Books of The Times
‘Central Park: An Anthology,’ Edited by Andrew Blauner
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
It’s where Harry and Sally went for a walk under the autumn leaves. Where Alvy Singer romanced Annie Hall. Where Kermit and Miss Piggy took a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Where George and Gwen in “The Out-of-Towners” spent a terrible night sleeping under a tree. Where Oliver went to mourn the death of his beloved Jenny in “Love Story.” And the place the animals in “Madagascar” once called home.
The historian Kenneth T. Jackson has called Central Park “the most important public space in the United States.” The park’s biographer Sara Cedar Miller called it “one of America’s most important and enduring works of art.” And Christo, who used the park for his dazzling 2005 work of art, “The Gates,” described it as “the most unusual and surrealistic place in New York City.”
In a sprightly new collection, “Central Park: An Anthology,” edited by Andrew Blauner, the park is celebrated by a bevy of talented writers. Some entries are excerpts from books: There’s a chapter, for instance, from “The Falconer of Central Park,” the naturalist Donald Knowler’s 1984 book about the park’s wildlife, and one from Colson Whitehead’s 2003 ode to the city, “The Colossus of New York.” Some are newly commissioned pieces, and some are well-known riffs by well-known writers, like Marie Winn’s 1994 Wall Street Journal column answering the question Holden Caulfield asked in “The Catcher in the Rye” about where the Central Park ducks go in the winter: They go, she says, to a secret place on the west side of the park, near 77th Street, under the Balcony Bridge, where a natural spring keeps the water from freezing.
The one thing missing from this volume is a detailed historical essay reminding the reader of how Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won a design competition for the space in 1858, and how their team of some 4,000 or so gardeners, engineers, stone masons, artisans and construction workers transformed an inhospitable rectangle of polluted swamps and rocky outcroppings into a verdant, almost entirely man-made landscape that was part Hudson River School painting, part European garden, complete with meadows, lakes, bridges, woodlands, winding paths, fountains and statues. Tons of earth were moved; underground drainage systems were built; and by one estimate 300,000 trees and shrubs were planted.
For this sort of historical background there are books like Ms. Miller’s 2003 study, “Central Park: An American Masterpiece,” and Witold Rybczynski’s “Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century.”
Several contributors to the anthology ratify Christo’s observation that there is something slightly surreal about the park. Perhaps this has to do with the illusion that Olmsted and Vaux created, using artifice to make an exhilarating work of art that is at once a marvel of nature and the most cherished public space in New York City. Perhaps it has something to do with the electric green of the park, set against the concrete gray of the city streets, or the landscape’s organic asymmetries, so rigidly contained by its geometric frame. Perhaps it is simply the tranquillity and repose offered by this pastoral haven of quiet, deep in the heart of the noisy metropolis.