An extraordinary triptych of one-act operas, utilizing New York City's Central Park as its unifying theme. PBS showed it with sub-titles, even though it's in English. Each opera shows a the illusions in a variety of situations: the observance of a religious ritual, the distorted view of the elderly, and the plight the dispossessed.


The year of 1807 saw the creation of the Randall Plan. John Randall, Jr., designed a plan for the northward expansion of New York City (then only the tip of the island of Manhattan); above what is now Houston Street all the way to 155th Street, he designed a grid system that would iron out all of the natural features of the island, and leaving almost no room for parks.

In 1850, the city's lack of parkland (an unfavorable comparison to London, which had over 1,400 acres of park) was making the public and the politicians unhappy. The city was also still fairly undeveloped north of 34th Street and nearly uninhabited north of the Croton Reservoir on 42nd Street, and the politicians were looking for a way to spur northward development. The state gave permission to buy the site then known as Jones' Wood, on the east side of the city from (now) Park Avenue to the East River, 66th to 75th streets. This site was rejected as too small, and it looked like New York would never have a park.

A three-man committee was formed to seek out possible locations, and in 1852 one was chosen: a mostly barren, swampy area north of today's 59th Street, home to thousands of squatters and their animals. These squatters promised to fight any encroachment by the city. However, the city leaders decided that the city needed a park and decided to act before even this awful spot was lost to Randall's planned buildup, and a team of park commissioners was appointed and sent into the swampland to clean the area and oust the squatters. The area of the park was laid out, 2.5 miles north to south and .5 miles east to west. In 1856, the lots composing this area were purchased by the city for about $7,500 per acre.

The Central Park Commission was formed in 1857, run by Republican-dominated New York State in order to keep it out of the hands of the Democratic politicians of New York City. Andrew H. Green was selected as president, and he and his commission oversaw not only the creation of the park but the layout of uptown Manhattan.

A national contest (the nation's first) was held to try to design this area. The winners were the creators of the "Greensward Plan", Connecticut's Frederick Law Olmsted (already the park's superintendent) and his assistant, English-born architect and landscape gardener Calvert Vaux. Their plan was to work with the natural features of the area rather than design a formal park, even sinking the four Transverse Roads in order to hide them from view and give the illusion of uninterrupted space.

20,000 workers were hired: gardeners, stonecutters, and engineers; blasting out cliffs, moving millions of yards of soil, and planting hundreds of thousands of trees. A second reservoir was built just north of a preexisting receiving reservoir, this one a more gentle, curving shape than the rectangular edges of its southern neighbor. (The earlier reservoir would be later drained and landscaped to become the Great Lawn.) In 1859, the park opened to the public in the winter. By 1865, the Park was visited by millions of people every year (7,839,373 in 1866).

Olmsted wished for his park to be a place where all New Yorkers could come together, be they rich or poor, immigrant or native. The rich came in carriages, holding carriage parades in the late afternoons. The poorer visitors came for concerts on Saturdays.

There were many rules governing park usage during its first few years. No group picnics were allowed, discouraging many recent immigrants from visiting. Commercial wagons were not to be driven through the park, at least not for leisurely visits. For a schoolboy to be allowed to play on the fields, he required a note from his principal. These and other rules were fought by New Yorkers and the park was soon made more free. Sunday concerts were added, allowing New Yorkers some enjoyment on their day of rest. The Carousel was built, as was the Central Park Zoo in 1871.

The park's first equipped playground was donated in 1927 by August Heckscher (later a park commissioner). 20 more were added in the 1930s and 40s by Robert Moses. Moses also renovated the Central Park Zoo, widened the Transverse Roads to accommodate his beloved automobiles, and added athletic fields to the North Meadow and Great Lawn. Many private contributions were made to the park, including the Wollman and Lasker skating rinks, boathouses, and the Chess and Checkers house.

The fiscal crisis of the 1970s, combined with the general lack of maintenance given to the park and the new interest in preservation (especially after the 1963 destruction of Penn Station) led to the creation of the Central Park Conservancy, a private fundraising entity dedicated to restoring the park, especially the original features of the Greensward Plan. The Conservancy still contributes over half of the park's budget.


The Reservoir: Constructed during the original Greensward Plan, the Reservoir (now officially named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994; like most things renamed in New York City, this is pretty much ignored) is mostly known as something to jog around. The 1.5 mile pathway surrounding the Reservoir is actually an old access road for the Department of Environmental Protection. The Reservoir no longer holds water for New York City, instead helping to maintain the bodies of water in the northern part of the park. The Reservoir holds over 1,000,000,000 gallons of water in 106 acres.

The Lake: yes, that's the official name. The Lake spans 22 acres atop what was originally swampland, and was filled with water from the Croton Reservoir. The Lake was intended to be boated upon in the summer and skated upon in the winter, and its original opening coincided with a rather harsh winter which provided New Yorkers with weeks of skating pleasure. Although skating has been moved to the two rinks, people still boat during the summer; boats can be rented from the Boathouse (originally designed in 1874 and rebuilt in 1950 after the original burned down), and gondola rides are offered during the summer.

