Jim Perini came dangerously close to getting nailed the other morning while jogging in Central Park. Coming into the final turn of a six-mile 5 a.m. loop, the runner caught sight of a black-painted GM sedan headed straight at him. He had just enough time to jump into the bushes before the car barreled past. Perini estimates that the driver was only doing 30, well within the posted limit. There’s just one thing, however. Perini wasn’t running on the asphalt park drive. He was on the bridle path.
On a late winter morning in the park, a young couple bird-watching in the Ramble rounds a corner with their binoculars trained on the trees. Not feeling any particular need to watch where they’re going, they bump smack into the rear fender of an idling SUV. On another afternoon, a professional dog walker cuts across a lawn just north of the reservoir, only to find that an NYPD patrol car is taking the same overland route. The cop car rolls up a hill behind the Tennis House and then hangs a left, scattering joggers and horseback riders as its driver heads out Engineer’s Gate.
“It’s gotten out of control,” says Dan Convissor, account manager at a courier service and a dedicated amateur cyclist. “They’re all over the place, on roadways at all hours going in the opposite direction, off-road in squad cars and undercover cars, in garbage trucks and service vehicles. It’s gotten to the point where I’m afraid I’m going to get creamed.”
It’s not an idle concern. Lately, a stroll through the park has become a trip down an automotive gauntlet, with vehicles seemingly everywhere— parked under trees in the Ramble, creeping through the back woods by Lion’s Head Rock, bumping along obscure trails, carving up lawns. “You never know, when you’re running, if you’re not going to bump into one of Parks’ mean greens or some Dunkin’ Donuthead in a patrol car,” says Robert Morea, a triathlete and personal trainer who logs hundreds of park miles each week on bicycle and on foot.
“You’re right, there are too many cars,” says Doug Blonsky, the Central Park Conservancy’s senior vice president for operations and capital projects. A certain percentage of traffic is generated by golf carts and small service vehicles used by the Conservancy to maintain the park to new higher standards. But what about the rest? The Conservancy’s official fleet totals 65 vehicles, from electrified golf carts to dump trucks. And, although the NYPD doesn’t disclose the number of vehicles deployed by the Central Park precinct, it concedes that a “limited number” of marked patrol cars and scooters circulate throughout the park to supplement patrols on horseback, bike, and foot. Yet somehow the impression is that, as one park user puts it, “they’re everywhere.” And they are. On a single loop of the bridle path one recent afternoon, a reporter encountered an unmarked Chevy sedan, a black Suburban, an NYPD Club Wagon, two marked patrol cars, an EMS ambulance parked with the engine running, and a garbage truck. There were also two riders on horseback, but they prudently kept to a walk and rode off-trail.
“It’s good to have police on horseback, but limited to paths and not on new lawns,” says Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, a former administrator of Central Park. “And foot and bike patrol is great.” But, “you don’t want to have too many trucks or vehicles around since lots of motor-vehicle use is antithetical to the park’s design.”
That’s putting it mildly. One of the most providential components of Central Park’s original design was how Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux foresaw the damage vehicles of all sorts might cause to the park experience they envisioned. To preserve the park’s artificial rusticity, they sunk four crosstown traffic transverses by as much as eight feet below grade. That kept the park free of traffic except the bicycles and horse-drawn carriages that, for the first three decades after its opening, were encouraged to use the circular drives. As late as June of 1899, the Park Board was resolutely refusing petitions by owners of the newly invented automobile to bring them inside. As the Park Board’s president, George C. Clausen, said at the time, “It was not thought proper to use the park for such a vehicle, which might frighten and otherwise be a disfigurement or an annoyance.”
Car owners mounted a legal challenge, using a loophole in an early ordinance banning park use by vehicles other than “pleasure carriages” in their attempt to gain entry. The board changed its rules to specify “horseless carriages.” The car owners appealed. A hearing was held at the Arsenal, a permit was issued for Mr. R.A.C. Smith and his electric car. As Kenneth M. Coughlin, an advocate for a car-free Central Park, wrote in a 1994 report, “The drive ended abruptly when the automobile broke down.” Mr. Smith and his passenger for the trial run, board chairman Clausen, were forced to walk home.
But the car was coming and, as The New York Times observed in 1899, “There is every indication that the driver of the ever-increasing-in-popularity automobile will be allowed to join the procession of wealth, beauty and fashion in Central Park.”
Beauty and fashion hardly describe the current figure cut by cars in Central Park. When the Times charged in a 1906 editorial that the typical automobile driver “is taking the park, not as a lovely work of art, to be slowly tasted and enjoyed, but only as a shortcut to his possibly lawful but certainly loud and odiferous occasions,” it could not have foreseen a level of legal traffic that has led to taxi homicides and pedestrian maimings, and off-roadway traffic that threatens to turn parts of the park into motocross tracks or machinery depots.
“The park was designed as a refuge from the city,” says Coughlin, an editor and cyclist who helped spearhead a campaign to bombard Rudy Giuliani, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields with nearly 6000 postcards advocating banning cars from Central Park. “The Conservancy and the Parks Department don’t have a real clear sense of what the park is about. Henry Stern has been quoted as saying we’re zealots and we have a messianic view of Central Park.”
But are only zealots offended by the idea of Central Park turning into a raceway or parking lot? After all, it was a former parks commissioner, August Heckscher, who said that in cities men will know nature in the parks or be in danger of not knowing nature at all.
“No matter who you are, you have to stay on the paved roads and paths. Lawn damage by any vehicle we will definitely address,” said the Conservancy’s Blonsky one afternoon last week by telephone. “Absolutely, we want to try to limit vehicles 100 percent,”
Yet the scores of vehicles parked at the North Meadow Fitness Center (50 cars and trucks), alongside the Ramble Shed (51 vehicles, five trailers, eight Dumpsters, and an old car seat), and at the Parks Department maintanence yard didn’t appear to be just a temporary eyesore. “The motorization of the Parks Department was problematic to begin with,” says cyclist Convissor. “We’re not talking about golf carts. We’re talking about an urbanized and vehicularized park, with more cars off roads at all hours. The whole point of the park, I thought, was serenity, getting away from the city and from cars.”