I walked back through Central Park, passed the ball fields and found a park bench. On the green grass in front of me, under the shade of a large tree, were four or five young families, moms and dads with young infants, mostly toddlers. It was late afternoon on a hot end-of-summer’s day. The new parents had a Treffpunkt, a place to come together to let their kids run around in the company of others. The spires of Central Park West rose in the not too far off.
There was one woman in particular. Attractive at this distance, white tank top and pale army green shorts, looking after her small child. She was bending over the stroller, tilting herself in such a way that was easy to misinterpret but near impossible to miss. If she was looking for somebody, she was showing it. If she wasn’t, she seemed like she was.
It was harder to interpret the motion of the men around her. All were dads, but it wasn’t clear if one of them was the dad to her child. They milled about, darting and feinting like small birds whirling in sudden little dances that evaporated as quickly as they came, but in the end all seemed to be attached to other women, or perhaps more importantly, to other children. The men may have wanted to be hers, but that was just the flirtations of young parents debating their own choice of partner. I concluded that this woman was alone, with her child.
I stayed for a while to watch. It occurred to me, what a different New York City this was than the one I grew up in in the 1970s. The idea that white middle class parents, and all these parents were white and middle class, would use the park in the same way that suburban parents might use a playground felt so foreign. Undeniably, it represents a great improvement over the much more dangerous and dirty Central Park of my youth – one need only look at a Gary Winograd photo to be reminded what a pit hole New York was back then. But I couldn’t help but wonder, where did all the poor people go? What park do they now get to use?
That’s the challenge in a pluralistic and diverse city like New York. When an outfit like the Central Park Conservancy gets created, it's supposed to tap into the huge amount of private wealth that rings the park, and use that money for the betterment of the place. It does this by cleaning it up, planting and prettifying it, but also by forcing out all the undesirable elements, the messier people, the noisier people, the people who don’t have a four year college degree or speak English as their primary language. Or for that matter, have white skin. It makes the park an urban refuge for the affluent.
We decried this sort of thing when Robert Moses tried it nearly a century ago with clever tricks to keep the poor off of public beaches, but there is no similar protest today. Today happens through the palliative of “public-private partnerships,” a catch-all phrase designed to convey a best-of-both-worlds scenario — the harshness of private greed softened by a sense of public purpose and the incompetence of public decision-making made sharper by the application steel-eyed private management practices.
Yet we know that in a city such as New York, it is the poor who have the greater need of easily-accesible public open space. Central Park has always been described as the lung of Manhattan Island, a place where one could breathe, but by slow and steady creep, money has once again won the day and bought that air for only those who can afford to possess it.