While Central Park is often touted as the greensward where New Yorkers escape their concrete canyons and get in touch with nature, what really makes these 837 acres so intriguing are the antics of New Yorkers. To paraphrase Shakespeare, all Central Park is a stage.
The park’s official stage is the outdoor Delacorte Theater where the New York Shakespeare Festive mounts two productions a summer. Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Morgan Freeman, and Al Pacino are among the many stars who have performed in recent seasons against a sylvan backdrop of the Turtle Pond, a green sweep of grass and trees, and Belvedere Castle. Tickets are free, but you may consider getting one to be yet another challenge this hard-edged city throws at you or just part of the fun – that depends on how you feel about getting up at dawn and waiting in line for seven hours or so. Many inveterate theatergoers love the ritual, so join these bagel-munching know-it-alls to get an earful of inside dish on the New York theater world as you snake around the Great Lawn. Free tickets are distributed at 1pm on days of performances; for more info, go to www.publictheater.org.
No such hijinks are required to attend the summer performances by the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. Thousands of listeners pour onto the Great Lawn to dine alfresco, listen to bel canto and symphonies, and safely enjoy the park under the night sky (even in post-gentrification New York, at other times it’s still provident to keep in mind the advice of poet Ogden Nash, ‘If you should happen after dark / To find yourself in Central Park / Ignore the paths that beckon you /And hurry, hurry to the zoo / And creep into the tiger’s lair. Frankly you’ll be safer there’).
You’re likely to come upon a performance or two at just about any time in the park, especially on weekends. Bethesda Terrace, where a lovely broad staircase descends to an ornate fountain and the lakeshore, is an impromptu stage for drummers, mimes, puppeteers, and other performers good enough to draw large, appreciative crowds of onlookers. The north end of Literary Walk, a stately promenade lined with elms and statues of poets, is the incongruous haunt of break dancers and rappers.
Strawberry Fields, a beautifully planted oasis near West 72nd Street that memorializes John Lennon, inspires many visitors to strum guitars and sing Beatles songs.
Picnic in the park
Below New York is the solid bedrock that provides a firm foundation for the city’s iconic skyscrapers. Most conveniently, outcroppings of these rocky underpinnings poke through the greenery of Central Park to provide perfect perches for picnics. Especially choice spots are the diminutive mountain range of bedrock that rises just to the south of the Turtle Pond (the highest summit is crowned by Belvedere Castle) and a rocky landscape that rises and falls around the Carrousel, just east of the zoo. Another sylvan spot is the Pinaetum, a fragrant grove of pines at the northern edge of the Great Lawn. A convenient stop for provisions is Whole Foods, in the Time-Warner Center on Columbus Circle, at the southwestern end of the park.