Laura Story Johnson
A Reflection on Central Park, New York City
The first time I set foot in Central Park it was nine o’clock at night and I was eighteen years old. I was shaking, just like my father hours before. He’d clutched me in a tight embrace and sobbed. I had only ever seen him cry once. Maybe. After we ate hot dogs from a street vendor he delivered me to my new dorm room where cold cement walls encapsulated the abandoned emptiness. He set down the last box and I walked with him to his van. Words of wisdom departed through tears. Then he left.
“Never go in Central Park at night” was a pearl I clung to as a young Midwesterner brand new to the city. I had been to Chicago, to Boston, to Europe, so I knew about the dangers of parks after dark. When the captain of our cross country team decided to lead us into Central Park that first night on our first team run, I found myself next to another freshman. She was also blond and from the Midwest. I tried to tie us together by bringing my fear to the surface, hoping she would open up and reveal shared nagging worry. She was faster than I, though: my illusory rope frayed as she surged ahead. Watching skinny legs in short shorts cast shadows in the lamplight, I bit the inside of my cheek as I descended our first hill into the depths.
Two years later I would start to dream about that hill. A recurring nightmare woke me, shivering in the feverish warmth of my own imagination. It started at the corner of 110th Street and Central Park West, where the entrance curved to the right and around a patch of woods: Silver Lindens and Norway Maples, trees I knew from home. In my dream it was afternoon, like most of the days we had practice. I was running back, up, our workout almost complete. The blue of the sky peeked through the leaves on the edge of the road and a teammate looked back at me and smiled. Suddenly the air imploded and I was forced to the ground. I pushed my face up from the hot cement and saw the sky: crimson clouds. My palms burned and I knew: the end of everything. It was the crushing calm that woke me and so I never died in Central Park.
As a junior in college I played soccer on the grass above the place in my nightmare. The meadow where we would gather was surrounded by American Elms, the same wild cathedrals that lined the Literary Walk further down in the park’s heart. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed our hilltop field to provide views of the Hudson River and the Palisades for the wealthy in carriages. I couldn’t comprehend that New York City. Beyond the American Elms, all we could see were the poverty tinged bricks of Harlem. By then I had walked around Harlem, tossing another pearl from my childhood back into the brine. The things I thought I knew about the city were because I hadn’t lived there. I went on to live in Chicago, in Boston, in Europe, discovering some parks were more beautiful after dark.
There were still places I would never go and places I would never go alone. It would have been closer to run in Morningside Park, but New Yorkers told me not to go there. Words of wisdom departed through thick accents. There were streets in Washington Heights that were deemed dodgy and so during indoor season we ran across the George Washington Bridge to warm up before races at the Armory. There I could see the Palisades, the fence of stakes stood sentinel along the road to Iowa. Something about their awesomeness made my home, my parents’ farm, feel even further away. The Lenape supposedly called the massive cliffs “rocks that look like trees,” a word we said was weehawken. I couldn’t find that word in a Lenape dictionary. I found wihhinachk, a birch tree, but there were no birch trees that I knew in New York. In one of the Lenape dictionaries the very first word was ntalemi. It meant: “afraid, I am.”
From one window of my dorm during my senior year of college, I could see the tip of Central Park if I strained to look. From another window I watched the smoke rise over the city on September 11, 2001. I was with a group of two year olds when the first plane hit. One of the parents, dropping her daughter off, whispered to our head teacher and in the crushing calm that followed I knew something was terribly wrong. We sent the children home and sank on the floor of an office where the radio declared it was the end of everything. But, it wasn’t. When I stepped outside the sky was still blue. I walked to the gym and watched the towers fall on a tiny television, huddled with teammates and strangers. The Lenape said pakachtechin: “to fall to the ground.” I walked to my dorm and watched the smoke. I had never been to the World Trade Center. I would never go there.
Some members of our cross country team decided to run that day in Central Park. At the time I felt it was wrong, to just go on, but later I wished to have been with them. They said in the park nothing had changed. Instead, in the fetal position under a blanket I watched the television in our dorm room. For hours turned days there was hope. “They’ll get them out.” Trapped in the mantle folds, people were tapping, calling. I begged God, anyone to pull them up from the hot cement. No one was strong enough. Eventually there was only silence. Classes resumed, practice resumed. We had to just go on. The Lenape said dalaktschetechen: “to fall and burst open.” My palms were cool on the window of my room where they framed my view of nothing I knew.
