Last week Lifelong Londoner was in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.
It belongs to everyone.Don’t worry if you haven’t been there; you know it already. It’s the most filmed location in the world. It’s the heart and lungs of New York: Central Park
We went there on a Monday, hoping to escape the crowds, but still, with temperatures climbing to the twenties, and an uninterrupted blue sky, it was awash with people, and dogs (a lot of dogs – New Yorkers love their dogs). We took a rowing boat out on one of the lakes and passed little islets colonised by turtles and drifted under bridges famous for a thousand fictional and real romantic encounters. A prep school (in the American sense of exclusive private school) on their spring break tour (you’re not allowed to say Easter here) had bagged most of the other boats, and handsome teenage boys in chinos and ties swopped competitive insults across the water. Afterwards, we headed for the Boathouse Restaurant by the lake. It doesn’t take reservations (we had to wait nearly an hour), it serves food which isn’t just hamburgers and hot dogs, and you sit in the shade and watch the sun gleaming off the water. Then we strolled down the Mall to the south side of the park, flanked by statues of famous writers (mostly English) and lay in the sun as our daughter scrambled on the rocks and explored one of the twenty-two children’s playgrounds.
The day before, I’d taken an early morning run, exploring the north part of the park. There is a theatre, which in the summer stages Shakespeare plays in front of another lake, for free; tickets are handed out on a first come, first served basis, and the line starts at dawn. There are half a dozen baseball diamonds which anyone can use. There are carefully maintained jogging and cycle trails, with regularly placed water fountains. On the day I ran, they were preparing for a Women’s Half Marathon, the volunteers already walking the course and setting up the drinks tables. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir at the top of the park is circled by a running track, and your efforts are rewarded by a panoramic view of the iconic Manhattan skyline.
The park is New Yorkers’ backyard, in a city where even the phenomenally wealthy don’t have backyards. The sense of ownership is apparent from the naming of benches. One, welcoming a new born baby boy ‘to the world and to New York’, was dated April 1966. Where is that 48 year old now? What has his life been? Does he ever come back to his bench? Some announced proposals of marriage. One simply said ‘What a day!’ Private moments, celebrated in public.
A couple of cafes, the Zoo, and a handful of mobile stalls selling pretzels and soft drinks are the only commercial enterprises allowed in the park. You have to spend a few days in New York to realise how remarkable this is. Two square miles with almost no one selling you anything. Two square miles of prime real estate on the most expensive twenty square miles in the world and no one has built on it. Two square miles where you can lose your way among rocks and trees. Two square miles that belong to everyone, wherever they come from.Two square miles that are everyone’s backyard.