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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Central Park, New York, New York
Sunday in the Park with me

I've been to New York City more than a dozen times. I go as a tourist like millions of others do each year. It's a city made for gawking and I think it's the grandest city in America.
I love the lights of Times Square and the excitement of Broadway. I like shopping in Soho and dining in Tribeca. I like its bridges and its skyscrapers. And everytime I go, I try to do or see something different. And so, on a fortunately warm and sunny day in April, my wife, my daughter, and I exited the subway station at Columbus Circle and 59th Street, just across from the southwestern entrance to Central Park. We crossed Broadway and easily found the bicycle rental place everyone said would be easy to find. Dozens of bikes were lined up under the ubiquitous scaffolding of another building being reconstructed.
We crossed back to the park, past the focal point of Columbus "traffic" Circle, a massive limestone column with a gilded bronze statue of Columbus standing atop it. We walked our bikes through Merchants' Gate, past the Maine Memorial, and then, mounting our bikes, our new adventure began - a bicycle ride around and through Central Park.
Some statistics seem worth mentioning here. A bike ride along the park's outer roads is about six miles, a bit further if you take some diversions. And, on weekends, except for horse drawn carriages, bicycles are the only vehicles trafficking the roads of Central Park. There are 843 acres in Central Park, 6 percent of Manhattan's total land area. And, as you bike or walk its paths, things and places will likely look familiar. More than 200 movies have been shot in the park - films like Die Hard, Men in Black, Tootsie, When Harry Met Sally, and nearly every Woody Allen movie.
Central Park, which runs from 59th Street to 110th Street, was designed in 1858 by landscape architects Olmsted and Vaux who fulfilled the vision of writers like William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving who had urged city hall to build such a park even though at that time New York City extended only to 38th Street. Central Park was designed to vie with the grandeur of great European parks like the Bois de Bologne in Paris or Hyde Park in London. Today it is an amazing oasis of green and calm set in the midst of New York's high rise skyline and frenetic lifestyle. There are artificial lakes for boating and fishing, innumerable walking paths, a bird sanctuary, a children's zoo, ice skating rinks, ball fields, and outdoor venues for concerts and plays. You can sit in the park on one of 9000 benches, read a book, take a nap, fly a kite, play with your children in dozens of small playgrounds, or you can bike around the park and see the rest of its wonders.
When I asked another biker where you could legally ride in Central Park, his response was, "Go wherever you want to go. This is New York." But while I did see a few anarchists bucking convention, we kept up with the counter-clockwise bicycle traffic.
Heading north on East Drive, you'll pass near Wollman Rink. The Wollman Rink is the site of a Victorian amusement park in the summer and an ice skating in the winter. It is perhaps one of the most picturesque sites in which to gaze at the skyscraper skyline that frames Central Park.
Riding on, you'll come upon the Carousel. The merry-go-round, first set here in 1870, has been restored many times. The current vintage 1908 carousel has 58 hand-carved and painted horses and, with its calliope blasting, transports 250,000 riders a year round-and-round and back to an era of Victorian country fairs.
Further on, you'll probably be diverted like we were by the crowds walking along The Mall. The Mall is a forty-foot wide path bordered by quadruple rows of great elms. At its southern end is "Literary Walk" with statues of great writers. Statues of writers give way to statues of composers as you reach the Naumburg Bandshell and the Summer Stage at Rumsey Playfield. If there's no concert going on when you get there, walk on to Bethesda Fountain. The fountain with its winged female "Angel of the Waters" is considered the centerpiece of the park and is one of the most famous fountains in the world. While Bethesda is a great place to rest and look out over Central Park's great Lake, you'll probably be sidetracked by DJ music and a roller skating dance party going on nearby.
If you're bursting with energy, you can park and trek uphill to Belvedere Castle, a replica of a medieval Scottish castle that houses a nature conservatory. The Castle overlooks the entire northern part of the park. To the west, you'll see the Delacorte Theatre, home of productions of Shakespeare in the Park in the summer. Dead ahead is the Great Lawn with its baseball fields, basketball courts, and myriad of sunbathers. In the evening, on this Great Lawn thousands of New Yorkers will set out picnic blankets and dine alfresco while listening to the world renowned New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, which each give two free performances during the summer. It has also been the setting for concerts by artists like Elton John and Paul Simon.
Opposite the Great Lawn is the back of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Stop a moment here to investigate the Park's oldest monument, a 71-foot obelisk called "Cleopatra's Needle," erected in Heliopolis Egypt in 1500 BC and given to the United States in 1879 by the Sultan of Turkey.
Just up the road from the Met, you'll ride past the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, a favorite site for joggers, bird watchers, and tourists looking for the best views of the Manhattan skyline.
You'll soon reach the top of the park, at the edge of Harlem, with the road taking you just below the Harlem Meer (Dutch for "Lake") where you'll find a more rugged landscape. Next to a visitor center along the Meer, there's a small plaza where jazz concerts and other events are held. And just next to the Meer is the Lasker Rink and Pool - a great public swimming pool in the summer and another ice skating rink in winter.
As we head south again, the thoroughfare is now called West Road and the ride becomes more strenuous as the terrain turns uphill for about half a mile. You'll pass The Lake again and then come upon Strawberry Fields, dedicated in 1981 in honor of John Lennon who was killed in front of his apartment building, the Dakota, that sits just opposite the site. In the midst of Strawberry Fields is a mosaic with a single word in its midst, IMAGINE.
Further on, you'll come upon the most famous restaurant in the park, the Tavern on the Green, a grand restaurant with stained-glass windows and crystal chandeliers.
After completing our ride around the park, we entered the huge Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. One of Manhattan's newest skyscrapers, the towers house an upscale shopping mall, Time Warner's headquarters, CNN's studios, luxury apartments (costing as much as $50 million), the boutique Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, a new three theatre venue dedicated strictly for jazz. The high-rise also has half a dozen gourmet restaurants. But we took the escalator to the basement which houses the largest supermarket in Manhattan, a Whole Foods Market, with a juice bar, international hot foods area, a sushi bar, and 250 seats where natives and tourists can take a respite from shopping - or bike riders can replenish the calories.
To check for scheduled events in Central Park go to: www.centralparknyc.org. But you don't need a schedule to enjoy a bike ride through Central Park - just a sunny weekend in the Big Apple.