On the first day that New York City felt like spring, I was compelled to take a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) through Central Park and I wrote about it earlier this year. Yesterday, on the first morning that it truly felt like summer, I was drawn to the park yet again, this time beginning on Fifth and 84th Street, entering the park to the north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On this very warm morning, it was hard to imagine the winter days I have been sledding on the sloping grounds next to the museum! Looking through the glassed in enclosure to the Temple of Dendur within the museum is most impressive at night, when there is no glare to prevent the surprising view of a temple built to Isis (and others) around 15 BC, framed by views of grand apartment buildings to the east and skyscrapers off to the south.
Dogs are allowed off leash in Central Park before 9 AM, and if you visit the park during the early morning hours, you are likely to encounter many in the Arthur Ross Pinetum, mid-park between 84th and 86th Streets. Although pine trees were an original part of Olmstead and Vaux’s plan for Central Park, they were eventually replaced by deciduous trees before being reintroduced into the park in the 1970’s. There are 17 different species of trees in the Pinetum, including some from Japan, Macedonia, and the Himalayas.
Continuing west, it is impossible to miss the Great Lawn, a 55-acre green expanse almost exactly in the geographic center of the park. Originally the site of a reservoir, it was filled in using the ground excavated from the construction of Rockefeller Center and opened in 1937 in its present form. Although there are some baseball diamonds around the edge, and a few concerts are still held on the Lawn, it is primarily an open space to relax and enjoy the park during the warmer months.
Heading south around the Great Lawn, to the east is something even older than the Temple of Dendur – Cleopatra’s Needle. An Egyptian obelisk from 1450 BC, it is one of three obelisks (the others are in London and Paris) all similarly named, and all with dubious links to Cleopatra. Our Cleopatra’s Needle is currently covered in scaffolding and is being cleaned of the grime that has accumulated since 1881 from its location in New York City’s open air.
Continuing around the Great Lawn, Turtle Pond appears on your left. A small remnant of the reservoir that once covered the Great Lawn, it does in fact house turtles, believed to be descendants of house pets that outgrew their city accommodations and were sent to the Park to live. Belvedere Castle is visible behind Turtle Pond, and is one of the original buildings created in the park by Calvert Vaux. Its name translates as “beautiful view” and a visit to the castle will in fact reward you with wonderful vistas in all four directions. The National Weather Service official temperature and rainfall amounts for New York City are measured from equipment in and around the castle.
Next to Turtle Pond, on the southwest edge of the Great Lawn, sits the Delacorte Theater, home to Shakespeare in the Park. The Public Theater has been putting on free performances of Shakespeare for over 60 years, and is known for its innovation and stellar casting. I can say personally that the summer nights I have spent in this theater seeing excellent performances as varied as “Hair” and “The Merchant of Venice” have made me feel truly immersed in this wonderful city and its unparalleled artistic offerings. This summer, “Much Ado About Nothing” will run from June 3- July 6, and “King Lear” from July 22- August 17. To get free tickets, line up in the park early or try the virtual lottery on the Public’s website. Financial supporters are given tickets without having to wait, but the Public actually limits the number of supporter tickets available to ensure that free Shakespeare in the Park is available to as many as possible.
Just north of the Delacorte are large outcroppings of Manhattan schist, the bedrock formed during the ice age and the foundation for many of our skyscrapers. Behind the Delacorte is the Shakespeare Garden, a four-acre beautiful tranquil space with lovely plantings featuring plants and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s works, interspersed with small bronze plaques with quotations from Shakespeare. It’s a rare spot in New York City that allows one to connect with nature and feed your intellect simultaneously, making this one of my favorite hidden spots within the park.
Tucked behind the Shakespeare Garden is the park’s Marionette Theater, a delightfully old-fashioned place to take children during the warmer months. Walking out of Central Park to the west, you find yourself on Central Park West and 81st Street, facing the Beresford apartment building and the Rose Center of the American Museum of Natural History. This dérive ends here, less than a mile from where it began, and illustrates once again the rich variety of experiences packed within the relatively small island of Manhattan.