Tag Archives: centralpark

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)

A Park is born – a community is swept away

The vision and resolution of those pushing for the creation of a centrally-located People’s Park in New York in the mid-1800s were instrumental in laying the foundations of Central Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s and Calvert Vaux’s 1856 Greensward Plan of the Park envisaged a scenic work of art, combining natural appearance and touches of the picturesque to create surroundings that people of all backgrounds could enjoy.

As well as their ongoing input the implementation of their vision depended on the skills and commitment of individuals such as: Jacob Wrey Mould (architect, who designed many of the park’s notable landmarks, including Belvedere Castle, a number of bridges, and the amazing carvings on Bethesda Terrace);  and Ignaz Anton Pilat (master gardener) whose knowledge and use of a wide variety of plants created the Park’s much admired landscaped vistas.

However, there’s a little-known dark side to the Park’s early development, which I discovered through the wonderful Secret New York – An Unusual Guide (JonGlez Guides), my bible for exploring New York. During the Park’s  construction (1857 – 73) what was possibly Manhattan’s first prominent and stable community of African American property owners was destroyed.

In 1855 the region above 59th Street was only sporadically developed and was semi-rural or rural in character. However,  the established middle-class, and predominantly African American community of Seneca Village, located between 81st and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues (an area now occupied by Central Park), numbered 264 residents.

Map of Seneca Village

African Americans owned more than half the village households, a high percentage of property ownership for any New York community, while there were also many Irish and German immigrant families. By then the village had three churches, with several affiliated large cemeteries, and Colored School No. 3, one of the few black schools in New York City.

In 1853, the state legislature authorised the use of “eminent domain,” the taking of private property for public purposes; and in 1856 public acquisition of private land to create Central Park began. Owners of property within the proposed Park boundaries were compensated for their property, though many owners filed protests in the State Supreme Court, to contest the amount of settlement.

In total 1,600 people who owned, lived, or worked on the acquired land had to move with the Park’s creation. Many were squatters living in shantytowns but Seneca, in contrast, was a cohesive community with proper housing.

The Seneca site has been the subject of various archeological studies over the years, including soil borings and remote sensing using ground-penetrating radar tests, which located traces of the Village. Digs were held in 2004, 2005 and 2011, revealing stone foundation walls and artifacts, including an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle, fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper.

Locating the Seneca site wasn’t totally straightforward for me.  There’s a plaque located in the Park just south and east of the Abraham and Joseph Spector Playground, which is located on the Park’s west side at West 86th Street. According to some particularly poignant text on the plaque recent research indicates that “residents and institutions of Seneca Village did not re-establish their community in another location”.  Today no one knows where its residents resettled; nor, to date, have any living descendants of Seneca Villagers been found.

Plaque presenting background information about Seneca Village
Landmarks in vicinity of the exposed Seneca foundations

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe remaining visible foundations are actually in a grassy area a little to the south and west of the plaque.  I tracked them down by asking for directions from a maintenance worker hosing down the Spector Playground. He gave me spot on directions in a very familiar accent – though he’d lived in NYC for many years he’d grown up about 6 miles from where I did in London.

The foundations are pretty well hidden in the surrounding grass and easy to dismiss as a few natural stones set in the ground but if you wander slightly off the path they’re obvious.  Depending on  different sources the stones may be part of a foundation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church or the foundation of a later structure built on top of the church.

Exposed foundations of Seneca Village structure

Having located the site of the village, I incorporated in the walking tours I led. Out of all my customers, many of who were New Yorkers and regular visitors to the Park, only one was aware of Seneca’s existence. She’d requested I incorporated a visit to the site having read about in Linda Fairstein’s 2014 novel Death Angel!


Transitions – a last jaunt in Central Park

The last months have been hectic with me leaving New York and  settling back in my hometown of London in early December 2014.

Life in the UK has been and continues to be a major transition –  hence no posts for months! Getting back to the Blog I’m expanding its scope to cover my experiences in the UK and beyond in addition to those in New York and the US. Since, while in New York, I spent a lot of time in Central Park it seems appropriate to mark this transition with a look back at my last visit on a glorious late-November morning.

I entered at Central Park South and meandered north to Belvedere Castle in mid-Park via Bethesda Fountain and the winding paths of the wooded Ramble. Aptly, there were signs of the Fall-to-Winter transition with trees in late-Fall colours, the popular south end Wollman ice rink up and running, the Bethesda Fountain drained in preparation for  winter temperatures, and an obvious lack of foot traffic at popular attractions, such as Belvedere Castle.

Central park South - Ice Rink
Looking down from rock outcrop to the Wollman Rink and beyond to Central Park South

The view of the skyline along Central Park South and beyond is one of my favourites in New York, taking in iconic buildings such as the Essex House (officially the JW Marriott Essex House) hotel and, further west near Columbus Circle, the Hearst Tower. The rock outcrops in the Park’s south end provide fantastic vantage points – I’m a great believer in getting up as high as possible to access different perspectives.

More extensive view showing One57, Essex House and, at far right, the Hearst Tower.

While I’ve got issues with the construction of the One57 skyscraper on West 57th Street (more of that in later posts) on a bright day its walls of glass certainly generate some amazing visual effects.

Closeup of One57 showing light effects on glass walls

Bethesda Terrace and the Angel of the Waters Fountain,  a favourite spot for wedding parties, tourists and buskers, is usually bustling with activity. It was strange to find it so deserted, even allowing for the boat hire season being over and it being mid-week.

Angel of the Waters Fountain at Bethesda Terrace – the fountain’s turned off and the pool drained ready for Winter

Looking north from Bethesda Terrace you can see the Loeb Boathouse, a short walk away up the eastern shore of the Lake.

The Boathouse
Looking north from Bethesda Terrace toward the Boathouse, amidst late- Fall colours

In my first winter in New York the Boathouse was a real focus to my Central Park trips when I joined birdwatching walks run by “Birding Bob” DeCandido and Deb Allen. These started at the Boathouse and at the end of the walk we’d retire to its Express Cafe to warm up next to the open fire, sup hot beverages, and recharge on modestly-priced hot food (See post A burst of colour in the gloom).

From the Boathouse I continued north through the Ramble, in the words of Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, a 36-acre “wild garden”. Its artfully-designed to create a tranquil spot where visitors can stroll through woodland along meandering paths. The network of paths creates the illusion of a much larger area, allowing the visitor to escape the city and get lost in nature.

Emerging from the northern end of the Ramble I arrived at Belvedere Castle, my final destination. Belvedere translates to “beautiful view” in Italian and there are great views from the various terraces. The view below is from the third level of the whimsical building, accessed by a quaint internal spiral staircase.

Belvedere Castle – looking from the top-level west toward the Beresford apartment building on Central Park West between 81st and 82nd Streets

At this point it was time to get back to the humdrum business of packing up our worldly possessions ready for shipping to the UK.  For now I’ll bid the Park, the best I’ve visited by a country mile,  “au revoir” – I hope to get back there sometime.

Made it, Ma! Top of the world

Sorry, couldn’t resist Jimmy Cagney’s immortal line at the end of White Heat.

Actually, if Everest’s peak is at 29,029* feet (8,848m) I still had 28,887 feet to go when I was recently standing on top of Summit Rock, the highest natural elevation in Central Park, at a giddying 141.8 feet*.  After 4 years in the States I still find the mixing of imperial and decimal measurement formats strange but there you go!

Summit Rock Location
Map showing location of Summit Rock on the west side of the Park between 81st and 85th Streets

You don’t need oxygen to ascend the rock but take care in wintry conditions especially on the steps on the winding path to the south. The steps were carved into the bedrock when the Park was built.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI’ve found the Summit Rock area a good place to visit, sit and relax. The area had a makeover in 1997, when a broken 1950s pavement crowning the Rock was removed, and a new lawn added. Today there’s a rustic stone amphitheatre and two curving banks of benches, arranged back-to-back, giving views toward and away from the rock.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESOn one of the benches (towards the south end of the row facing away from the summit) there is a plaque dedicated to Elizabeth Barlow Rogers who was a Founder of the Central Park Conservancy and its first President from 1980 to 1996.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe Conservancy’s establishment has been paramount in the transformation of the Park from a state of decay into today’s magnificent urban oasis; the Conservancy currently raises between 75% and 85% of the Park’s annual expense budget and has responsibility for its day-to-day maintenance and operations.

The overall effect is a meditative and relaxed atmosphere.  On different occasions I’ve come across folk meditating on top of the rock or lolling in the shade with a beloved canine companion. Once there was a (rehearsal for?) theatrical drama taking place — that wasn’t quite as peaceful but it was easy to find a quiet spot nearby — artistes performing throughout the Park contribute to its rich tapestry.

Being so close to Central Park West the Summit Rock area also gives some great views through the trees to some high-end residences. The Art Deco building at No. 421 is a personal favourite as it peeps above and through the trees.

Looking toward Summit Rock and Central Park West (CPW) – the building above the tree tops is the Art Deco building at 241 CPW

If you leave the Park at 85th Street you’ll come across a couple of beautiful Victorian mansions at 427 and 429, while if you continue a little further north in the Park you will find the only visible remains of Seneca Village.

Numbers 427and 429 (the “turretted castle” on the corner) Central Park West. Find out more about these great-looking Victorian-era mansions at: 247 and 249.

Seneca Village was possibly Manhattan’s first prominent community of African American property owners. It was razed to make way for the construction of the Park, which took place from 1857 – 1873. The author Linda Fairstein  works the history of Seneca into the plot of her fifteenth novel Death Angel.

I’ll be writing more about the Village in future.

*Official Central Park website

Central Park – a marriage proposal

An unplanned jaunt back to the UK and  a focus on promoting my New York City small-group guided walking tours has seen over two months slip by since my last post.

With a Groupon “2 for 1” deal on my Central Park walks up and running and orders coming in it’s time for me to get back on the horse. Check out the Groupon deal here.

So far, the most memorable of my Groupon guests are Patrick and Kathryn, from Suffolk County, Long Island, who I took through the Park on Sunday 25th May. Unbeknown to Kathryn, Patrick was planning to propose to her in the Park, before going on to lunch and a Broadway musical.

After much discussion with Patrick, my mission was to come up with an itinerary and specific locations suitable for a proposal; iconic Central Park but not too crowded so Patrick could easily go down on one knee and I could capture the moment through video and stills.

We started from the Grand Army Plaza entrance at the south-east corner of the Park so as to take in some iconic sights. Early on we visited the top of a prominent rock outcrop overlooking the Pond in the south-east corner of the Park for some great views. The viewpoint is accessible via a steepish grassy slope to the east of the Pond; or via a shorter path leading off the East Drive. I’d only recently visited it a few weeks ago and was blown away by the perspective it offers of the Pond, Gapstow Bridge and the south end of the Park. It’s a little rugged on the top but, if you’re reasonably fit and sure-footed, well worth the effort.

20140525_112117-resized75pcPatrick and Kathryn on the outcrop; Gapstow Bridge in the background

From here we  headed north visiting well-known locations including the Carousel, the Chess and Checkers House, the Dairy, Sheep Meadow, the beautiful tree-lined Mall, the Bethesda Terrace Arcade and Fountain, Bow Bridge and the Ramble.

Though the Park has potentially many great spots for proposing, actually choosing an appropriate one presented a conundrum. Particularly iconic spots, such as Bow Bridge, are popular and can be crowded, especially in good weather. Secluded spots offer more privacy, but may not have the “romantic” Central Park background a proposal requires.

In the end Patrick proposed at the famous fountain and Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Terrace, the heart of Central Park. It turned out to be a great decision. There was a gentle buzz of people around as we arrived at the Fountain but plenty of room for Patrick to propose, my videoing duties, and for them both to savour the moment once Kathryn had said “YES”.

IMG-20140526-WA0045She said yes!

After Patrick and Kathryn had properly taken in the moment we continued with the walk, crossing Bow Bridge into the Ramble. The narrow Bridge was busy with constant foot traffic and visitors lining both sides so it was good that Patrick had not waited to propose here (an early proposal location contender).

The leafy and peaceful Ramble is a 38-acre “wild garden” of meandering paths and woodland areas running between 73rd to 79th Streets in mid-Park. A favourite with birders, it offers a variety of secluded spots and panoramas and was an ideal area for wandering away from the crowds and winding down a little from the earlier emotion.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESBow Bridge from the Point (the Ramble);  Majestic (twin-towered) and Dakota cooperative apartment buildings in background

20140525_123921Looking south-west from Ramble to Hernshead and the Ladies Pavilion

Leaving the Ramble over Oak/Bank Rock Bridge it was a short walk to the 81 St – Museum of Natural History subway stop on Central Park West where we parted company.

Retrospectively, the walk’s timing (11a.m – 1p.m) worked out brilliantly. Later the areas south of the Ramble were very crowded through a combination of fantastic weather, the Memorial Day weekend, and the opening of the Victorian Gardens amusement park in the Wollman Rink.

It was a great day, and I enjoyed being part of the preparations and special occasion for a lovely young couple. Patrick and Kathryn I wish you the very best for your future together and hope that Central Park will always have a special place in your hearts. Thanks for letting me share your story.

A burst of colour in the gloom

I’ve been visiting Central Park for three years now and continue to be blown away by the varieties and striking colours of the birds you encounter.  On a dull day they can really light up a scene.

Adult Male Baltimore Oriole at Feeders. You're right this bird is not on an orange. Deborah Allen kindly provided me with this image. Her other images can be accessed at: http://www.agpix.com/results.php?agid=DeAl12 Also check out the weekend Central Park birding walks she and Dr. Robert DeCandido lead at: http://www.birdingbob.com/
Adult Male Baltimore Oriole at Feeders, Evodia Field, The Ramble, Central Park.*

I visited the Park on a very soggy and dull morning, a few weeks back in between snowfalls   As I entered at 5th Avenue and East 61st St.  mist hugged the ground creating an ethereal atmosphere.

South end of Park looking north toward Central Park Zoo.
South end of Park looking north toward Central Park Zoo.

Atmospheric views continued as I made my way along the east side of the ice-covered Lake (weather permitting you can hire rowboats from April through November) toward the Loeb Boathouse restaurant/café where I was meeting friends for birding.

Looking north to The Angel of the Waters, Bethesda Fountain, Bethesda Terrace, Central Park
Looking north across the Lake to the Loeb Boathouse.
Looking north across the Lake to the Loeb Boathouse.

The  walk itself was a little underwhelming until Evodia Field in the Ramble. Birders refer to this area simply as “the feeders” since during the worst of winter two stalwart volunteers, Lee and Neil, provide the birds with tasty delights such as nuts, peanut butter, suet, coconuts and oranges.

Orange halves hanging from branches were fluorescent in the gloom. Then something even brighter alighted on them – a male Baltimore Oriole (a bird not a baseballer!).  The male and a female have been hanging out in the Park, months after the Fall when they would normally migrate south. I’d encountered them before but not at the  feeders and this was by far my best view. Hopefully, with Neil and Lee’s efforts they’ll see the winter out.

A great way to end the walk. Then it was a short stroll  south-east to the Boathouse, where we warmed up next to the fire in the Express Cafe and indulged in HOT beverages and – my particular favourite – modestly-priced, steaming hot, tasty and filling vegetarian chili.

*Deb Allen kindly provided the image of the male Baltimore Oriole. Though its feeding on a peanut butter-covered coconut it gives a good idea of how bright these birds are. Access Deb’s more recent and brighter image of a maleall her images; and the Central Park birding walks she and Dr. Robert (“Birding Bob”) DeCandido lead.

Central Park – pets remembered at Christmas, owls and tobogganing

You may think that Central Park wouldn’t have much to offer in the depths of a cold winter. My experience is otherwise.

I first discovered Central Park on a frigid Sunday morning in January 2011 when I ventured out to join a birdwatching tour. I had arrived in Astoria in Queens a month before and figured that birdwatching might provide a good way of meeting people. At the same time I would be resurrecting an interest I developed as a kid in the UK but which had been pretty much dormant for 20 or so years.

The Secret Christmas Pets Memorial Tree

I was blown away by the variety of bird species I saw in freezing temperatures   – over 280 species have been recorded in the Park – and the beauty of the Park blanketed by snow and ice.

The Park has since become my regular sanctuary in the heart of Manhattan . It is a masterpiece of design with miles of paths, amazing trees, geology,  summer theatre and concerts – the list goes on.

Though I have spent a lot of time exploring the Park over the years, I continue to make new discoveries. A couple of weeks back I was walking in the Ramble, a woodland with a maze of winding pathways, great bird life and the odd raccoon, when I came across a Christmas tree decorated with mementos, ornaments and photos of departed pets.

Having grown up with two much-loved dogs I really connected with the sentiments expressed in the messages – reminiscing was a slightly sad but overall uplifting experience. What a great tradition! For more on the ‘secret’ Holiday Pets Memorial Tree see http://www.examiner.com/article/hidden-christmas-tree-central-park-memorializes-cherished-pets and http://rudedogs.wordpress.com/2007/12/17/december-16-2007-the-holiday-pets-memorial-tree/

Last Saturday (4th January) I took myself off to the Park for a walk and some birdwatching, though  temperatures  well below freezing were forecast.

Tobogganing - resized
Tobogganing in Central Park, 4th January 2014. Note the dads standing in front of the tree trunks to prevent their kids smashing into them.

It was a beautiful blue sky day. Despite the cold, the snow was sparkling and folk were enjoying the sunshine, cross-country skiing, dog walking and tobogganing.

Carving Bethesda Terrace - Owl - resized
Stone carving of an owl, Bethesda Terrace area

It turned out to be a great day for birding. The walk began with an early and excellent view of a Long-eared Owl roosting in a pine tree. To cap the walk off I came across a whimsical carving of an owl among other beautiful carvings in the Bethesda Terrace area.

All in all it was a great day and a reminder that the Park is a great place in which to spend time year round. If you like things a little quieter there are far fewer people around in winter than in the peak tourist season.

Restrooms and eateries remain open and you can always grab a snack from the many food carts set up along the popular walking paths. Just  make sure you rug up accordingly.

Food cart near the Mall in Central Park
Food cart near the Mall in Central Park