The Great Lawn
The Great Lawn holds the distinction of being the single largest design feature that was not part of the original Greensward Plan, as drawn up by Olmsted and Vaux. At that time it was the site of the Croton Reservoir, which had been built in 1842 and required the designers fit their vision for the park around its disconcertingly rectangular dimensions. In 1917 the reservoir was made obsolete by the construction of new water tunnel. Similar to the debate that now ensues over the future use of the current Reservoir, the Croton Reservoir was also the topic of much discussion. It was drained and filled in and was, for a period during the Great Depression, the site of a community of displaced people, then known as Hoovervilles. Hundreds of squatters lived in the park, with one group of industrious stone workers actually building a house constructed of native park stone. Interestingly enough this period of the park’s history is depicted in an episode of none other than Dr. Who, Great Britain’s time travelling television icon. The park, and its community of itinerant homeless, are drawn in very effecting cgi detail, with a very realistic representation of Central Park (that is, of course, if you’re able to ignore the Daleks.)
Central Park Hooverville
Finally the site of the former reservoir was planted with grass and became The Great Lawn. A subsequent controversy arose over the construction of ball fields. As usual the debate centered around the park being a natural refuge from the urban confines surrounding it versus its use as a playground for those who didn’t have access to other facilities, most notably summer houses near the beach. Finally the city installed eight permanent backstops in the 1950s.
However the lawn had never been designed with this amount of use in mind. By the 1980s the Great Lawn could just as easily have been described as the Great Dustbowl. Overuse had all but obliterated the grass and the earth was as hard packed as asphalt. Finally the entire space went through an extensive renovation in the mid-90s and has been rigidly overseen ever since to prevent the same abuses from taking place.
The one thing that has not changed, and hopefully never will, is the magic of hearing a live symphony orchestra while staring up blissfully into the depths of a summer night’s sky.
Today, October 9th, marks what would have been the 70th birthday of John Lennon. Tonight at 7:00 pm there is a free screening of American Masters:LENNONYC. The film explores Lennon’s life in New York City during the 1970s as a father, husband, activist and artist. It Features never-before-heard studio recordings and never-before-seen concert film outtakes and home movies. The Central Park screening is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. Line up early. Enter at 69th Street and 5th Avenue. Blanket seating, food and drink welcome (no glass, no chairs and no video cameras allowed). Special guest speaker will be singer Lou Reed and radio personality Dennis Elsas, WFUV Radio.
On December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was shot dead as he entered his home at the Dakota Apartment Building at 72nd St. and Central Park West. A long time resident of New York City, Mr. Lennon had taken many walks with his wife and young son through the friendly confines of Central Park. Long a favorite son of his adopted city, John Lennon wasn’t simply New York’s Beatle. He was, for many, the embodiment of the spirit on which city had been built. One half urbane cynic and one half romantic dreamer, he unabashedly embraced the disparate parts which, as every New Yorker knows, combine to form a uniquely gifted, passionate individual.
On March 26, 1981, the city council adopted legislation introduced by then-council member Henry J. Stern on December 18, 1980, which designated the area, stretching from 71st to 74th streets, as Strawberry Fields. His widow, the artist and performer Yoko Ono, later donated $1 million to the Central Park Conservancy to re-landscape and to maintain the 2.5-acre tear-drop-shaped parcel of park landscape. Designed by landscape architect Bruce Kelly the ground breaking ceremony was in March 21, 1984. The name of the site is taken from the Beatle’s song Strawberry Fields Forever and was also, for John, an evocation of an orphanage in Liverpool by the same name. At the center lies the famous Imagine mosaic, donated by the city of Naples. There is also a bronze plaque that lists the 121 countries endorsing Strawberry Fields as a Garden of Peace.
Strawberry Fields opened on October 9, 1985, John’s 45th birthday. Every October 9th since then has seen an all day vigil of people of all ages from around the world; fans of his music and believers in his vision.
Location: West Side between 71st and 74th Streets
Details: Strawberry Fields was dedicated by Mayor Edward I. Koch, October 9, 1985, John Lennon’s birthday.
The Blockhouse in Central Park
At the northern end of Central Park, hidden from view by the surrounding trees and foliage, is an aged edifice that is the oldest standing building in the park (discounting, of course, the Oblelisk, imported from Egypt). It is a fort built to protect lower Manhattan from invasion from the north. And no, we’re not talking about the Bronx.
During the War of 1812 New Yorkers constructed fortifications along the waterfront at the Battery and Ellis Island, assuming that a British attack would come from the harbor at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. This included the fort on Governor’s Island as well. Therefore, when the British attacked Stonington, Connecticut on Long Island Sound on August 10, 1814, the city was quite unprepared to defend itself from an attack from the east or the north.
Under the direction of General Joseph Swift, citizens from New York, New Jersey, and Long Island banded together in patriotic zeal to construct a line of defense running through this area of Manhattan. According to Edward H. Hall in McGown’s Pass and Vicinity, they came from “every conceivable class of men: the Society of Tammany, the students of Columbia College, medical students, the Marine Society, the Society of Tallow Chandlers, butchers, members of the bar, Free Masons, firemen, Sons of Erin, colored citizens.” The unevenness of the stonework is testimony to the haste in which these fortifications were constructed. In September 1814, less than a month after construction, The New York Columbian commented: “The works at Harlem heights are numerous, compact and judiciously placed, and form a romantic and picturesque view.”
The Blockhouse is a great destination for an Autumnal hike through the more pastoral northern regions of the park. It also constitutes one of the few Manhattan reminders of our Colonial past.
What we now know as Central Park has a rich social history that dates back to well before the current urban oasis was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. One such example is the story of Seneca Village. It was one of the very first African American communities in New York City and existed from 1825 through 1857. It was located between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues in what is now a the part of Central Park just west of the Great Lawn. It was also Manhattan’s first significant community of African American property owners. By the 1840s, it had become a multi-ethnic community of African Americans, Irish, and German immigrants, and perhaps a few Native Americans. In 1855, the New York State Census reported approximately 264 individuals living in the village. This included three churches, as well as a school and several cemeteries. Good fortune for the residents of the city in general was bad luck for the residents of the tiny community – within two years Seneca Village would be razed and its identity erased by the creation of Central Park.
Seneca Village Tour 12:00 PM Sat. 9/11
Meet inside the Park at the southeast corner of 85th Street and Central Park West.
Call 212-772-0210 for directions.
For further information try these links:
Seneca Village Project
New-York Historical Society: Seneca Village and the Making of Central Park