Central Park lies just a few blocks from America House, and no matter what the season, I sometimes walk there to join other office workers for lunch, on the grass in warm weather or on a bench. Preferring to be on the move, though, I continue on, sandwich in hand, to the center of the park’s 800-plus acres, designed by two of the country’s pre-eminent 19th-century landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvin Vaux. The park is more than grass and trees. Taking any of the winding paths, what I have long noticed are the huge outcroppings of glacial rock. They rise up as reminders of the prehistoric beginnings of the island of Manhattan itself. Some are long and smooth, like ancient sea creatures half risen from the depths, and I often see people stretched out on their surfaces, reading or just relaxing. On one of them, I once noticed three children playing, their watchful mother close by. Another day, I passed two women seated in a grassy area, tossing a ball to a miniature collie not far from another large rock formation.
Whether adults or children, against those ancient surfaces, likely to last unchanged for thousands of years, the human beings stood out as emblems of the brevity of human life, a theme that reminded me of the psalm verse, “A thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past” ( Ps. 90:4).
The same sense of ephemeralness came to me while poring over the photographs in a recent history of Central Park by Sara Cedar Miller. Along with photos of the principal spots, the book is dotted with others that show 19th-century visitors. We see the women in their Victorian gowns, flower- and bird-bedecked hats on their heads, seated or strolling, often arm in arm with men in frock coats. One picture shows these well dressed people moving along the mall—a long walkway overhung then, as now, with rows of American elms that create a cathedral-like effect. One woman, with a small boy in tow, smiles upward, perhaps noticing the photographer, who must have been stationed in a raised position only a few steps in front of her.
Following the mall to its end brings you to Bethesda Terrace, the heart of Central Park. A huge stone terrace overlooks a circular area below with, in the middle, a stone basin. Rising from the waters of the basin is a stone and cast-iron structure with the statue of an angel at the top. She is shown stepping forward with outstretched hand, as if to suggest the scene in the Gospel of John (5:2) in which a paralytic, longing to be healed, waits to be lowered into the waters of the pool of Bethesda that were thought to be curative when stirred by an angel. Instead, it is Jesus who heals him.
Healing in one form or another is among the goals for the many who seek respite in the park. But others who frequent its open spaces need healing of another kind—healing of a societal nature. Among the picnickers, sunbathers and strollers I have often passed homeless men, unobtrusive but recognizable by their meager plastic bags of possessions, which serve as pillows as they lie asleep in the shade of overhanging trees.
It is worth recalling that before the park was created, the land it encompasses was the site of a shanty town of some 1,600 residents; their poor dwellings were demolished, along with those of a black settlement that, according to the Encyclopedia of New York, had three churches and a school. Original advocates of the park’s creation were primarily wealthy white New Yorkers, who wanted attractive woodland drives within the city for their carriage-equipped families. Even now, the park is primarily the domain of those whose lives, homes and incomes are secure.
But the spiritual ancestors of those early shanty town dwellers and black settlers still let their spirits be known through the presence of the scattered homeless men seeking, if anything, to avoid the notice of the park’s security guards.