Archive for the ‘Central Park Story – Book One’ Category:

Emma Stebbins and the Angel of the Waters Statue in Central Park

bethesda-fountain-angel

A fitting tribute to the healing powers of water..as well as to a dearly loved friend…

The eight-foot bronze statue that stands on top of the fountain in the Bethesda Terrace, also known as the Angel of the Waters, shows a female winged angel walking on water, after which the water cascades into an upper basin and into the surrounding pool.

It is a striking and exquisitely beautiful piece of art. It also contains some deeply personal meaning both for its designer(s) and for the city itself.

Olmsted and Vaux, the principle designers of the park, didn’t like the idea of including statues at first; however, with the Croton Reservoir having recently been opened (1842) and its holding tank a short distance away, having a statue of an angel seemed a fitting tribute to a marvel that brought fresh water to the inhabitants of the city. Hence, what was first known as the Water Terrace was renamed the Bethesda Terrace in reference to the The Gospel of John, where there is a description of an angel blessing the Pool of Bethesda and bestowing upon it mystical healing powers.

In a separate but parallel vein, the statue was created by a highly-accomplished woman artist, Emma Stebbins, and a first for this country so far as awarding public commissions for women were concerned. Up till then it was unknown for a woman to receive such a high honor.

bethesda-fountain-angel

When viewed from the Mall, the angel appears to be floating among the pedestrians, but when seen from the arcade (depicted above) it almost appears to be in a private room, perhaps demonstrating the full range of its meaning to its creator

Adding yet another layer of meaning, Ms. Stebbins was gay. Unfortunately, her partner, the then-famous actress Charlotte Cushman, contracted breast cancer and died a few years after its dedication in 1873; and it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that the statue was made in tribute to her partner, both in likeness and in spirit.

Perhaps it was also out of sympathy for Ms. Stebbins and her partner that Vaux, who designed the base of the fountain and the terrace itself, suggested the statue be dedicated to Love.

Love, the healing quality of water, the grace of God, and high art, are all beautifully intertwined in this great masterpiece, just as its jets of water join and cascade into its pool.

In my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, I have tried bring additional meaning to this exceptional piece of art.

 

Crime in Central Park…Enough to Make You Think Before Walking In the Park After Dark

Bethesda Fountain

The Conservancy has done wonders to reduce crime in the city by turning places like the Bethesda Terrace that were formerly wastelands, into tourist meccas

Crime in Central Park started out modestly and then spiraled out of control into the 1970s, over a century later.

With the establishment of the Conservancy in the early 1980s, however, the crime rate took a sudden and dramatic nosedive, perhaps for the first time ever.

I happened to be walking through the Mall toward the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term in office, in 2013, and asked a policeman what crime was like in the park. He laughed and said it was down to almost nothing. When I asked him why, he didn’t have a ready answer. However, when I looked around and saw how many men in blue were standing around the general area, I felt the answer was clear.

New York Police at Work

This scene may be less common now that the city has a new mayor who is less focused on crime reduction

Apparently this deterring presence of police officers has changed since that conversation. Under Mayor DiBlasio’s leadership, crime in the park has spiked, proving that there are undeniable political factors that contribute to the ongoing crime rate.

Nevertheless, the park is still a world away from the dangerous place I was brought up living next to in the 1960s, and for that reason, I decided not to include any crime scenes in the park in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, even though it might have added some excitement!

Instead, I decided to focus on whatever crimes were taking place behind the scene.

Buskers In Central Park: An Unexpected Treat

No blog on Central Park would be complete without mentioning the buskers that frequent the Promenade, the Terrace, and the Castle.

Their talent, virtuosity, and, on occasion, genius, add a new dimension to the cultural milieu of the park.

Though Olmsted and Vaux never would have imagined such performances taking place beyond the confines of the Naumberg Bandshell where formal concerts were sometimes held, it demonstrates the flexibility of their original design that it could accommodate such changes in the future.

In my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, Christopher Middleton, the main character, happens upon an unusual performance on the Bethesda Terrace, conducted by none other than the Mad Hatter himself!

Here’s one of the many performances that take place along the Mall on a sunny afternoon:

Boss Tweed and the Unwinding of Central Park…What a Mess!

