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New York's Central Park Offers Many Diversions - 2003-09-03

New York City's Central Park, which is 150 years old this year, is home to many famous diversions: playgrounds and fountains, an old carousel, geese on a peaceful lagoon, a world class zoo, and many natural attractions that make it an emerald island in a sea of gray. But this 360-hectare space is also home to many other alternative diversions that New Yorkers love. Adam Phillips sampled some of them.

One exotic attraction in Central Park is the horse-drawn Hansom Cab, a Victorian-style carriage given out for hire by tourists and others. One recent Sunday, I spent a few moments with Tony Martano, his horse Champagne, who seemed old enough to date from the Victorian Age herself, and their customers of the moment - tourists from Florida named Alexa Lopez and her daughter Sheesha.

"We made a circle around Central Park, and it's really fun because you get to see all of the really good sights," explained Sheesha.

"I love the breeze and the 'clop-clop-clop' of the horse. Just relaxing on a Sunday afternoon," Ms. Lopez added.

"It's like an old-fashioned ride from the 1800s," Sheesha said.

"I would think it is very romantic. It's a wonderful thing to do with my daughter. And it must be wonderful to do with a lover as well - For sure," Ms. Lopez laughed.

The carriage approaches the lush green expanse of Sheep's Meadow, where people in various stages of undress are clearly enjoying themselves. Some read. Others listen to a ballgame on the radio. The driver points with approval at several women in bikini swimsuits, dozing in the sun and hoping for a tan, while nearby, a couple lies languidly smooching.

"You see all these people going to Sheep's Meadow? They feel like sheep in the grass," Hansom Hack confided. "They feel free, you know, relaxed. You do things like that and you live life the way it is supposed to be lived - nice and relaxed. Forget about rushing around left and right. You gotta do the right thing."

Nothing is more relaxing than casting a fishing line upon the waters and waiting for a nibble. Several of Central Park's ponds and lakes are stocked with fish. Stephanie Burgess rented a pole and is hoping for the best.

"And I'm going fishing to let my girl see there is a lot of things to do in New York that is free," she said. "I love Central Park. I used to come here all the time when I was a little girl, I've seen a lot of good changes in the park."

A group of Puerto Rican women has found another, more competitive way to take it easy in Central Park, listening to Salsa and playing dominoes.

But Central Park is not just for lying low. At the North Woods Recreation Center, a old man hits a tennis ball against a wall - and doesn't seem to mind when the wall wins.

"I don't play good. I just do this for exercise. I enjoy it. I sweat. I go home. I take a shower. I eat something. I feel like a king!" he laughed. "I never have no problem."

What would an American park be without baseball? There are plenty of places to play in sprawling Central Park. These 10-year-old youngsters are playing a Little League game, but their passion for the sport is clearly big-league.

"Please, no runner on the outside lane. Please use the center lane… etc." the announcer said over the loud speaker.

And Central Park is home to one of the largest jogging subcultures in the world. It's a social as well as a physical pursuit. Many chat away mere seconds before the start of an eight-kilometer race.

For Central Park runners like Jessica Cohen, 23, winning is almost beside the point. She gave us her thoughts while speaking into a tiny tape recorder while circling the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. It's a lovely place favored equally by birdwatchers, skyline connoisseurs and joggers.

"I just started my run this evening," she explained, somewhat breathlessly. "It's so great to go for a run after work. It's been such a stressful day. And it's just the perfect thing to go run around the Reservoir. It's like a big lake and the sun is setting, and you look across and you see all these huge tall buildings right in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. Even though there is [are] a lot of other people running around the same reservoir, you still feel like you are in this solitude."

Contemplation meets community at "Strawberry Fields," a place dedicated to the memory of Beatle John Lennon. Lennon was murdered in 1980 outside his apartment house across from Central Park some time after writing what has become his signature song.

Year-round, people gather on benches surrounding a mosaic of the word "Imagine" and commune in true 60s style. Strawberry Fields is especially popular during times of shared grief or crisis and at moments of celebration. That is when the mosaic is transformed into a candlelit altar of handwritten notes, flowers and folk art, making Strawberry Fields one of the closest things Central Park has to a sanctuary.

But if there were such a thing as The New York Church of the Melting Pot, it might look a lot like Central Park's Skating Circle, where every weekend, hundreds of New Yorkers of every description put on roller skates and share joy with abandon. The music and the technology there may be ultra-modern, but Lezly Zehring, 70, founder of the organization that has sponsored the Skating Circle since 1985, believes that it fulfills the vision of Central Park's 19th-century creators.

"[Frederick Law] Olmsted, who designed the park, wanted a park where all demographics could meet, where poor and rich and middle class could mingle and be at peace. This is where it happened," she explained. "You have people who are doctors and lawyers and presidents of corporations and a couple of homeless people and messengers and whatever. Black, white, yellow [and] red, everybody is here. Nobody is competing with anyone else. We're just skating with each other. It's a little microcosm of what the world should be like. It's amazing. It's a community of love."

No matter why you enter Central Park during its 150th year, one thing is clear. You'll never run out of things to do.