My parents drove from the Midwest five days after September 11th in order to see me. My dad held me close and I sobbed. They stayed just one day and we walked. We didn’t plan, didn’t mean, to go the length of Manhattan, but that’s what we did. From 116th Street down Broadway, down 8th Avenue, winding our way to the bottom, we just kept walking until we were forced to stop a few blocks from Battery Park. I think my mom needed to see, to comprehend. I had seen her cry before. Maybe. After peering through the dreamlike dust at the nothing that remained, we turned and walked back. At the 5th Avenue corner we could have entered Central Park, but we didn’t. We needed to remember it as real. Everything had changed.
That spring the Yoshino Cherry trees bloomed and the Mayor of Central Park was back on his bench. Tan with a white mustache, he was a comfort to our daily runs around the res: the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. On long runs we circled on the bridal path, on short runs we looped the res. The Mayor of Central Park had looped the res two hundred thousand times in his life. For all four years that I ran in Central Park, I looked for him. Sometimes he was sitting on the edge of the path, smiling. Other days he’d nod to us from his bench. Recognizing him made me feel special, like a New Yorker. He was part of my world just like the twin towers had been. Even though I didn’t know him, even though I had never climbed them, he, they, had become integral to my landscape.
I began to unearth my unconscious inhabitance of this landscape by majoring in anthropology. My self-ethnography revealed my sense of place was most experienced in the park. It was more than knowing interesting facts about Central Park’s history. It was the way my very identity sank into being as I touched familiar Red Oaks, took short cuts to secret places reserved for those who knew their place names. Tourists gazed up at the features marked with bronze plaques while I knew they stood on holy ground. I watched others unknowingly lay picnic blankets on the grass and I wondered at the hidden meaning in the dirt beneath.
In an anthropology class we talked about the controversy surrounding the excavation of Seneca Village. Some students, born New Yorkers, said they shouldn’t tear up Central Park. They maintained it would deface a hallowed place. My professor argued an archaeological investigation would be invaluable to understanding our collective history. After I’d graduated they would cut the last piece of red tape and finally dig into the dirt. Among the objects uncovered were buttons, a few marbles, a shoe. A New York University professor said: “These material objects bring the community back and allow them the dignity that they probably didn’t have when they left.” The earth was laden with the misplaced possessions of the displaced.
Seneca Village was a 19th century African American community that grew to include Irish and German immigrants. It was razed to build Central Park: eminent domain. The year before I moved to New York City the New York Historical Society mounted a critically acclaimed exhibit. It was titled “Before Central Park: The Life and Death of Seneca Village.” There were no photographs, no artifacts, so the exhibit relied on names. “Faceless human forms.” In one part of the exhibit visitors could tie together ropes with the names of Seneca Village family members. An 1855 newspaper article described the residents of Seneca Village as less than human. There were no known living descendants of Seneca Villagers: they were driven out to disappear.
The Seneca people were part of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Seneca called themselves O-non-dowa-gah: “People of the Great Hill." In 1960, the United States government drove seven hundred members of the Seneca Nation from their land to build the Kinzua Dam. Just shy of two hundred years after a treaty promised it to them, the United States government turned around and took back ten thousand acres. In 1860, John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms listed the term “Indian gift.” The Americans said Indian gift: “a term proverbially applied to any thing reclaimed after being given.” The Kinzua Dam left another twenty thousand acres of Seneca land unusable because of flooding. Johnny Cash sang a song about it. “Trampling sacred ground.” In college I confused eminent domain with manifest destiny.
The place in Central Park where we played soccer was called the Great Hill. After I left the city, ingrained myself in new topographies, years went by before I returned. When I finally did, it was in the middle of a snow storm and my fiancé and I entered the park below the Great Hill. We walked up the road I no longer dreamt about holding hands, squinting in the thick flakes. We were there to see The Gates. My fiancé was an artist and therefore we didn’t turn around when the snow first started to fall. We drove six hours, knuckles like pearls on the steering wheel, to see the instillation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Some people said the vinyl sculptures defaced the landscape. To me they were saffron giants, marching to places no longer familiar in the blizzard.
The last time I set foot in Central Park it was eleven o’clock in the morning and my son was eight months old. I was in New York for a friend’s wedding. Having survived a Sex and the City brunch, I opted out of manicures and pedicures. “Manis and pedis.” Instead I pushed my umbrella stroller to the park, around the hot dog vendors and up a path. There we sat in the grass beyond the sun-baked Manhattan schist that encapsulated my preserved self-actualization. I set my son down and walked to a nearby tree. In the wind, the thick summer leaves were shaking. Words of wisdom departed through the touch of bark, its silent memory could have brought me to tears. The trees had seen me cry before. Maybe.
I picked up my son and held him tight. Then we left.
Postlude: Alberto Arroyo, the “Mayor of Central Park,” died in 2010. He was 94 years old.