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In 1853, the New York State Legislature reserved more than 750 acres of land in Manhattan for the creation of the first large landscaped public park in the United States. It was a bold premise: a lush oasis in the middle of an increasingly crowded industrial city, built on the idea that free green space was a public good. Over the next 15 years, the vast strip of land evolved into Central Park, a place for city dwellers to relax, exercise, and enjoy nature. Although it went through a period of decline and deterioration in the early part of the 20th century, this beloved park is now enjoyed by 42 million people a year, around the world.
While Central Park has always been a source of comfort and escape for New Yorkers, perhaps at no other point in its history has it been a visible symbol of the city except during the Covid-19. In a way, you could say that the park has been a vital worker – even when Broadway, museums and restaurants were closed, the park was never closed to the public.
A lot of work is required to maintain the park in normal times: lawns, flowers and trees must be maintained, playgrounds and facilities maintained, water treated, snow cleared, garbage collected, benches and repaired trails. To the surprise of many people, it is the private not-for-profit sector. Central Park ConservatoryâNot the city â which actually performs these daily tasks. The Conservancy also collects 85% of the park’s annual budget, which, in 2019 was reported at $ 85 million.
CGV spoke with Yesim Philip, the newly elected chair of the Women’s Committee – which runs many park-wide programs at the Conservancy and has raised $ 195 million for the park since its founding in 1983 – about the work of the Conservancy over the past few months to keep the park open and inviting for all New Yorkers.
The park is part of the city’s identity. What does this mean to you?
I’m from Turkey, so I wasn’t born in New York, even America, but consider myself a New Yorker. I love the city so much. I’m proud to be here, and I’m not going anywhere [laughs.] I started getting involved in the park with the Playground Partners Committee when my children were young, then I was its co-chair for two years. I have been on the Conservancy’s Women’s Committee for over 15 years and have been on the Board of Directors since 2012. They are a truly dedicated group of women.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, almost everything was closed except the park.
This was our main concern, we were really scared because a lot of the parks around the city were closed. But the park remained open and the staff worked really hard to be able to provide space for everyone, especially people who couldn’t leave town. Our staff continued to work throughout the pandemic. Especially since we can’t do anything inside, so that people have a place to picnic, walk and exercise was so important. It’s a place for everyone.
What is the Conservancy doing to make the park even more accessible?
The Conservancy takes care of the whole park every day. It is an artificial park, so there is constant maintenance: trees, lawns, flowers, benches, paths, water. So we do these routine things to give everyone a wiggle room and a place to go. Central Park is an integral part of New York City and keeping the park going is really important. I believe if the park looks good, if the park is healthy, then the city looks good.
We also gifted the park to those who couldn’t visit it with #myCentralPark, where people could share social media images about their favorite season or area of ââthe park, the memories they shared there, and more. Online we offer virtual tours of certain areas of the park, stories about the history of the park, quizzes and games for children.
Are you planning any virtual or social distance fundraisers this fall, or even next spring?
We had to cancel all the playground parties this year and the Hat Lunch was canceled which is our biggest fundraising event. But we hope to have a women’s picnic in the park in early October at different locations, with maybe 20 to 25 people maximum and spaced, and we will provide the picnic baskets. So that’s what we’re focusing on for the fall fundraiser. But it was amazing, because we offered all of our guests who bought tickets and tables for lunch to get their money back, or apply it to next year. But most of them just donated the money to the park. People are always very dedicated.
Are there plans to make the park just as accessible during the colder months, since visitor centers, boathouse and tours are currently closed?
Well, I think it’s still a place to go whether it’s winter or summer, just for some outdoor exercise, but we’re keeping a close eye on what’s going on. New York is doing great right now, and our caseload is down. We’re just waiting to see what Governor Cuomo says.
What is your favorite place in the park?
The Conservatory Garden. I remember going there for the first time probably 20 years ago right after I got married to my new baby, and I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. It was in the middle of town. But I also like the north side of the park, the Harlem Meer. I’m going to buy a bench there for my husband. And I look forward to our renovation of the Lasker rink.
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