N.Y.C.'s Central Park; Can a tree still grow in Manhattan?

It is early morning and sunlight is just beginning to sparkle on the lake. The air smells of fragrant new-mown grass; orioles and robins sing; no human voice disturbs the serenity of the scene.

The wilderness of Maine or Oregon, you say? No, but one of the world's most famous chunks of real estate: New York's Central Park.

If you lift your eyes above the tree line on the other side of the lake, a half dozen Manhattan skyscrapers crowd upon the pastoral beauty like giant interlopers. And as you look more closely around you, there are other unmistakable, mostly less attractive signs of urban life: beer cans sitting in the heavy silt; patches of litter on the grassy shore; trees gashed by vandals.

Yet, overall, 840-acre Central Park represents an amazing ongoing success story, perhaps unparalleled in the history of America's urban parks.

At a time when the Reagan administration has proposed that no federal monies at all be earmarked for urban parks, Central Park is undergoing a metamorphosis - economically as well as visually. This can only be likened to the changes wrought by the architect-in-chief of the park, Frederick Law Olmsted. Working with English architect Calvert Vaux, Olmsted, a former newspaper editor, transformed an unwanted, undistinguished, alternately swampy and hilly tract of land - crisscrossed by filthy trenches and studded by tin-roofed hovels and inhabited by several thousand squatters, including a handful of Indians and wild dogs - into a work of landscape art.

''The ragged desert of out-blasted rock, cat briars, and stone heaps begins to blossom like a rose,'' George Templeton Strong, an early chronicler of New York life, wrote on Sept. 2, 1859. It was just two years after Olmsted had been appointed superintendent of the Central Park work force. ''Many beautiful oases of path and garden culture have sprung up, with neat paths, fine greensward, and hopeful young trees.''

To those who think that all that was done to create Central Park was to fence off an area bordered on the south by 59th Street and on north by 110th, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, it should be pointed out that nearly 30,000 barrels of dynamite were used to shape and contour the land like some mammoth version of a child's sand castle. Sculptured fairy-talelike lakes glistened where there were fetid streams; sunken swamps were transformed into rolling meadows; stone terraces and brass fountains replaced squat shanties and huts.

In 1862 the park had more than 2 million visitors; in 1870 there were 10 million. The Astors and Vanderbilts came in their costly carriages; poor immigrants from Manhattan's Lower East Side donned their Sunday best and strolled footpath and arbor, meadow and glen - drinking in the views, escaping their slums.

But as early as 1872 Olmsted's design was under attack from those who failed to discern its importance as a complete and interlocking rural landscape, festooned with tasteful and architecturally fitting man-made garnishes such as the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain or the Bow Bridge, spanning an arm of the lake. A wide variety of ''improvements'' were proposed, including building a cathedral in the park, a race track, and a cemetery. These plans never were implemented. But gradually ugly tenement-brick storage buildings began to tarnish the serene landscape; carriage drives and meadows were covered with asphalt for new roads and parking lots; a zoo displaced more green space; vandalism and lack of proper maintenance led to erosion of many of the original rural flourishes that remained.

In the early 1930s the park again came under an attack of sorts. City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses brought an official stamp of approval to a change in philosophy: to consider the park as primarily a playground and not a beautiful rural respite.

Along with this policy came more asphalt roads and playrounds, more concessions and warehouse buildings. And so by the mid-1960s, the park seemed to many little more than a mirror reflecting many of the urban problems outside it. Some of the post-Olmsted brick structures had begun to crumble; drug sales became rampant; crime of every sort soared. Many of the lakes and ponds were filled as much with silt as with water; footbridges lay in shambles; brown mud patches had become more common than green grass.

Enter Mayor John V. Lindsay. The handsome and charismatic Lindsay is credited with putting Central Park on the rocky road to recovery. In 1966 he antagonized much of the city's business community by closing the park to automobiles on weekends, but in doing so he gave traffic-weary New Yorkers a glimpse of what Olmsted had been trying to present.

Ironically, Lindsay's plans to restore some of this original beauty were interrupted and virtually brought to a halt by the fiscal crisis he had helped create by overspending. What work on the park that was done was patchwork. Crime was increasing at an ever-alarming rate. Most tourists and New Yorkers stuck to the most traveled sections - and then only in the daylight.Yet in the early 1970 s - before the full force of the fiscal crunch hit the city in 1975 and bankruptcy was in the wings - another positive trend began to develop which is the one of the main reasons for Central Park's renaissance today: corporate giving and planning participation.

