Universality and specificity simultaneously mark every experience in Central Park. Since the contest for its design in 1858, decisions about every aspect of the park have been fodder for public debate. Central Park may have been conceptualized as the city’s ultimate public space, but New Yorkers take decisions about it very personally. Walking around the park on a sunny afternoon, I could see why.
Passing through Strawberry Fields, Sheep Meadow, the Bandstand, etc. gave me the quintessential “Sunday in the Park” experience, but it also allowed for an equally unique experience, inherently unrepeatable because of the specific sights, sounds, and people. I came back the next day for a Memorial Day picnic with a few friends. Everyone had our idea, but everyone did it differently. Some played card games, others tanned in beachwear, while we were content to laze on the grass beside our impressive spread of food.
The public-private agreement between the city of New York and the Central Park Conservancy best characterizes the park’s duality – both its spirit of openness to all the city’s inhabitants and the recognition that each visitor has his or her own expectations of the park. Established in 1980, the Conservancy has shared responsibility with the city officially since 1998. Many CEOs of major corporations are part of the Conservancy, and people have questioned the integrity of their actions given that such strong private interests are trusted to administer the city’s most iconic public park. Today, the Conservancy sponsors a full program of (mostly free) events and has managed to improve the state of Central Park.
Although some see Central Park as a place to briefly escape the city, touring Central Park was the perfect way for me to get to know the city, its people ,and its politics – during my first few weeks here.