Centre of attraction

Centre of attraction

Centre of attraction

Gustasp & Jeroo Irani revel in the green surroundings of Central Park, set against the busy background of the original concrete jungle, New York.

The laughter of kids relating to bronzed characters from Alice in Wonderland; the clip-clop of colourful, horse-drawn carriages trundling down flower-draped avenues; the happy chirping of birds foraging on the lawns; the swish of blades in an ice-skating rink; the footfalls of joggers pounding the pathways; the call of wild ducks paddling in ponds that field the reflections of surrounding skyscrapers; the flirtatious whisper of the wind rustling through the branches of trees; the hush of a lady sitting in meditation under a burst of cherry blossoms.

More than just the lungs of New York, Central Park is a playground of many avatars; a Garden of Eden snuggled in the very heart of the original concrete jungle. This is where the residents of a bustling and vibrant city revel in the soothing caress of nature. And since our hotel was right across the street, we would stroll through the park each evening to unwind and relax after a hectic day of activity and sightseeing.

“I can give you a comprehensive tour of Central Park,” a man in a cycle rickshaw offered as he pedalled past us. No, thank you. We preferred to conduct our voyage of discovery strolling around aimlessly and at our own pace. Briefly, we stopped to watch a couple of playful sea-lions splash about in a pool inside the park’s little zoo (Yes, the same one that featured in the animated movie Madagascar. The real-life one, however, had no lions, zebras, hippos, giraffes or for that matter any large animals).

But there were a whole lot of friendly squirrels running free outside; a few cheeky ones sneaking up to within touching distance in the hope that we would toss them hand-outs as we ambled across lawns blushing with the first kiss of spring. Yes, we were lucky: as it had been a mild winter, cherry blossom, magnolia and apple trees along with other flowering plants had bloomed early, painting the landscape in a flourish of colours. In fact, the vibrant hues were in sharp contrast to the still, leafless branches of trees that raked the blue sky.

“Surprising as it might seem, New York is one of the greenest cities in America,” Christopher Heywood, vice president, Communications NYC & Company, had commented when we had met him earlier that day.

And now, as we sat on a bench surveying the green expanse around us, our perception of the city, which one is inclined to associate with skyscrapers of concrete and glass, started to change. According to Heywood, there are around 53,000 acres of parks, gardens and open spaces which account for around 27% of the total acreage of the city. In fact, Manhattan’s Central Park, which is spread across 840 acres and contains over 26, 000 trees, ranks only fifth on the list of the city’s largest parks and gardens.

One of the smallest is High Line in west Manhattan. Opened as recently as June 2011, it is also one of the most innovative, as it is superimposed on a 1.6 km stretch of an elevated railway line, which had been abandoned some 30 years ago. We had to explore this little gem that New Yorkers were raving about. And we were suitably impressed: not so much by the landscaping but by the ingenuity of its design and the way the city’s residents and visitors alike revelled in this strip of greenery snaking through the city’s soaring skyline like a breath of fresh air.

There is an interesting little story behind High Line. When the railway track was first laid in 1847 at ground level, the railroad hired ‘West Side Cowboys’ to wave warning flags as they rode on horses in front of trains using the line. For all their efforts, accidents were frequent and in 1934, a 21 km elevated track was opened. However, with the decline in rail freight traffic, the line closed in 1980 (the last freight train to use the track comprised three wagons of frozen turkey) and much of the track was demolished...except for the little strip that is now New York’s newest park.

It also drove home the point that the city’s open spaces are very happening places. Here, one can get to feel the pulse of New Yorkers by joining them in a variety of activities like jogging, walking, cycling and ice-skating...or just relaxing and appreciating the bounties of nature. Many of the parks and gardens also organise group activities like morning runs and walks, bird watching and historic walking tours, lunch-time fishing along the Hudson River, volleyball after work and chess classes, for instance.

In summer, the parks are the backdrop to open-air concerts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (these include performances in Central Park, Manhattan; Prospect Park, Brooklyn; Cunningham Park, Queens and Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx) and Shakespeare in the Park theatre which, over the years, has become a much-loved tradition of the city.

Each year in the fall, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden plays host to the Ghouls & Gourds Halloween Festival, a haunting party spooked by goblins, witches, and ghosts; one that is a blast of fun for kids of all ages. It’s the time of the year when the parks of the city are painted in brilliant autumn colours.

And as the seasons change, so does the symphony of colours and moods. We caught the spring movement once more in Battery Park in downtown Manhattan. Across the water, marooned on an island on the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty stabbed the sky with a flaming torch. At the northern edge of the park, an eternal flame in memory of the victims of 9/11 burned in front of a battered globe that once stood in the courtyard of the Twin Towers.

From here, we could see the Freedom Tower, built on Ground Zero, start to take shape as it surged over the skyline of skyscrapers. An appreciative crowd had gathered around a troupe of break dancers who gyrated in front of a bronzed memorial to immigrants who landed on the shores of America for the first time.

In this swirl of iconic images and activities, a lady sat in quiet meditation. To us, she represented the parks and gardens of New York; oasis of peace in a hyper city.

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