On September 11, 2002, feeling an obligation to quietly commemorate the events of one year before, I set aside an hour to think about why I love New York. Central Park, the only backyard I have ever known, seemed the perfect place for such ruminations, so I settled down in Strawberry Fields and looked around. The park, as it turned out, was the absolute wrong place for me to celebrate the city. Complete strangers were smiling at one another! People were walking slowly, strolling even. This was not my New York. Sure, cabs were still racing through the 86th Street transverse and I spotted more than a few giant rats, but somehow, like magic, things were different in the park. That is exactly what I’ve loved about it, though, throughout my 20 years growing up here: The park offers me a place where the city rules are temporarily lifted.
Perhaps the change in rules was most apparent when I was young, because it was literal then. I did not have to hold my mother’s hand for fear of being "taken," there were no real streets to cross after looking both ways, and so I was pretty much free. In warm weather, I had the "ancient playground," where I filled my shoes and socks with sand within ten seconds of arriving. I had mountainous rocks to scale and Balto the brave medicine dog to inspire my adventures.
In the winter, there was sledding to do. Nothing else in Manhattan can offer a 5-year-old such abandon as flying down a hill, spinning in a saucer, until she runs out of steam or hits something. Nothing.
As I got older, and the intellectual and social pressures of New York began to pile up, I enjoyed the physical challenges offered by the park. For a respite from term papers about transcendentalism and music theory classes, I struggled to bike up the "big hill" on 110th Street without giving up and walking. And if the boy I liked at school turned out to prefer my best friend, I could always try to rollerblade down the hill by the "Stuart Little" pond without slowing down (I never quite mastered that). These days, my escapes from the fast-paced city involve trying to jog around the reservoir without being passed by anyone over 70 years old.
For me, the park is about suspended reality. For groups of middle schoolers at 1 a.m. on a Friday night, some controlled substance laws are temporarily forgotten (or so I hear). For young couples on an afternoon picnic, the complications of serious relationships are ignored for a while.
I now attend a college out west, where the whole enormous campus might as well be called a park. I can take pleasure in outdoor activities there, but something is missing. Without the nearby noise of 5th Avenue and the cerebral Metropolitan Museum, the park would not be so different, and without that contrast, the magic might be lost.
Sarah Lustbader, a NYC native and a student at Stanford University, is the 2003 Lenore Chester Searchlight intern for Gotham Gazette.
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