At first, when corporations were merely asked to donate, the response was sporadic. But after current Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis took office in 1978, and with budget-minded Mayor Edward I. Koch's blessing, a brand new approach to private help was adopted. First, it was seen that corporations had far more money in their ''publicity'' budgets than they had earmarked for urban-aid programs. Davis and others began to tap this money heavily. Running and bicycle races, for example, were sponsored by corporations, which paid the maintenance tabs as well as the promotional advertising.

Things snowballed. With more favorable promotion, Central Park once again caught the eye of the politicians. Mayor Koch has promised not merely to substitute private contributions for public money, but rather to employ the private to augment the public. More people have begun to use the park again, and this year, police note, violent crime is down significantly. In 1980 there were 15 million visitors.

Perhaps more important for its long-range rehabilitation - and the restoration of Olmsted's vision of a place that is a refuge from the strife, congestion, and confusion of city living - was the new light in which Davis, other public officials, and many private supporters were beginning to see Central Park: as a civic institution.

A recent city report states that the park should be viewed ''in much the same way that Lincoln Center, the Bronx Zoo, and the Metropolitan Museum are seen; as institutions whose well-being directly enhances the quality of life in the city.''

But actions are speaking much louder than these words. In August 1980, to cement this philosophy firmly in the foundation of private funding, the Central Park Conservancy was formed. The conservancy is a mini-arm - albeit politically and economically mighty - of the New York City Parks Department. Its directors are from both the public and private sectors.

While the city remains committed to support the day-to-day maintenance of the park, together with the financing of some specific restoration projects, the conservancy is charged with long-range planning, and it figures to play an increasing role in many privately financed restoration, preservation, and maintenance projects.

New York's current fiscal operations budget for Central Park is $4.4 million. But, in addition, the city expects to garner another $1 million from private sources for projects ranging from tree care to Sunday concerts.

For capital improvements - recarpeting lawns, major pond dredging, and the renovation of the 1870 Central Park Dairy, once the main attraction of the park's Children's Area - the city is spending about $8 million in public funds. For fiscal 1982, Park Administrator Elizabeth Barlow expects to receive another another $2 million in private funds for this purpose.

''If we can push that much restoration work annually . . .'' Mrs. Barlow says , ''(and) pay $5 million to $7 million for capital reconstruction, we will have the park completely rebuilt in the next 10 or 12 years.

''It's Mrs. Barlow's view - and this is one shared by other historic preservations and parks officials - that Central Park's restoration is ''the most important large-scale, long-range historic preservation project going on in America today.''

The biggest supporter of this work is financially strapped New York City. In some cases it has even stepped up its support for this ''crown jewel'' of urban parks.

To some critics, Central Park is getting unfair preferential treatment while other parks remain ''disaster areas.''

Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis agrees that Central Park, by virtue of its location and beauty, is getting the lion's share of public attention, especially in terms of private funding. However, he stresses vehemently that rather than being a stumbling block for other parks, the interest in Central Park is acting as a catalyst for them.

''Central Park plays a very important role,'' Davis says, ''vis-a-vis people's sense of all the parks. Seeing the improvements in Central Park, they conclude it's a good idea to give public resources to the entire parks system.'' Currently, in fact, ''over the last three years we have gone into construction or completed construction on over $100 million of parks rehabilitation work throughout the city,'' Davis notes.

With the Reagan administration's total elimination of urban parks money, New York City lost a ''projected $30 million for capital rehabilitation projects'' for parks citywide, Davis says. ''But the city, with its own capital budget, has filled about 70 percent of this hole.''

Why should New York do this when it has more urgent and certainly more costly problems of subways, bridges, and roads to deal with?

''It is perceived,'' Davis responds, ''that you can put relatively little money in the parks department, and generally the parks department does something positive with it. In Central Park, you can see it everywhere you go.''

