Between the Upper East  and the Upper West Sides  lies that most glorious of New York institutions, Central Park (between 5th and 8th Aves., 59th and 110th Sts., 212/794-6564, www.centralpark.org ). Without this vast, rolling estate of green—the lungs of the city—life in New York City  would become unbearable. Central Park is where New Yorkers go to escape cramped apartments, roaring traffic, and an endless cityscape of concrete and steel.
The Central Park, as it was once known, was the brainchild of poet-turned–newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant. Worried that the city was being smothered by block after block of relentless building, Bryant first called for the park’s creation in the July 3, 1844, edition of his Evening Post.
Landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing and a number of politicians soon added their voices to Bryant’s plea. Together, they hammered away at city government for 12 years until finally, in 1856, the city bought most of what is now the park for five million dollars.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were the visionary landscape architects who turned Bryant’s Central Park dream into reality. As Olmsted saw it, the park had two functions. One was to provide a place for the contemplation of nature. The other was to create a social mixing bowl where the haves and have-nots could pass each other every day, providing an opportunity for the poor to become inspired by the rich.
Entirely manufactured—with every bush, tree, and rock planned—the park took 20 years to complete. By the time it was finished, workers had shifted 10 million cartloads of dirt, imported a half-million cubic yards of topsoil, and planted 4–5 million trees. Central Park was such an immediate success that it led to a park movement across the United States and the world.
Central Park is 2.5 miles long and a half mile wide, covers 843 acres, and hosts 15–20 million visitors annually. Walking through it is like walking through some gigantic carnival site. You’ll see scantily clad in-line skaters, oblivious lovers, stroller-pushing nannies, students lounging with their textbooks, svelte bicyclists, cough-racked beggars, cashmere-clad matrons, trickster boarders, professional dog-walkers, and musicians playing everything from concertos to rap. Every size, shape, color, and make of humanity is here.
Generally speaking, the park is safe, but it’s always advisable to stick to well-populated areas, especially during the week, when fewer people use the park. Avoid the park completely at night.