of a true forest visually, but aurally the surrounding urban life continues to insist upon itself. Mingled in with the sounds of water, dogs barking, and wind dancing through leaves was a quiet winter mix of the city: an ambulance screaming by, a public bus operating its hydraulics.

This feeling of (at least physical) isolation from Manhattan was an important aspect of the original plans for the northern area of the park. Planners Olmstead and Vaux knew how much the city would grow up around the park (at the time of construction the city still pretty much didn’t exist above 42nd street, but the population was growing exponentially), and wanted this area to be a true escape, where people could really feel like they were in nature. This is why the park north of the Reservoir contains so many fewer attractions than its southern counterpart.

The relative quiet of the forest was nice, but I’ve heard too many stories about Central Park at night to feel rad about sticking around for very long- I made my way back to light of one of the larger paved roadways.

My last stop of the evening was to the Great Hill, a place specifically requested by one of my Patreon subscribers. In the waning light there wasn’t much to look at, but the area made for interesting research.

The Great Hill, also known in the past as Mount Prospect, 106th Street Overlook, Circle Lawn, the Circle, the Concourse, and Bogardus Hill, is the tallest point in the northern section of the park, and the third tallest point overall. Because of this height, it features heavily in mockups included with the Greensward Plan (the plan Olmstead and Vaux submitted to the Park Commissioners’ design competition, which I will be writing about a lot more in future essays). It served as a strategic position for the British military during the Revolutionary War (at the time it had a good view of the Hudson River), and remnants of their encampments sprang up while workers were landscaping the area in the 1860s. Olmstead and Vaux’s original plan for the Hill included an observation tower, and that can be seen in some of their mock-ups.

From the Greensward Plan proposal: Vaux sketched out what the Great Hill looked like before construction, and then painted a whole damn picture of what they wanted to do to the area.

However, the tower was merely a stipulation of the competition requested by the Commissioners Board, and they pretty much yeeted that plan when it came time to actually construct the park.

Olmstead and Vaux’s ultimate plan for the Hill was to keep it as a chill spot for carriages and checking out the Palisades across the Hudson, but in the 1930s and 40s Robert Moses constructed an asphalt ring around the hill for rollerskating, and hard courts in the center for adult recreations like roque, which is a version of croquet I guess.

As the city suffered through the mid-century financial crisis and the park declined due to lack of funds, the Great Hill suffered, well, greatly.

The Great Hill in 1986 :(

Luckily for us, The Central Park Conservancy came around and restored the Great Hill to its former glory- they even referred back to Olmstead and Vaux’s designs from 1858.

The Great Hill today :)

I stood on Moses’ asphalt rollerskate ring, the only remnant of his project here, and looked around at the city. The view is different, but from that vantage point, you can still see plenty.

A minute or so later, the big moon peeked out from behind her cloud to let me know I should definitely go home now.

I trundled out of the park at 108th Street and Central Park West. Even on the street, near moving traffic, it was still quiet. The holiday gap between Christmas and New Years really put into focus how much New York City has folded in on itself, curled itself up into a silent hibernation.

Who knew I could miss noise so damn much.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this essay, please consider joining my Patreon, where you’ll get extra photos/posts, and bonus essays (like the one I wrote on the History of Dogs in NYC!), or tipping me on Venmo at Kyra-Michelle, or CashApp at $KyraMSims.

Musician. Writer. Actress. Cat.

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