Boss Tweed

Boss Tweed in his prime

Though the majority of the construction of Central Park was completed during the time that ‘Boss’ Tweed was in control of the city government, few people did more damage to it in such a short period of time.

He handed out thousand of unnecessary jobs in park maintenance in return for political favors, resulting in the razing of trees and denuding of entire areas. He even planned to put in a race track in the fashionable south end and a massive zoo in the bucolic North Meadow.

Olmsted stood on the sidelines, watching in helpless agony, fired from his position as consulting architect, as both his and Calvert Vaux’s original design for the park was unwound.

If the New York Times didn’t run a successful campaign to uncover Tweed’s unusually corrupt regime, even more damage would have been done and Olmsted’s own reputation permanently damaged.

As time would have it, Tweed was dethroned and the damage contained and eventually reversed.

In my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, I have tried to recreate much of this corrupt backdrop, at least in spirit, to show my readers that just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean it won’t take place in the future.

Summerstage, New York Marathon, Rock Concerts, Shakespeare–How Much More Can You Fit Into a City Park?

New York Marathon

Feeling claustrophobic? The New York Marathon will test you to the max.

How many different free cultural activities can you fit inside a city park?

If you want to know the answer, you needn’t look any further than Central Park in Manhattan.

First, you have all of the free performing arts festivals such as Central Park Summerstage and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, which take place every summer and are free admission.

Add to that the New York Marathon, an annual event since 1970 which has ballooned to over 50,000 participants, and traditionally ends in Central Park.

Shakespeare in the Park

Shakespeare in the Park with the Castle in the background…pretty magical, no?

Then there’s Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater which features the best of Shakespeare and has been attended by over five million spectators since its opening in 1962 (also free on a ‘first come first serve’ basis).

Speaking of the  60s, let’s not forget the many free rock concerts such as Simon and Garfunkle, Carole King, America, Elton John…the list goes on and on.

Simon and Garfunkle concert

A mere 500,000 people attended a concert bu Simon and Garfunkel in 1981!

But if you think the list ends there, think again; which is why I had to be extremely selective in deciding which free cultural events to include in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story.

 

 

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum: A Nice Side Trip

Mansion-with-wisteria

The backyard of the Carnegie Mansion where his daughter presumably played to her heart’s content

I always felt a close affinity to the Carnegie Mansion at 91st and Fifth, now known as the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

My mother’s apartment was a few blocks uptown, and we would walk past it on our way to church or whenever I went for a jog around the reservoir.

Now that I’m several decades older, my curiosity about its origins has been piqued, and I looked it up online.

The mansion was built in 1901 at the request of Carnegie who asked for a plain but roomy house with a garden for his daughter to play in. Plain it isn’t. Roomy it is. It has 60 ‘roomies’, as a matter of fact!

Carnegie had just finished publishing his book, The Gospel of Wealth, a year earlier in 1900, in which he declared that to die a wealthy man was ‘to die in disgrace’ and that one’s wealth, however great or small, should be distributed beforehand to the benefit of all.

You can almost hear the echo of people screaming ‘No!’ up and down Millionaires Row on Fifth Avenue to this day. But Carnegie, if nothing else, never paid much attention to what others thought of his methods. He proceeded to give away 350 million dollars (several billion in today’s terms) until his death in 1919, leaving only a meager $30 million to be distributed afterwards.

After his wife passed away in 1946, the mansion was donated by the Carnegie Corporation to the Smithsonian Institute and, around the time I began living in the neighborhood, was renovated and converted into the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, a museum devoted to several hundred years of design innovations, which explains why I was never knew much about it.

Christopher Middleton, in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, also walks past this iconic landmark, though he has other, more important things on his mind, like talking statues and cockatrices flying around Belvedere Castle!

Baseball in Central Park–a Real Home Run for the Game

Baseball in the park then...

Baseball in the park in the 50s…

It was sometimes difficult for nineteenth century baseball players to enjoy their newfangled game in Central Park due to competition from cricket players, but by the 1930s, when recreation became a top priority of the Parks Commission, the game was finally embraced.

In 1934, it was formally announced that the informal playing fields in Central Park´s North Meadow would be constructed with permanent bases and backstops. Tournaments would also held for both baseball and softball throughout the 1930s.

