Reviewed by David Andrew Stoler
240 pp. Griffith Moon Publishing
It’s hard to think of a greater deception perpetrated on more people than the illusion that is Central Park. Even the celebrated New York newspaperman Horace Greeley was tricked by it: when the park opened in 1873 Greeley, looking with satisfaction at the undulating hills, the woods and streams and lakes, said, “Well, they have let it alone better than I thought they would.”
But of course that was the exact opposite of what the park’s creators had done. The land that now makes up the green jewel in the crown of Manhattan had spent the last ten millennia a fetid swamp nearly devoid of natural beauty. Poor Frederick Law Olmsted: after surveying inch by inch the poison-ivy-covered bog that would make him famous, Olmsted lamented that “it would be difficult to find another body of land upon this island which possessed less of…the most desirable characteristic of a park.”
It took twenty years and millions of man-hours to create the park as something close to what we know today. Three thousand men earning two bucks a day hauled millions of cartloads of topsoil — enough to make a football field as tall as the Empire State Building — to cover the sloping, rocky schist that retreating glaciers had deposited there 12,000 years before. (And what they couldn’t cover they blew up: they used more gunpowder to make the park than did the 620 cannons firing for three days straight at Gettysburg.) Millions of trees were planted; thousands of people displaced; hundreds of sculptures, friezes, and tiles carved; and six lakes dug and fed with an intricate network of underground pipes — all to create the illusion of natural splendor in the middle of what, at the time it was built, was the most population-dense area on the planet.
Central Park has been fooling people ever since. Its twisting paths hide the cars that cross it, while its burbling rills become natural bird baths that belie the fact that there’d be no water in them if somebody forgot to turn the faucet on. Each inch of the park is designed to trick visitors into thinking they’ve left New York for a Parisian garden, the Catskills, Wonderland, or that they are themselves Henry Hudson discovering Manhattan as it was when the Lenape created a winding trail from tip to top (the Dutch called that trail Brege Wege; the British translated that into Broad Way, which it has remained since).
And, like any good grifter on the make, each inch of the park has a story behind it. Here: this statue of Shakespeare, unveiled in the park in 1864 — mind the date — was funded by a benefit performance of Julius Caesar on Broadway. The role of Marc Antony was played by a young actor named John Wilkes Booth.
Or here: during the Great Depression this field where sunbathers now lie half-naked was filled with squatters’ shacks and was known as Hoover Valley; in stark contrast next to it stood The Casino, a playground for the ultra rich whose menu prices were higher than the nearby Plaza Hotel’s.
Or here: this crouching mountain lion, passed unnoticed by most of the 45 million visitors to the park each year, was sculpted by Edward Kemeys; a day laborer hired to cut trees when the park was being built, he hadn’t sculpted a thing in his life until he saw a sculptor at work in the Central Park Menagerie. Inspired, he took up the art; now the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others, display his sculptures.
Perhaps nobody knows these stories as well as the writer Stephen Wolf, whose superb ode to the park, Central Park Love Song, is out from Griffith Moon Press. The book — part walking tour, part memoir, part history of New York itself — traces every corner of the park and nearly every event held there, from the grand (nearly a million people protesting nukes on the Great Lawn in 1982) to the tragic (Hurricane Sandy cutting a swath of destruction through the World War I memorial in the oak grove east of the Mall) to the intimate (the legacy of suicides at the Reservoir, traced through love notes and lost jewelry).
Wolf’s love of the park begins, as does the book, with his arrival in New York in the late 1970s, a Chicago-born transplant on the run from a broken marriage. He’s got no money, but he does have a dog, Bo, in need of running space. “The instant Bo and I entered Central Park the city had quickly fallen away, parallel streets and perpendicular avenues left at the tree-line,” Wolf writes of a first visit that shocks him for its solitude. “Even the constant hum of traffic and blasts from car horns, all but a distant siren somewhere in the vast city beyond the trees faded as I followed Bo deeper into the park.”
Throughout the book’s first section Bo acts as Wolf’s Virgil: once released from his leash Bo leads Wolf down every dark path, through each stand of trees, and under every Do Not Enter fence. When an old woman notes Bo’s lack of tether and chastises Wolf, he apologizes and assures her Bo means no harm. “It’s the rules, you little prick,” the septuagenarian says, turning and walking away.
Wolf soon starts spending all his time in the park, eating and breathing and even sleeping there at times, so in love with it does he fall. He claims to have made over five thousand trips in all to the park, and as he explores and discovers the nooks and crannies and hidden caves and arches and bridges, so do we. Like a geologist, he pulls back the strata of dirt to reveal layers of history that stretch back through each of the park’s many lives: a half-buried scrap of wall, for example, used to be part of a convent that was in the middle of the park and was built upon the ruins of a fort from the War of 1812 — which had itself been built on the site of a former British fort from the Revolutionary War. And that fort had been constructed on a spot that had been an inn, a pub (built in the 1750s) and, originally, a late-1600s English waystation.