And almost everywhere you roam in Central Park, there is indeed evidence of phoenixlike transformations rising from the ashes of neglect, pollution, siltation, and decay. Some examples:

* The Sheep Meadow. Originally what its name implies, the Sheep Meadow, south of 72nd Street and on the west side of the park, would be a gourmet grazing ground for sheep if they were in the park today. At a cost of approximately $500 ,000, a beautiful continuous green carpet has replaced mud flats and occasional threadbare patches. Helping to protect its luster is a controversial chain-link fence, which closes off the meadow in wet weather. Neighborhood residents and environmentalists claim the fence is not only an eyesore but also unnecessarily shuts people out. Gordon Davis, recognizing the validity of much of the criticism, says the fence will come down after the department can determine the best way to keep the meadow in top shape without it.

* The Dairy. No one knows exactly when the Dairy stopped serving milk, which it did for many years, but the Victorian building's decay has been plainly visable for decades. In the 1950s the stone structure's ''loggia'' (its wooden veranda-like portico) was badly damaged when a truck rammed into it. The loggia was razed instead of restored. But this year, a $473,000 reconstruction of the loggia was begun and is now nearly completed.

In 1979, $180,000 in private funds restored the inside of the Dairy, and in the process converted it from a storage area to public meeting place for exhibitions, lectures, and occasional concerts. This is just one of many instances where private money preceded public money. Park officials are convinced that those who hold the park's purse strings are more apt to be generous if they can see what private contributions have accomplished initially.

* Bethesda Fountain and others. Bethesda Fountain was restored with $120,000 in private funds. With the surrounding Terrace, it forms the park's formal centerpiece and is perhaps the park's greatest man-made architectural achievement. Much work, however, remains to be done on the stone Terrace, which ''steps down'' to the lake just above 72nd Street. Grafitti abounds and much of the ornate stonework is chipped and broken. Plans call for repairing and replacing portions of the carved stone walls and cleaning and repairing the magnificent tile ceiling of the Terrace. This project, however, is expected to cost many millions and likely is years from completion.

One of the most long-anticipated and hard-fought-for transformations is the planned reconstruction of the Central Park Zoo. This is the most heavily visited spot in the park. For decades the zoo's cramped quarters have been criticized by animal preservationists. In the past year, however, the Parks Department has agreed to place the zoo and its reconstruction plans entirely in the hands of the private New York Zoological Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, one of the finest facilities of its kind in the nation.

A great deal of controversy still continues over how to handle crime in the park.

The police are getting some highly visable support these days from mounted rangers. Under grants from the W. Alton Jones Foundation and the Chase Manhattan Bank, the first contingent of seven mounted rangers began riding the trails and byways of Central Park last year. These New York ''mounties'' serve in addition to approximately 100 Central Park rangers who patrol on foot and serve as the eyes and ears of the police department. Their primary responsibilities, however , are to instruct the visiting public on the history, design, geology, and wildlife of the park. Another complement of 50 Park Enforcement Police (PEP) was recently added to the patrol force. These are neither police officers nor rangers but carry handcuffs and are empowered to make arrests.

In spite of these things, criticism of the way the park is administered persists. Much of it seems justified.Says Charles Lyman, who heads up the urban parks component of the New York branch of the Sierra Club: ''I still don't think the city uses enough money to take care of Central Park even now.''

The Conservatory Water, originally a pond bounded by the Alice-in-Wonderland monument and the statue of Hans Christian Andersen, is little more than a garbage dump coated with water despite the fact it is frequently the site of model boat races on weekends and the immediate area is a favorite of children.

Although an intern program is adding manpower to tend to the park's vast variety of trees and shrubs, it has no full-time horticulturist or botanist to direct and oversee volunteer efforts.

And now for the second winter in a row, Central Park's Woolman Memorial Skating Rink remains closed amid controversy about planned additions to its restaurant. Mr. Lyman and other environmentalists have vigorously opposed such expansion on the grounds that it would further cut into green space. So construction is halted until the issue is resolved. Innocent victims are city children who have few places to skate in Manhattan that are not expensive or difficult to get to.

Meanwhile, the park continues to buzz with reconstruction activity.,

''There is really a feeling New Yorkers aren't going to let this park go,'' Elizabeth Barlow says. ''People love it too much.''

She continues: ''I think it is the most living example of democracy in action and the most exciting example because it's a place where people in a very congenial way do rub elbows; where you'll see Upper East Side types looking at the extraordinary Hispanic roller skating going on. There's a real feeling of looking at the other, looking at the person you don't go to school with, the person that you don't work with admiring them, and liking them in a way."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.