Saturday, January 16, 2010

Virtual Tours [Central Park, pt. I]

¡Hola! Everybody...
As promised the first of what I hope will be a series of virtual tours of the city of my birth... Check out the video slide show I prepared. Some photos are mine, while the bulk were collected over the years from various sources (music by Ray Barretto from a composition by Hector Martignon).

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-=[ The Park, pt. I ]=-

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.

-- Henry David Thoreau

It is said that New York City is a city of marked contrasts -- of inherent contradictions -- and this is quite true. Rich are jostled along with poor, great filth exists alongside some of the most sublime achievements of humankind. Contradictions are everywhere: old and new, good and evil, ugliness and transcendent beauty. Nowhere is this contrast exemplified more than in one of the greatest works of art known called Central Park.

You could spend several years’ worth of vacations and still not fully explore the wonders of Central Park, or “The Park” (as it is called by New Yorkers). There’s no other way of putting it except to say that Central Park is huge. It sits on some of the most expensive real estate in the known universe, measuring two and a half miles long by a half-mile wide. The Park covers 843 acres of land and includes over 60 miles of pathway. The tour I have prepared here won’t have you walk that much (LOL), it covers about one to one-and-a-half miles of the lower half of The Park and is best enjoyed as the rest of New York should be enjoyed: at a leisurely pace.

Central Park holds much meaning for me personally; as I’m sure it does for many native New Yorkers. From “The Fountain” (The Bethesda Terrace), where thousands of Puerto Ricans and others would meet on spring and summer Sundays in the 70s to play music, dance, and party, to the Carousel (the site of many of my first dates), The Park is the receptacle for many precious memories.

For me the best way to experience the park is from south to north. This tour begins at Columbus Circle, where Eighth Ave. (which becomes Central Park West) and Broadway intersect. Before entering The Park, take a look at the Christopher Columbus monument at the center of the circle, as well as the large gold-topped statue at the park’s entrance (dedicated to the USS Maine). You might also want to check out the Columbus Circle Mall across the street from the park. Make sure to bring the big bucks, baby, as there are some high end shops located here. There's also a great Jazz club there with a breath-taking view of the park.

There are several paths that enter the park here, and the one I want you to take is the one directly to the left of the Maine Monument. This path goes downhill in the direction of the park’s old carriage road, and is often filled with bicyclists and joggers. It’s now usually called ring road or West Drive. Cross this road, but do so with caution, yielding to bicyclists, joggers, and skaters where necessary.

Once you’ve crossed the road head north (left) on the path alongside the ring road. Here you will pass over a couple of lovely stone bridges on your way to Sheep Meadow. Stop somewhere here, find a nice spot to sit, and read about the creation of the park. I won’t get into the history of the park here, except to say that it’s one of the great projects ever -- one of the wonders of the world. The park was conceived, designed, and built by Olmstead and Vaux. Every tree, every boulder, every blade of grass was intended in a conscious way. You can get info from various sources (click here for a good resources on Central park).

You’ll know you’ve reached Sheep Meadow when you get to the chain-link fence. And yes, at one time there were sheep in Central Park. On a a sunny day, you'll find sun worshipers taking in the sun's rays. Across the West Drive is the now defunct Tavern on the Green, created when the sheep were exiled to the equally miraculous Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The Tavern, in turn, was created to get rid of another restaurant, the Casino, when it became notorious as the hangout of New York’s playboy mayor of the 1920s, “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker. If you are in need a of good story, Google Jimmy walker. As mayor, Walker kept late hours and "loose" women (despite being married). For a brief glimpse, consider that during his first two years in office, he spent 143 days in Palm Springs, Palm Beach, Bermuda and Europe. Criticized for giving himself a pay raise from $25,000 to $40,000, Walker quipped, “Why, that’s cheap. Think what it would cost if I worked full time.”