Bethesda Terrace: designed as the "architectural heart of the park" by Olmsted and Vaux, this is a split-level terrace on the Lake. Jacob Wrey Mould designed the features of the terrace with Vaux, choosing natural motifs. The main feature of the Terrace is the Bethesda Fountain, topped with the statue "Angel of the Waters"; the statue is both the only piece commissioned in the original design of the park, and the first statue commissioned to be designed by a woman, Emma Stebbins.

The Mall: the formal complement to the Terrace, and Olmsted and Vaux's concession to formal design, resulted in this 40' wide promenade. The Mall is surrounded by elm trees, a favorite of Olmsted, and the trees intertwine overhead to provide a natural canopy, shading the Mall in the summer. The southern half of the Mall is sometimes known as the "Literary Walk" due to the statues of famous writers that stand along the sides. The Olmsted Bed, near the south end of the Mall, is also the only tribute to the park's designer.

Shakespeare Garden: dedicated in 1916 to William Shakespeare, this four-acre garden, near the Belvedere Castle, contains only plants mentioned in the Bard's plays. The garden was rebuilt in 1987, and now includes as one of its trees a graft of a white mulberry that Shakespeare himself planted in 1602. Bronze plaques can be found near certain plants quoting the lines that inspired their planting.

Belvedere Castle: Italian for "beautiful view" (incidentally, Italian railroad observation cars share the name), the castle was designed as a "Victorian folly", a fantasy building. Originally an empty shell, the castle is now home to the Henry Luce Nature Observatory and, perhaps more famously, a National Weather Service station. Being on Vista Rock (itself now fenced in), the highest point in the park, it provides one of the best views of the whole park and the surrounding city. The Castle was reopened in 1983 after its restoration.

The Ramble: carved out of a hillside, this part of the park, although it perhaps looks the most natural, is in fact completely artificial; even the stream running through it is controlled by a tap. The Ramble, one of the first parts of the park to be built, was designed as a place for the visitor to stroll around and enjoy the quiet seclusion; this seclusion has made it popular for couples desiring privacy (especially gay couples). The plants in the area were imported from the Appalachian and Adirondack Mountains. The Ramble is slowly being restored, as it has been somewhat abused by those who wander off the trails.

Conservatory Water: usually known as the "Boat Pond", this area is mostly famous for the many people who sail remote-controlled model boats in it. The city wanted Olmsted and Vaux to build a conservatory on this site; they chose to draw inspiration instead from the pools in Paris where children and adults would sail model boats. Two of the parks most famous statues are here: one of Hans Christian Andersen holding open a book, and one of Alice on a mushroom surrounded by various creatures from Wonderland.

Central Park Zoo: officially designated a "Wildlife Center" after the Wildlife Conservation Society took it over in 1984, it was originally designed as part of the Greensward Plan and redesigned in the first half of the 20th century by Robert Moses. The Zoo is now joined by the Children's Zoo, with attractions designed more for children (obviously). Between the two parks stands the Delacorte Clock, which plays different nursery rhymes every hour and half-hour with mechanical accompaniment.

Delacorte Theater: originally designed in 1962 as a temporary structure, this open-air theater still exists and still for the same function: Shakespeare In The Park. Shakespeare In The Park was started in 1957 to bring free Shakespeare plays to the New York public, and still does 45 years later. The theater overlooks Turtle Pond, and the Belvedere Castle rises over it to the right and is occasionally illuminated to serve as a backdrop for the plays.


Bridges: each of Central Park's bridges were individually designed and all different, each meant to complement the natural and planned features of their surroundings. The bridges range from the majestic Bow Bridge that spans the Lake to the stone arches within the Ramble. The bridges were designed by Vaux with help from Mould on the cast-iron ones, which are the oldest in America. See the Sources below for a Forgotten NY tour of the bridges.

Lampposts: aside from being occasionally beautiful, the lampposts have a usually unknown feature. Each lamppost has a plate on it with its serial number; this serial number has a two-digit number which corresponds to what would be the nearest cross street if the streets ran through the park. Using these, one can determine one's location and go from there.


  • The park is 843 acres. Originally, it was only supposed to be around 700 acres, but it was expanded north.
  • The pedestrian paths, all told, span 58 miles.
  • 26,000 trees grow in the park.
  • 8,968 benches are provided.
  • There are 36 bridges, each unique.
  • 17 restrooms exist, 6 wheelchair accessible and one closed in winter.
  • Aside from the seven ornamental fountains, there are also 125 drinking fountains.

By Car: the park is bordered by Central Park West (which becomes 8th Avenue), Central Park South (59th Street), Fifth Avenue, and Central Park North (110th Street). There are four Transverse Roads at 97th St., 85th St., 79th/81st St., and 65th St.; however, these and other streets are closed to the public on weekends, when the skaters, bikers, and bladers take over the streets.

By Subway: the 6 train runs along Lexington Avenue on the east side, three blocks from the Park. The B and C trains run along Central Park West, and several trains stop near 59th Street allowing easy access to the south side.


Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City. Henry Holt, New York: 1994
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City/ Kondansha America, New York:1997 (originally published 1966)

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