Nov 06, 2023, 11:09PM

What They Don’t Tell You About Central Park

Some good news, while civilization rots.

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You can walk across Central Park at night. When I was a boy you couldn’t. My parents told me and you saw it on TV. It was a byword. Comedians made jokes about the park, movies made jokes about it. New York City was famous for crime, and Central Park at night was exhibit A. When I was an adult too, when I knew adults half a dozen years younger than me or a dozen years younger. One of them got mugged when he was lured five feet inside the park after sunset. “Like a tourist!” he said, being dramatic. “Like a tourist!” And he was a husky brute, no fighter but too bulky to look like easy pickings.

I left the city a few years later. Decades passed. Despite Giuliani and Bloomberg, I heard no rumors of a new Central Park. But on a Saturday night this June, I walked straight across, from W. 72d Street to E. 72d St. There was nothing to keep me company but the black velvet, the branches overhead, the occasional glaring park bench and patch of asphalt beneath a streetlight, and shoulders and profiles that were two dozen or three dozen feet away, sighted as people strolled in the dark. