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.
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)