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A Mass Rally Could Destroy the Great Lawn

Pope John Paul II's appearance in Central Park (left) was the last event to attract huge crowds to the Great Lawn, which has now been restored (right).

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Protesters Have A Right To Use The Park
by Leslie Cagen

Central Park is over 150 years old. If over the years all the schemes to construct buildings and hold events in the park had been accepted, there would be no park left today.

Now the park faces a new threat. An organization opposed to U.S. foreign policy wants to use the Great Lawn for a rally the day before the Republican National Convention. They anticipate an attendance of 250,000, including many out-of-towners who will have traveled to New York City to participate.

The purpose of the event has no relation to the decision on the use of the park, except as it affects the likely conduct of the demonstrators. The Great Lawn would not be an appropriate site for a memorial service for Ronald Reagan, which would attract a vastly different crowd.

The Great Lawn is a very different place than it was in 1982 when it was the site of a huge anti-nuclear rally. The last two mass events on the Great Lawn – the premiere of the Disney movie Pocahontas and Pope John Paul 11’s visit – took place in 1995. Shortly after the pope’s visit, the city began a major restoration of the area.

Today, the lawn cannot accommodate hundreds of thousands of people. Its limit is about 85,000, with everyone standing. The overflow would overwhelm adjacent areas of the park, hurting trees and shrubs. In addition, the thousands who would have to be turned away would swarm over Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, blocking traffic and most likely expressing frustration at being excluded from watching the events.

The restoration of the Great Lawn included the installation of an underground drainage system to deal with water that came from the former reservoir on the site, a surface drainage system to keep rainwater from forming ponds on the lawn, and an irrigation system with almost two miles of piping to keep the grass green. That elaborate substructure for irrigation and drainage would be jeopardized by intense use.

During the restoration, the lawn was covered with 25,000 cubic yards of topsoil and planted with five varieties of Kentucky bluegrass, with a sprinkling of perennial. To give the roots a chance to penetrate nine inches deep into the sandy loam topsoil, the lawn was closed to the public for nine months. This grass is likely to be highly disturbed by thousands of people standing on it for several hours. It would take a long time to heal.

It cost $18.2 million to renovate the lawn. Some of the funds came from private contributions. How can the city ask citizens for money to restore the park if it will be destroyed when an enormous crowd holds an event?

And this would not be the last such gathering. The courts are very protective of First Amendment rights, as they should be. If the city grants a permit for one political event on the Great Lawn, it will be hard pressed to deny permits to any other group that wants to express its views. That means the lawn would be repeatedly trampled, with each successive event doing additional damage.

There are ample alternate sites for the proposed rally. Dag Hammarskjold Park, across from the United Nations, has been a traditional forum area. If needed, the crowd can overflow onto adjacent streets. If that site is not sufficient, the protest could be held in Flushing Meadows- Corona Park. That park offers unlimited space, and access to transportation. It was also an early site of the United Nations General Assembly.

Natural areas should be protected from exploitation for transitory purposes. In particular, people devoted to peace, justice and the environment should not threaten or injure the existing environment in order to attract public attention to their cause.

The restoration of the Great Lawn transformed a dust bowl into an extraordinary landscape and a pastoral retreat for city dwellers and visitors. Today the Great Lawn is home to 92 trees, including American and English elms, red and sugar maples, four varieties of oaks, silver and little leaf lindens, and flowering crabapples and cherry trees. Salamanders, fish and frogs live in Turtle Pond's clean waters, and turtles sunbathe on its banks.

Both the city and the Department of Parks & Recreation will co-operate to offer alternate sites for the rally in a large park or public place. We Americans are proud of the civil liberties that we, unlike other less fortunate people around the world, enjoy. For a century and a half, New Yorkers have enjoyed the unusual delicacy of Central Park, with the Great Lawn recently restored to exceptional beauty. With good judgment, we can have both civic beauty and civil liberties, without infringing on either.

Henry Stern is former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation%3ꄨ›p>

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