Go Outside! The Joys of Central Park

If you're stuck inside -- or otherwise unable to gallivant about town in summer attire, smiling stresslessly -- here is an anthology of writerly tales from the park that remind us there's a brilliantly human world out there.

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New York has had its share of love letters, old and new and famous. In Central Park: An Anthology (public library), Andrew Blauner collects twenty paeans to this one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city by twenty of its most celebrated authors. Blauner promises in the introduction:

Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions.... It underscores the fact that Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishments of the nineteenth century. Once you add people and time, it becomes a ever-evolving work of art and performance art. It is central to our thinking, our style, and our magnificence.

And the slim but potent volume lives up to that promise.

***

In "Through the Children's Gate," Adam Gopnik brings a dimensional lens to one of New Yorkers' most persistent and enduring laments: the city's inescapable pace of change, with its embedded nostalgia for what once was and never will again be:

Still, croissants and crime are not lifestyle choices, to be taken according to taste; the reduction of fear, as anyone who has spent time in Harlem can attest, is a grace as large as any imaginable. To revise Chesterton slightly: People who refuse to be sentimental about the normal things don't end up being sentimental about nothing; they end up being sentimental about anything, shedding tears over old muggings and the perfect, glittering shards of the little crack vials, sparkling like diamonds in the gutter. Où sont les neiges d'antan?: Who cares if the snows were all of cocaine? We saw them falling and our hearts were glad.

[...]

It is a strange thing to be the serpent in one's own garden, the snake in one's own grass. The suburbanization of New York is a fact, and a worrying one, and everyone has moments of real disappointment and distraction. The Soho where we came of age, with its organic intertwinings of art and food, commerce and cutting edge, is unrecognizable to us now-- but then that Soho we knew was unrecognizable to its first émigrés, who by then had moved on to Tribeca. This is only to say that in the larger, inevitable human accounting of New York, there are gains and losses, a zero sum of urbanism: The great gain of civility and peace is offset by a loss of creative kinds of vitality and variety. (There are new horizons of Bohemia in Brooklyn and beyond, of course, but Brooklyn has its bards already, to sing its streets and smoke, as they will and do. My heart lies with the old island of small homes and big buildings, the sounds coming from one resonating against the sounding board of the other.)

But those losses are inevitably specific. There is always a new New York coming into being as the old one disappears. And that city-- or cities; there are a lot of different ones on the same map-- has its peculiar pleasures and absurdities as keen as any other's. The one I awakened to, and into-- partly by intellectual affinity, and much more by the ringing of an alarm clock every morning at seven-- was the civilization of childhood in New York. The phrase is owed to Iona Opie, the great scholar of children's games and rhymes, whom I got to interview once. "Childhood is a civilization with its own rules and rituals," she told me, charmingly but flatly, long before I had children of my own. "Children never refer to each other as children. They call themselves, rightly, people, and tell you what it is that people like them-- their people-- believe and do." The Children's Gate exists; you really can go through it.

centralpark_pole.jpgMay pole in the park, May 1912 (Library of Congress)

In "Framed in Silver," Mark Helprin reflects on the park through the dusty photographs of his own childhood:

My father and I are in Central Park, on the path that leads from the playground at Ninety-third Street toward the Reservoir. I am about two. It is not long after the war, still the first half of the twentieth century. I know nothing of what has passed. You can see in his face that as someone who was born as the century turned, my father knows perhaps too much. I know nothing of what is to come. Having lived through the great wars and the small, he does. We are walking together, he in a double-breasted great coat, I in an absurd snowsuit. He has a Liberty of London scarf, and his hair is still as black as it was in the desert. I come up to his midthigh, a hood surrounds my face, and on top of it, and my head, is a pompom.

We have passed the playground that was the setting of my first dream, in which I flew from one outcropping of granite to another. Unknowing of the nature of dreams, when I awoke I believed that I had actually flown. I'm holding my father's hand, or, rather, he is holding mine, which disappears quite easily in his. Confident of his absolute protection, I think that as long as I am tethered and close, nothing can ever hurt me. He knows better.

Although I dreamed that I could fly, I would not have dreamed that someday I would look back upon the invisible paths made by those whom I love and who are gone, that the picture in which I am walking in Central Park with my father would darken over time, like a clock about to mark the inevitable moment in which I will rejoin him. And then, perhaps as now I am aware of the invisible paths made by others, still others might feel, like the breeze you cannot see, the invisible paths made by me.

centralpark_day615.jpgPortrait of Doris Day and Kitty Kallen, Central Park, April 1947 (Library of Congress)

In "The Colossus of New York," Colson Whitehead paints a mosaic portrait of the archetypes you're promised to encounter in the park -- the hipsters, the socialite ladies, the entitled parents, the photographers, the lovers. And, of course, the runners:

SO MANY PEOPLE running. Is something chasing them. Yes, something different is chasing each of them and gaining slowly. She feels fit and trim. People remove layers one by one the deeper they get into the park. The sweaters keep falling from their waists no matter how they tie them. The matching strides of the jogging pair give no indication that after she tells her secret he will stop and bend and put his palms to his knees. Like some of the trees here, some of today's miseries are evergreen. Others merely deciduous. This is his tenth attempt to join the jogging culture. This latest outfit will do the trick. Pant and heave. How much farther. Reservoir of what. Small devices keep track of ingrown miles. Unfold these laps from their tight circuit to make marathons. It's his best time yet, never to be repeated. If he had known, he would have saved it for after a hard day at the office or a marital argument. Instead all he has is sweat stains to commemorate. One convert says, I'm going to come here every day from now on. It's so refreshing.

