The Falconer of Central Park

Living in London I still miss Central Park, my regular stomping ground while living in NYC. Jumping on the N  train at the elevated 30 Ave subway station in Astoria, Queens I could be at 5 Av/59 St on the SE corner of the Park, six stops and 15 – 20 minutes later.

I’ve yet to experience a city park like this green oasis anywhere else. Its artful design provides great landscapes and leisure opportunities while spectacular natural rock outcrops provide great viewing spots.

The Park lies on major north-south bird migration routes, and over 280 bird species have been recorded since 1857 (approximately 230 species are recorded annually); and with racoons, squirrels, chipmunks, turtles, fantastic trees, great landscaping and sports facilities there’s something for the people watcher, artist, nature lover, and keep-fit enthusiastic alike.

While living in NYC the city, including the Subway and the Park, generally felt very safe. However, the 1970s and 1980s were a very different time, with approximately 1,000 crimes being committed annually in the Park in the early 1980s. The widespread violence and crime on the Subway system saw the founding of the Guardian Angels, a non-profit volunteer organisation of unarmed crime-prevention patrollers, in NYC on 13 February 1979. In 1979, I remember seeing The Warriors, a cult action-thriller, focusing on a New York City gang returning to their home turf in Coney Island via the Subway. Turns out the film was released in the US only 4 days before the founding of the Angels.

Today safety measures hold the number of crimes in the Park to fewer than one hundred per year but on one of the small-group guided walking tours I ran in the Park through 2014 I had the chance to chat to a couple of my customers about the Park in the 1980s. They admitted to being “laddish” teenagers at the time but even in daylight wouldn’t venture more than about 50 yards into the Park!

The Park was originally intended not to have any statuary but over the years has come to be home to a wide range of statues. One of those that I was fond of was The Falconer*. Try as I might I never got a decent image; it was always backlit when I was in its vicinity. Still this image reminds me of how much I enjoyed the Park’s statuary and the company of the friends I made among the birding community.

P1020042 - Falconer Resized
Statue of The Falconer, Central Park

In NYC I read an interesting book titled The Falconer of Central Park, by Donald Knowler, a British journalist who lived in the City during 1982, and spent much of the year birdwatching in the Park.

The book is an easy to read record of his experiences in the Park in a much more dangerous time. It records the number of birds of different species he saw, allowing comparisons with today’s distributions. From a social perspective he references the murders and other major incidents that took place in the Park over the year, emphasising how much safer New York is today. I’d recommend it for both birders and non-birders alike for a well-written, accessible record of the Park at a time when New York was a very different city.

* The Falconer is installed on a cylindrical granite pedestal perched on a natural rock outcropping south of the 72nd Street transverse road, and east of the park’s West Drive. It’s creator, the British sculptor George Blackall Simonds (1844-1929), was an avid falconer and the statue, dedicated on May 31, 1875 depicts a human figure, clad in Elizabethan dress, poised to release a falcon, representing the union and communion between a bird of prey and man. The sculpture was removed from Central Park in 1957 after being vandalised and the falcon stolen. In 1982, a missing arm and the falcon were recast and the damage to the surface repaired. In 1995, the bronze crew of the Central Park Conservancy gave the bronze a complete replacement of the pattern on the statue, cleaned it and applied a protective coating. (Source: NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation)

Slowly settling back into life in the UK

Since moving back to the UK at the end of 2014 after 15 years away I’ve been settling back in London in a flat I bought back in 1994. Thank goodness I kept hold of it; given the earning potential of jobs  now available to me I wouldn’t have a chance of purchasing a property of any sort in London these days. I can only imagine how hard it is for youngsters trying to get onto the property ladder these days!

It’s great being close to friends and family again, along with  opportunities to revisit favourite places and explore the UK more. However, its proving difficult to adapt to changes that have occurred while I’ve been away. Limited job opportunities, a changing political landscape, growing inequality across society, government red tape etc. are all proving obstacles to feeling settled.

The part of London I grew up in allowed easy access to parts of the Metropolitan Green Belt, formally proposed in 1935, “to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space”. There’s still plenty Green Belt of accessible from where I live, but unfortunately it may be vulnerable  with research showing that politicians are allowing much-loved and well-used land to come under threat from development. Alternative brownfield sites are available but I guess prospective developers don’t see themselves making as much profit with such sites!

While overseas I managed to get back home to visit family and friends every few years. In the last few visits the large number of flats being built across London has been very obvious; in the immediate vicinity of my flat there’s been a lot of recent development including blocks of student accommodation.

Hale End Village
Commercial and residential development at Hale End Village
van and flats
Residential development on opposite side of canal to proposed development

Most of the development is limited to around 8 – 10 storeys but there is a current proposal that has been submitted that will see  the demolishing of existing structures over the road from the estate I live on and alongside the canal running past my flat.  In their place blocks of primarily residential accommodation, ranging from 4 to 21 storeys and providing up to 502 dwellings, would be built.

Existing restaurant and function centre. It will be demolished to make way for the new development.

The 10 storey buildings are already quite imposing in the context of the surrounding areas and skyline. 21 storey towers will take this to a new level creating more shadows and obstructions of views, while the extra residences and accompanying parking and roading will put additional strain on infrastructure that is already creaking under the weight of road and tube/rail users.

The area to the right of the canal will be redeveloped

The existing area may not be paradise but despite the completely rosy picture the developers try to paint regarding impacts there are bound to be impacts on the local ecosystems. With the huge number of flats and supporting infrastructure being constructed in London the sentiments expressed in Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi lyrics come to mind.

To try and give myself a better work-life balance I’m getting to meet new people and travel further afield by pursuing my interest in birdwatching, rekindled in New York (2010 – 14), and wider interests in the natural environment. Local groups such as the Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group (Wren website) and the North East London and Havering Local Groups of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) offer trips that allow me to build up my natural history knowledge and meet people with similar interests while visiting locations that are often new to me. The trips are also throwing up some unexpected surprises unrelated to birdwatching, which I’ll be posting on in the future.