The story of the park is in many ways the story of the city itself — it rises and falls in Wolf’s telling as New York rises and falls: from immigrant’s relief in the late 19th Century, to Jazz Age playground, to migrant camp in the ’30s and drug den in the ’60s. As Harlem and the Bronx turned to rubble in the ’70s, so did the park: graffitied, worn, and crime-ridden, with dirt patches the size of football fields and nary a bird head still paired with its wings on the frescoes that lined Bethesda Terrace. Needles (used) and condoms (also used) lay strewn about the woods. During the lows of the 1980s — think crack cocaine, the Central Park V, and Donald Trump’s first forays into racial politics — the Central Park Conservancy started to bring the park back to life. Slowly through the ’90s it got cleaned up, recovered, and became overrun by tourists. Just like Times Square.
The book is filled with stories, some outrageous, some amazing, some curious. At one point in the ’20s the city hired an “Indian” — from Brooklyn, of course — to canoe in the Boating Lake in costume to add “local color.” Lake Manhattan, the reservoir in the middle of the park that served as the city’s main source of water, was also open to swimming — though nobody was supposed to pee in it, by gentleman’s agreement. The park even had its own Tarzan — a man living in treehouses invisible from below the canopy, unknown to the rest of the city. Wolf runs into him three times in his meanderings.
In Central Park Love Song everything is happening all at once, and we witness it all through Wolf’s eyes and uncanny luck (perhaps too uncanny — like Sebald, whose form is a close relative of Wolf’s, one senses that while some of Wolf’s experiences may be subjectively true, they may not be objectively so). We are there when tightrope walker Philippe Petit performs in the park as fulfillment of his community service sentence earned for trespassing at the top of — and in-between — the towers of the World Trade Center; we are there to catch the eye of John and Yoko as they stroll arm in arm on a chilly autumn day; or as Christo sneaks back by the park to see his saffron Gates in winter’s first snow.
As Wolf wanders through the park, its ghosts come alive for him, most evocatively when he runs into Audrey Munson, the 1920s flapper who inspired the park’s monument to the USS Maine and hundreds of sculptures around the world. Magically, Wolf convinces her to dance with him. “The faint aroma of almonds rose from [her] neck, her dark hair brushed my cheek, and I pulled her closer into me with my right hand that encircled her waist,” Wolf writes, before describing the tragedy that was the second half of her life, when scandal sent her to the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane.
Central Park Love Song is not without its flaws: by definition its form — part historical, part memoir, occasional fantasy — treads a delicate line between the compellingly personal and the self-indulgent, and there are times Wolf veers toward the latter. Those with more prurient leanings might enjoy reading about one of Wolf’s assignations in the park — to my Puritan eyes it read of bluster. Similarly, a literal “trip” through the Great Hill and Ravine — Wolf swallows magic mushrooms and the trees transform into faces “before each whispers [its] name…[their] roots to the waters of the world….” — seems as good an example of oversharing as may grace the literary archives, especially as it ends in what may be the only consummation of dendrophilia put to public paper.
Wolf’s prose owes a debt to Whitman, who also wasn’t afraid to overshare. And just as Whitman felt the blood of New York past, present, and future rushing all mixed together through one ferry ride, so Wolf does here on a walk through the park. For Wolf, like Whitman, stands in opposition to those who would say New York is heedless of its citizens and their impressions of it and the marks they wish to leave; that the city, unaffected, doesn’t care. Change New York may, Wolf says, but our memories are what make it what it is.
Toward the end of the book Wolf writes about this all-together time, when he watches his children grow up in the park:
Here in the Ramble, with its groves and rock outcropping and thick bush, [my] children first wandered from my sight, eager to be on their own. But when my seven-year-old daughter disappeared behind that boulder she emerged near the Gill…at ten years old. One drowsy afternoon I munched peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with toddlers in the shade of Strawberry Fields, and suddenly, or so it seemed, I stood near the IMAGINE mosaic as my teenage daughter sang all the Beatles’ songs.
The park, like the city surrounding it, belongs in all times at once. It’s a place where Emma Lazarus and Herman Melville and Diana Ross and, if they’re lucky, your great-grandchildren, too, will all be forever fooled by as unnatural beauty as there ever was. As Wolf quotes Clarence Cook, who wrote a guidebook of Central Park before it was even finished, a book of what would be in the park, instead of what was, “We who are in the middle of life can never know all its beauty. This is reserved for those for whom we have planted these shrubs and trees, and spread these level lawns.”
David Andrew Stoler is a writer and filmmaker recently published in Politico, McSweeney’s; The Chronicle of Higher Ed, and Salon. His upcoming web series, Shrinkage, is a reminder that marriage is the meanest thing you could ever do to someone you love.