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NY Celebrates 150 Years of Central Park - 2003-05-01

New York City has kicked off a year-long celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of Central Park, which was created from barren swampland in the heart of the city. It is considered the ultimate everyman's playground. The city will honor the park's sesquicentennial with a host of concerts, fireworks and special events.

Central Park is home to an array of sports enthusiasts, hobbyists, performers and many civic groups, all of whom use the park to pursue their passions. It is this single 337-hectare rectangle of woodlands and bridle trails, playgrounds and historic plazas, that provides an alluring stage for the pastimes of the 25 million people who visit the park each year.

Sara Cedar Miller is chief photographer and historian for the not for profit Central Park Conservancy, which has managed the park since 1980 and provides more than 85 percent of the park's annual $20-million operating budget. Ms. Miller has ublished a comprehensive history of Central Park, a work that took her 10 years to complete. She is one of the park's main cheerleaders. "The park is such a microcosm of science and art and nature and literature and history, you can have a school in Central Park and cover every topic from math to history to literature to art by just studying Central Park," she said. "It is fascinating, and complex, and profound, and varied in seasons, and everybody has a different version of what is important about the park."

Just name it, and you will find it in Central Park: folk dancers doing Balkan dances on Sundays on a plaza near Belvedere Castle, bird watchers who traverse a migratory haven called the Ramble in search of red-headed woodpeckers, lawn bowlers dressed in compulsory white clothing, ice skaters, horse-back riders, Frisbee players and fisherman.

For Sara Elliott, however, Central Park is simply for the birds. Ms. Elliott has spotted about 200 species in her 25 years of leading tours of bird watchers around the park, where she spends most of her time between May and November. "This park, which extends from 59th to 110th street, and from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue, is a huge, long rectangle," said Sara Elliott. "If you are a migrating bird coming in the Spring and you have been flying at least most of the night, and you are tired and you are surrounded by a sea of cement, you come to this oasis and you drop in and you move north until you get water and trees. That is what they are after."

Central Park also plays host to tens of thousands of runners during the final 5.1 kilometers of the World-famous 42-kilometer New York Marathon, as well as to summer performances of Shakespeare in the Park, the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. More than 170 movies have been filmed inside the park, including the 1957 American classic, An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant, and the more contemporary comedic love story, When Harry Met Sally starring Hollywood actors Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.

Central Park sits in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in the world. But unlike similar parks in European capitals of London, Paris, and Copenhagen, whose attractive open spaces were originally created for monarchs and their invited guests, New York's Central Park was conceived by 19th century designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (VOX) as a place for the masses.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says this popular appeal is what makes Central Park truly unique. "Central Park showed New York and the world that great public spaces integrate life," he said. "For millions of New Yorkers, Central Park is not just a park, it is our front yard, it is our picnic spot, our playground, our nature preserve, our band shell, and our field of dreams. It is truly a democratic space where people of every race and background can mingle freely. "

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch took office during a devastating fiscal crisis in the late 1970s when the park had fallen into disrepair and was considered a fairly dangerous place. It was during his administration that the park's renaissance began. "It is referred to by most people as the lungs of the city of New York, and there is no other park in the world that is as well known as Central Park," said Ed Koch. "People come here whether they are rich or poor or in-between, young or old, and we love it, and we think of it as our pride and joy."

Regina Peruggi, the president of the Central Park Conservancy - the group that has raised nearly $300 million to restore the park - says Central Park is part of nearly every city kid's childhood memories. "My earliest recollection of Central Park is coming down to the park with my family and getting off the subway and coming out, and to me this was a magical world," she said. "We went to the carousel and spent the day in the park and it was like being on another planet."

First lady Laura Bush and New York City Mayor Bloomberg are serving as honorary co-chairs of the yearlong celebration of Central Park's 150th anniversary, which will include citywide festivals, exhibitions, and concerts by Italian opera tenor Andrea Bocelli and Jazz artist Wynton Marsalis.

Park photos courtesy Central Park Conservancy