When my girlfriend, Vicki, asked me to go with her to the Central Park Arsenal Gallery's exhibition celebrating city parks to mark the 50th anniversary of NYC's landmarks law, I admit my first thought: boring!
But when she told me the "Living Landmarks" display was beside the Central Park Zoo and I could visit my favorite grizzly bears, Betty and Veronica, I was sold.
What I didn't expect was how the photos and stories of the birth and development of such scenic landmarks as Central, Prospect and Riverside parks, as well as Eastern and Ocean parkways, would strike such a nerve in me.
All were designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Olmsted and his design partner, Calvert Vaux. Olmsted insisted that the parks be truly public and that their green space be accessible to all citizens.
Reading how the City of Brooklyn acquired the land for Ocean Parkway in 1868, as part of a network of landscaped thoroughfares leading to major parks, brought me back to my childhood. The parkway connects Prospect Park to Coney Island, and I'd ride my bike down its tree-lined bike path to Coney with my pals.
Other times my dad would take me to Prospect Park to eye the gorillas and watch the seals snatch fish from the air. I flashed forward to my adult life in Manhattan and the endless wonders of Central and Riverside parks. None of this would have been possible without the vision of Olmsted and Vaux.
The destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station in 1963 and the Brokaw Mansion on Fifth Avenue in 1965 were the catalysts for the landmarks law. In 1965, real estate developer Fred Trump (you-know-who's dad) acquired Coney's Steeplechase Park site, and before it could be granted landmark status, held a "demolition party," inviting showgirls and others to hurl bricks through its beautiful facade.
Cut to the present, when historic buildings and churches are being torn down to make way for high-rise condos, and it's clear the battle to protect classic New York edifices and parks is still relevant.
The free exhibit runs through Aug. 28. We enjoyed the visit, and yep, dropped in on playful Betty and Veronica afterward. Not a bad NYC afternoon.
Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.