If you look at the subway map of New York, you will find that the island of Manhattan looks a bit like the Statue of Liberty herself, with her right hand pointing skyward, the toes curled at the bottom, as if she has decided to pirouette. The subway lines roam through her body like veins. What keeps it healthy is this giant green lung at its centre, the Central Park.
I have met business-minded friends who look aghast at this vast expanse of emptiness, ruing the lost opportunities that vacant space represents: in a city such as Hong Kong, it would have already been converted into a mass of identical high-rise apartments, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with bustling malls and noisy restaurants (someone did estimate the Park’s commercial value: about half a trillion dollars. There is no money in poetry, but this kind of thinking shows why there’s no poetry in money).
With all its perceived pretences and the mind-bogglingly high value of its real estate, New York is a sentimental town. And the Park is everyone’s favourite playground. This year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the landscaping of the Park; the city around it has changed, but the Park has remained as a constant midpoint.
The Central Park came about because Americans wanted to teach snooty Europeans a lesson: Those in the Old World thought Americans lacked class and character, and were only money-minded; New Yorkers wanted to prove that they, too, possessed a sense of public spirit and could appreciate finer things, even if it meant earmarking a vast stretch of valuable land, ostensibly for no commercial purpose. The city took over the 840 acres, covering two-and-a-half miles (about 4km) from the 59th Street to 106th Street (later extended to 110th Street), and half a mile from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue. In terms of area, that makes it bigger than two of the tiniest nations— Monaco and Vatican—and it draws more visitors a year today than the Grand Canyon.
I once lived for about a year in an old brownstone not far from the Park, where Columbus and Broadway intersect, in a quiet neighbourhood, where the local theatre showed art house classics, including Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire. The Park was a short walk away, and once you entered that expanse, you felt invigorated as a light breeze nudged you along. The perpetual hum of the traffic on Central Park West would get muffled by the trees, providing a constant whir that did not annoy you; it merely reminded you of the tremendous amount of energy of the city surrounding you.
I saw the Park in all its seasons, but it seemed at its most spectacular in winter. The trees were bereft of leaves by then, looking dark and skeletal, their limbs covered by layers of fresh snow. Wind would jostle the trees often, and the snow would get disturbed, sprinkling you with flurries, occasionally chunks falling on you gently, disintegrating on your hat. The sky would always be brilliant and blue, the weather crisp and clean, and the lake turned to ice, on which people skated. Tall skyscrapers along its edges cast a benign shadow.
In spring, the snow would melt and the first of the leaves would sprout, indicating the promise of love. You saw that in people’s clothing—pink and red and violet and maroon—but the air was still chilly, and it wasn’t yet time to put away those jackets. I recall taking a long walk through the Park one spring, finding two Hare Krishnas bothering an old man. It was only when I saw the camera, when I got closer, that I realized the old man was Woody Allen, filming a scene in what became Hannah and Her Sisters. For Allen knew how to capture that Park lovingly, in all its beauty—in film after film, his characters would take a walk through the Park, come there to repair themselves and catch their breath, like many New Yorkers do. In all, the Park features in 14 of his films, and one might ask, why only 14.
The Park turned its most colourful in autumn, when the green leaves started turning a glorious yellow, later golden, then russet and brown, before succumbing to the icy winds of winter.
I remember the Park one afternoon in early spring in 2005, when sunlight shimmered on its frozen pond, as if it was aflame, and an orange glow was cast on the path, as if autumn had descended prematurely in New York. Those fluttering saffron gates were part of the installation art of Jean-Claude and Christo, and so powerful was its impact that I saw many strollers wearing something orange, as if they wanted the colours to rub off on their skins, as if the colour were a lucky charm. The wind lifted the cloth, and the gates billowed, assuming graceful, identical shapes, as if responding to some intricate choreography, the music playing only in your mind.
I walked through the Park with a friend this July one late evening, with the sun still bright and panting joggers’ hoofs providing a quiet rhythm. Even though the temperature outside was in the 80s (about 30°C) and the atmosphere heavy and muggy, once we entered the Park, a gentle breeze soothed us, and the Park’s magical quality, of transporting you from the quotidian to the sublime, took over. The willows drooped on the lake, and the water shimmered, reflecting the skyline. The emerald swathe was dazzling, and horse carriages passed us by.
“How beautiful,” my friend said, smiling.
But all good things end; it was past the twilight hour. We walked towards the subway station, blending in the babble of the city, the tranquil moments we shared in that verdant oasis becoming a treasured memory.
Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org