If you ever visit Central Park, you’ll probably not see Tavern on the Green, as it has gone out of business, its beautiful décor now being auctioned off (you can put in a bid online). I ate at the Tavern a few times (that I can remember) and once, in the 1970s, I was asked to leave when my date, a lovely young lady who become too drunk, insisted on “singing opera” while standing atop our dining table. Sadly, she knew neither opera nor the rudiments of singing, but in her defense, she had exquisite bone structure and a most beautifully well-shaped arse.

Cross back to sheep meadow and walk along its southern side, outside the fence (the fence being on your left). As you reach the top of the hill, you’ll note a number of boulders on both sides of the path. These are in fact “glacial erratics,” left here during the last Ice Age. Continue walking east on the path, past the edge of Sheep Meadow, until you reach the ring road -- here also called the East Drive. Keeping the ring road on your right, turn left and continue to the statue of Christopher Columbus, which will be on your left. This is the beginning of the Mall. The Mall was designed to contrast the random, winding paths of lower Central Park. It's a very orderly, well-organized section.

The Columbus statue was originally built to celebrate his quadricentennial, and was widely panned by art critics at the time partly because some felt celebrating Italians wasn’t deemed too cool. LOL At least that's the way I see it. Walk around the flower garden to the statue of William Shakespeare that stands opposite it. The statue, at the southern end of the Mall, which is now called the Literary or Poet’s Walk, was one of its first and was sponsored by the great New York Shakespearian actor, Edwin Booth and his brothers Junius and John Wilkes (yes, that Wilkes Booth)... Continue walking north on the Mall and you’ll pass statues of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, and then you’ll come upon an obscure American poet, Greene Helleck, of whom I know nothing. LOL

Further up the Mall, you come upon a broad staircase leading down to Bethesda Terrace. Before you go down, take some time to look at the intricate carvings on the pedestals flanking the staircase -- look for the witch on her broomstick on the west side of the pedestal on your left. The use of Halloween symbols was recent when this part of the park (referred to then as the heart of Central Park) was built. Catholics and other Christian sects of the time, demonstrating that religious intolerance is nothing new, condemned it. LOL

Head down the stairs to the heart of the terrace and you’re greeted by Emma Stebbin’s statue, The Angel of the Waters. Growing up, we used to call it “The Fountain,” as in “Meet you at The Fountain on Sunday!” everyone knowing which fountain. On some Sundays, the Fountain would get so crowded with Puerto Ricans that it would take you literally 45 minutes to circle it. The big thing about the Fountain was that musicians from all over the city would congregate there and jam. You would find ensembles made up of 10-15 percussionists, 6-7 trombonists, trumpet players, flutists -- all manner of musicians from many different cultures mixing together creating a hybrid music.

Oftentimes, well-known salsa musicians would make appearances, take some of the ideas germinated in those sessions, and incorporate it into their music. The site was also the place where some great percussionists -- known and unknown -- would meet and challenge each other to musical duels that reverberated throughout the park. I would often joke that Central Park on a Sunday looked and sounded like a Tarzan episode. LOL!

Why Sunday?

I don’t know, but I do know that one of the most popular music radio shows among Latino/as at the time, “Latin Roots,” played for four hours every Sunday afternoon. The host, Nuyorican poet and activist (now journalist), Felipe Luciano, would play Latino/a music from all over the world and often featured interviews with artists otherwise never featured on radio or television anywhere else. You would walk through The Park on a Sunday and everyone would have their boom boxes tuned on to the “Roots” program.

It was a truly amazing... At that time, the musical phenomenon known as “salsa” was barely known outside of the Latino/a community. Eventually, it would break out into an international phenomenon with even Japanese youth clamoring for the music and actually dancing the unique steps of salsa music. However, salsa was more than a musical genre; it was a kind of urban folklore that caught fire in all the barrios throughout Latin America. To yell out “Salsa!” at that time was the equivalent of saying “Right On!” It was an identity marker, a way of life.

I’ve been trying to locate images of the Fountain from that era, but I haven’t had much success. It’s a little-known, but important slice of New York City History.

Okay... next tour, I’ll finish up this tour of lower Central Park.



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