Baseball in Central Park

…and now

Today, over twenty baseball fields are distributed more or less evenly over three principal meadows from the south to the north end of the park.

It’s hard to know what Olmsted and Vaux would have thought of their original design being usurped by a game that was barely known at the time. Probably they would have balked, since their intention was to provide a series of unobstructed vistas to reconnect the viewer with the genius of Nature, not the spirit of Babe Ruth. But time and tide bow to no man, and baseball is now a permanent fixture in the park.

In my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, I pay homage to sports in the park by including a baseball game where Christopher Middleton flies in the air and catches a ball (Book V).

Bow Bridge: A Symphony in Stone

Bow Bridge

It is as if a piece of music suddenly took on a physical form.

Bow Bridge, named for its graceful shape, is reminiscent of the bow of an archer or violinist. This handsomely designed bridge spans the Ramble Lake, linking Cherry Hill with the woodlands beyond. When the park was in its initial planning stages, the commissioners requested a suspension bridge (yikes!). Calvert Vaux, the designer of the 36 bridges in the park, objected and a compromise was struck with this refined, low-lying bridge.

Bow Bridge

I cannot imagine a more beautiful bridge, can you?

Today, Bow Bridge is a muse for photographers and writers alike. Rising from the bridge are eight cast-iron urns, installed by Central Park Conservancy in 2008 as replicas of the originals that disappeared in the 1920s.

The bridge appears in many episodes of my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story.

The Frick Museum–What a Gem!

Frick Museum

A more stunning building than the Carnegie mansion, with an equally stunning art collection, to boot!

The Frick is one of the pre-eminent art museums in the United States, with a high-quality collection of old master paintings and fine furniture housed within the former residence of Mr. Frick himself. It also happens to be my favorite museum in the city because of  its delightful blend of a spacious home with a knock-your-socks-off art collection. You could be looking at a Holbein the Younger portrait of Sir Thomas More in one gallery and turn the corner and come face to face with a stunning Vermeer in another.

Frick was an avid art collector throughout his business career and his daughter enhanced the collection after his death. He even planned that his house, completed in 1914 where he lived until his death in 1919, would become a museum to display the art that he’d acquired.

Since the main character, Christopher Middleton, in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, lives a block away from this iconic museum, I have included it in several passages in my books.

 

American Museum of Natural History–More Than You Bargained For

American Museum of Natural History

Here’s the museum entrance–gateway to 32 million artifacts!

The American Museum of Natural History that sits beside Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West, is one of the largest museums in the world. The complex comprises 27 interconnected buildings housing 45 permanent exhibition halls, in addition to a planetarium and a library. Its collections contain over 32 million specimens of plants, humans, animals, fossils, minerals, rocks, meteorites, and human cultural artifacts and occupies 1,600,000 square feet. As if that wasn’t enough, the museum also has a full-time scientific staff of 225, sponsors over 120 special field expeditions each year, and averages about five million visits annually. A bit more than you expected in a museum, right?

It didn’t always used to be that way. In 1874, the cornerstone was laid for the Museum’s first building, which is now hidden from view by the many buildings in the complex that occupy most of Manhattan Square. The original building, which was opened in 1877, was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould who also designed the arcade and the staircases leading to the Bethesda Fountain.

Rose Center for Earth and Space

If the main part of the museum is too much for you to handle, you can always escape to outer space in the Rose Center for Earth and Space!

Although I avoided adding the museum in my young adult adventure series, Central Park Story, I had a curious experience there as a teenager. I had shown a rare bird to a man who happened to be walking by in Pelham Bay Park with his wife. That man turned out to be Gardner Stout, the president of the museum at the time. Impressed by the bird that I’d shown him, he invited me to his office and gave me a tour of their extensive research area. He led me to a terrarium in the back and said that inside was the deadliest creature on earth. I couldn’t see anything but some tiny jewel-like frogs. Apparently these pretty little creatures had recently been discovered in the Amazon and emitted a poison that could kill large mammals on contact. Not so pretty after all! I guess that made me and Mr. Stout even because he excused himself, saying he was late getting ready for a trip to Africa…The only thing I remember after that was wishing I could have joined him!