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Keeping New York's Central Park Beautiful is Labor of Love - 2003-09-10

One hundred-fifty years after it was created, New York City's Central Park remains a green, tranquil oasis amid one of the world's most densely packed cities. But for 3,000 or so men and women, the park is a place for work, not play. Adam Phillips found some of the workers who make Central Park a pleasure garden.

Almost every New Yorker has a soft spot for the Central Park carousel - even its manager, Nick Napolitano, who has set these magical, painted wooden horses in motion more than 100,00 times since he began work here 33 years ago.

"It's a very fun place to work. It's a whole world unto itself," he said.

Running that world is a family affair. While Mr. Napolitano checks the ancient machinery and makes sure children stay safe on their fantasy rides, his daughter Nicole is just outside, selling balloons and toy souvenirs. She says the family's carousel concession brought her prestige as a youngster.

"Oh yeah. We were all very proud," she said. "All of the kids back at grammar school, we loved telling them where our father worked. We got a real kick out of it."

When asked if the music drives her crazy, she replies, "I don't even hear it anymore. What drives me crazy is the squeaking of the toys. That's the only ting that bothers me. All day, whenever I'm working down here, that's what I have to deal with. The music, I haven't heard for years!"

Despite its occasional "ups and downs," Ms. Napolitano says she loves her job.

"Definitely. I think it's got to do with this strange magical aspect of it. It's like this little secret garden of happiness in the shape of little wooden horses," she said.

Secret or not, if it's green and in Central Park, Neal Calvanese, the park's chief of operations, works on it. By 10:30 one recent morning, Mr. Calvanese had already inspected some drought-stricken trees, ordered a worn-out wooden sign replaced, held a staff meeting regarding a re-planting project slated for autumn, and caused several rat holes to be filled.

"See that? That hole back there through the rosebush?" he asked. "It tells you you've got a rat burrow back there. Certainly, you can see how clean this area is, but still you get rats. So what we'll do is put a little bait in that hole and get the rat."

Still, Mr. Calvanese is proud of the improvement in cleanliness in over the past decade.

"When people come to Central Park today, especially if they haven't been for 20 years or so, they always say 'I remember the park before. It was terrible. It was dirty. It was graffiti-covered.' Today, that is just not the case," he said. "Today you can come here and expect to find a lawn where you can lay a blanket out and not have it be in dog poop or garbage or broken glass."

Groundskeeper Clifton Staples is one foot soldier in an army of workers who make Central Park inviting.

We found him one humid day, cutting weeds at the Conservatory Gardens, a refurbished Nineteenth Century gem that features ornamental fountains, elaborate flowerbeds, and formal tree-lined paths. Mr. Staples rests for a moment, wipes his brow, and tells us why he's happy.

"It's the pleasure of working here and getting to speak to different people from different cultures, different backgrounds, and seeing that they appreciate the work that I do. Because the work that I do is for everybody," he said. "The green, the plants, how we keep the garden nice and clean, [and] how we keep the peaceful nature of the garden. Because that's what people come here for: for peace and relaxation. I think it's a beautiful park and I take great pride in my work."

But not everyone enters Central Park acts with peaceful intent. That's where the Sergeant Jessie Cowan of the park's own tiny mounted Peace Officer Patrol comes in.

Sergeant Cowan, along with two fellow officers and more than 75 mounted volunteers, criss-cross the park on immense Clydesdale horses, enforcing rules the regular New York City Police Department does not have the resources to address.

"Quality of life issues like dogs off the leash, urinating in public, drinking beer, alcohol, littering, graffiti, things like that," she said. "In enforcing those laws and rules in the park, we help to make it a nicer place to be. But when we come across a serious crime, like grand larceny, we address it!"

Sergeant Cowan and her steed can pursue serious lawbreakers into places that patrol cars cannot tread. She recalls one incident during a New York City Marathon race, one of Central Park's largest annual events. Regular police were having trouble catching up to a suspected rapist who had fled into rocky and wooded terrain.

"And when he ran through our sector we turned the horses around and chased him across Central Park West and used the horses and their size to pin him up against a van so that the officer on foot - we could facilitate the handcuffing process," she explained. "It was exciting and effective, and we did our jobs. It was about four years ago and I still feel good about it. I love my job. I love it," Seargent Cowan said.

And nobody in Central Park seems to love his job more than Andres Garcia Pena, New York City's only gondolier.

Nearly every day, Mr. Pena guides his distinctive, black, banana-shaped boat across the waters of Loeb Lake. The gondola was a gift to New York from the city that made gondolas famous - Venice, Italy, where it was made.

"This is a great job. I'm a people person. And I am a romantic at heart. I am a singer as well, and I try to create a romantic atmosphere," he said. "I'm not even a trained singer. I learned all these songs basically in my shower."

Mr. Pena say that each week in his gondola, three or four couples become engaged to be married.

"Every ride, I sing five six songs, I leave the dock I sing O Solo Mio. The Bow Bridge is one of the most romantic bridges in New York City, and when I go under the bridge, I sing Amore, and the guy gets on his knees, he proposes, the girl starts crying. If she says yes. If she says no, she has to swim back! It's a beautiful thing to be a part of, actually," he said. Mr. Pena winks, picks up his long pole and pushes away from the dock. It's a typical day in an uncommon job in New York's Central Park.