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Charging up Poet's Walk in his in-line skates, Joe Wills gets almost as far as the Naumberg Bandshell and suddenly pulls up short. The entire area, he finds, has been cordoned off and covered with big white tents. This would make it two weeks running that this part of Central Park has been closed to the public, the second consecutive weekend that Wills has been forced to find someplace else to skate.
Is this a tragedy in the larger scheme? Probably not, concludes Wills. Aren't there a lot of other places to meet your friends? There are. It just happens that this prime patch of asphalt just south of the 72nd Street transverse is where Wills and scores of other exhibitionists meet every weekend, performing for each other and also the thousands of camcorder-toting tourists who seem magnetized to this uniquely New York scene. There's something disturbing about finding it off-limits. "I mean," says Wills, "doesn't this still belong to the public? Wasn't there an ad campaign that said, 'You Gotta Have Park'?"
It does and there was, but we don't live in that city anymore. The reason for the tents was a gala to benefit the private nonprofit Nature Conservancy, mounted in affiliation with the Central Park Conservancy. Since signing a $4 million annual contract with the city last year, the Central Park Conservancy has taken over the running of the park under terms that, critics claim, remove operating decisions from public view.
No one can be accused of keeping "The Third Great Party To Save the Last Great Places" a secret, however. Trumpeted in a full-page New York Times ad with an arm-long list of honorary celebrity chairs, the party also had major sponsorship from Anheuser-Busch, Bacardi, and GM. American Airlines billed itself as the "Official Airline of the Third Great Party." The guest list was a virtual gazetteer of the greener members of the corporate elite. Any informed environmentalist can tell you that when a snail darter's in trouble you should just pick up a cell phone and Ron Perelman will get it fixed.
"Last Great Places" is the Nature Conservancy's effort to preserve endangered ecosystems through land acquisition and local economic development deployed in "ecologically sensitive" ways. Not surprisingly, the organization's rhetoric tends to pump up the Hallmark grandeur of such places as Hawaii's rain forests, the Shawangunk Ridge, and Yellowstone, while pussyfooting the larger global ecological problems of corporate capitalism. "The Nature Conservancy is dedicated to preserving the plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive," says the organization's manifesto. Who isn't?
We all know that the delicacy of systems lies in interdependence. No ecology, urban or rural, is sustainable without local participation. To a lot of people, Central Park is a "Last Great Place," its seemingly disparate components merging and acting on one another with at least the subtlety of the Everglades flood plain or the Waimea rain belt. There are no small disruptions in the framework of an ecosystem totaling a mere 843 acres. Every incursion registers. Try erecting a party tent in the 3472-square-mile expanse of Yellowstone and you'd be hanged. But not only are you free to do it in Central Park, with the right connections you can truck in potted palms, sound equipment, murals of bosky woodlands, and Rain Forest beverage vans.
The expansion of private enterprise into public space is the dirty secret of late-'90s urbanism. Central Park is not a country club or a catering hall and shouldn't operate by unwritten rules of noblesse oblige. Saying you're planning a benefit there hardly seems to justify closing off portions of it to public use for 10 days. Neither the Parks Department nor the Central Park Conservancy is offering figures on the number of hours city personnel were employed to police the tents, essentially keeping the rest of us from disturbing privately owned structures on public space.
Instead they point to an event they claim was inclusive, meaning Thursday's Nature Day, when, between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m., selected school groups were invited to experience the Caribbean coral reefs, the Everglades, etc., and watch rock climber Merlin Larsen belay himself up a fake rock wall. That same day, according to the Nature Conservancy, the eco-tents were to be opened to the general public at noon. "Please bring your children and friends to the Nature Conservancy's Nature Day in Central Park and travel to five of the World's Last Great Places," reads their literature. Alas, if you'd happened to bring your children and friends at one o'clock, you would have found the eco-tents being struck and carted away.
"We really couldn't afford to stay longer," said one Nature Conservancy employee, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We would have had to pay everyone so much money and it's really expensive. A lot of people don't realize you can rent Central Park. But you can. For real."