Garbage to Glory
To walk in Central Park today is to enjoy well-tended lawns, beautiful flower gardens and pristine wooded areas. To find even a bit of litter is the exception rather than the rule, and graffiti is nearly non-existent. It is something we take great pride in when showing the park to visitors, but that wasn’t always the case.
The park has seen peaks and troughs during its 161-year history. We are lucky to be currently riding a renaissance of Olmsted and Vaux’s vision. The Dairy House today looks exactly as it did when built back in 1870; Sheep’s Meadow is as green and trim now as when the sheep were responsible for mowing it eighty-five years ago; and Belvedere Castle has just undergone a year-long restoration, so the park-quarried stone glistens as brightly now as when it was first laid. We are privileged to walk in its beauty any time we choose.
New Yorkers in the mid-70s and 80s would have had a different impression of the park. The city was broke and couldn’t even afford to water the lawns. Vast areas were dust bowls, including the Great Lawn, and to walk anywhere near them on a breezy day could cause coughing fits and eye irritation. Garbage was rampant and trash cans, when available, were just big metal containers, usually placed in the middle of the fields. They would be picked up and emptied by carbon dioxide-billowing, industrial-sized trash trucks that caused more pollution than the trash, and their tracks over wet fields destroyed the grass.
There was graffiti on nearly every structure and statue. From Belvedere Castle to the 3000-year old obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, there was tagging everywhere. The great mountain lion statue, Still Hunt, was not only covered in spray paint its bronze tail had been cut off. Nothing was sacred.
As in the rest of the city, crime was on the rise in the park through the ‘70s and mid-80s. Even John F. Kennedy Jr. fell victim – he had had his bicycle and tennis racket stolen while in the park. From 1979 to 1986, the park averaged more than 900 felonies per year, and there were 35 murders during that period, including the infamous “Preppy Murder”. Police still would refer to the park as the ‘safest precinct in the city’, but that did little to assuage the public’s fear of entering the grounds. A trip to Central Park could be a harrowing experience.
Alongside Central Park on each side, both then and now, run buildings that house some of the richest people and in the United States. The park was essentially their front yard. They were watching the decline and inevitable death of the park playing out from their co-op windows – and decided to do something about it. In short these people, along with many other “Friends of the Park,” got together and formed a group called the Central Park Conservancy and approached the city with the idea of establishing independent management of the park. They had no designs on making the big decisions for the park, but only to maintain and upgrade the parks features, and offered to pay 75 per cent of the costs for the pleasure of doing so! It was a no-brainer for a cash-strapped city, and within a very short time improvements were evident everywhere.
The ginger-bread wooden structure fronting the Dairy House, which had rotted away decades earlier, was reconstructed as per the original design. The dust bowl that was Sheep’s Meadow was re-seeded with Kentucky Bluegrass and re-opened as a huge field in which to hang out or sunbathe. The Great Lawn was also re-seeded and maples, oaks and elms were planted around it. Free concerts by the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand drew stadium-sized crowds. Belvedere Castle, which had been closed for years and was essentially a drug house, received a complete makeover and was re-opened to the public. Even Still Hunt was cleaned up and given a new tail. The new bench slat-inspired trash cans were moved out of the fields to the sides of paths and streets. And the carts that emptied the 700 cans daily were now electric. In the thirty-seven years of the Conservancy’s existence, improvements have been made to every single acre of the park.
The pristine nature of the park today can be linked to a single policy. There have been several interpretations and abuses of the ‘Broken Window’ policy, but for the Conservancy it means, ‘If it’s broke today, fix it today’. They reasoned that humans are generally herd animals and will, in most cases follow the lead of others. They decided to lead by an intense clean-up and garbage collection, with fastidious attention to detail. Graffiti was scrubbed off as soon as it was spotted and garbage collected continuously during the nineteen hours the park was open. Within a few years people, started to appreciate and take pride in this national treasure and to call out those who defaced it.
Until very recently, I lived in a run-down neighborhood off Fordham and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Sit-down restaurants and decent grocery stores were scarce and for many, lunch was a slice of NY pizza served on a paper plate. To follow someone who was walking and eating was like a Chinese water torture. I knew that invariably, no matter how close they were to a garbage can, that paper plate was going to end up on the street. Why? Because everybody else does it. Herd mentality. That neighborhood, and many others on the outskirts of the city, would benefit from the kind of leadership, dedication and resources that the Conservancy invested in the Park.
So when you next visit, take a moment to reflect on what it took to return the most important and beloved park in America to its original glory, and you will enjoy it just a little bit more.