In "Some Music in the Park," Francine Prose traces the history of the park as a stage for music and politics:

There was nothing neutral about Nina Simone's performance. She sang "Strange Fruit," which is about the bodies of lynching victims hanging from trees in the South. She sang "Four Women," which is about the oppression-- slavery, rape, prostitution-- of African American women. She sang "Mississippi Goddam," a song inspired by the murder of Medgar Evers and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls. Every time she said Goddam, she spit the word at the audience. I had never seen a performer, let alone a woman, let alone a black woman, be that angry on stage. She was telling us that, to paraphrase a saying popular in those days, we were not part of the solution; we were part of the problem.

centralpark_coasting615.jpgKids coasting in the park, ca. 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

In "The Sixth Borough," Jonathan Safran Foer (of Tree of Codes fame) weaves a whimsical alternative mythology, in which a sixth borough mysteriously floats away from the island of Manhattan, but a piece of it is transplanted -- literally, lifted off with giant hooks and pulled by the people of New York into its new place -- to become what we know as Central Park:

Children were allowed to lie down on the park as it was being moved. This was considered a concession, although no one knew why a concession was necessary, or why it was to children that this concession must be made. The biggest fireworks show in history lighted the skies of New York City that night, and the Philharmonic played its heart out. The children of New York lay on their backs, body to body, filling every inch of the park as if it had been designed for them and that moment. The fireworks sprinkled down, dissolving in the air just before they reached the ground, and the children were pulled, one inch and one second at a time, into Manhattan and adulthood. By the time the park found its current resting place, every single one of the children had fallen asleep, and the park was a mosaic of their dreams. Some hollered out, some smiled unconsciously, some were perfectly still.

Was there really a Sixth Borough?

There's no irrefutable evidence. There's nothing that could convince someone who doesn't want to be convinced.

Foer does what he does best, grounding the escapist whimsy back into a brilliantly human reality:

[I]t's hard for anyone, even the most cynical of cynics, to spend more than a few minutes in Central Park without feeling that he or she is experiencing some tense in addition to just the present. Maybe it's our own nostalgia for what's past, or our own hopes for what's to come. Or maybe it's the residue of the dreams from that night the park was moved, when all of the children of New York City exercised their subconsciouses at once. Maybe we miss what they had lost, and yearn for what they wanted.

centralpark_yachts615.jpgToy yachts in the pond, 1910 (Library of Congress)

In "Fogg in the Park," Paul Auster juxtaposes the unspoken behavioral governance of the city with the parallel universe of the park:

To walk among the crowd means never going faster than anyone else, never lagging behind your neighbor, never doing anything to disrupt the flow of human traffic. If you play by the rules of this game, people will tend to ignore you. There is a particular glaze that comes over the eyes of New Yorkers when they walk through the streets, a natural and perhaps necessary form of indifference to others. It doesn't matter how you look, for example. Outrageous costumes, bizarre hairdos, T-shirts with obscene slogans printed across them-- no one pays attention to such things. On the other hand, the way you act inside your clothes is of the utmost importance. Odd gestures of any kind are automatically taken as a threat. Talking out loud to yourself, scratching your body, looking someone directly in the eye: these deviations can trigger off hostile and sometimes violent reactions from those around you. You must not stagger or swoon, you must not clutch the walls, you must not sing, for all forms of spontaneous or involuntary behavior are sure to elicit stares, caustic remarks, and even an occasional shove or kick in the shins. I was not so far gone that I received any treatment of that sort, but I saw it happen to others, and I knew that a day might eventually come when I wouldn't be able to control myself anymore. By contrast, life in Central Park allowed for a much broader range of variables. No one thought twice if you stretched out on the grass and went to sleep in the middle of the day. No one blinked if you sat under a tree and did nothing, if you played your clarinet, if you howled at the top of your lungs. Except for the office workers who lurked around the fringes of the park at lunch hour, the majority of people who came in there acted as if they were on holiday. The same things that would have alarmed them in the streets were dismissed as casual amusements. People smiled at each other and held hands, bent their bodies into unusual shapes, kissed. It was live and let live, and as long as you did not actively interfere with what others were doing, you were free to do what you liked.

What emerges is a meditation on what it means to be oneself:

In the park, I did not have to carry around this burden of self-consciousness. It gave me a threshold, a boundary, a way to distinguish between the inside and the outside. If the streets forced me to see myself as others saw me, the park gave me a chance to return to my inner life, to hold on to myself purely in terms of what was happening inside me. It is possible to survive without a roof over your head, I discovered, but you cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.

[...]

Perhaps that was all I had set out to prove in the first place: that once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before, things that cannot be learned under any other circumstances.

Like its subject, Central Park: An Anthology is woven of the kind of magic that summons wildly different multiverses and commands them to fold unto each other with fluidity and grace as a single enchanted world unfolds.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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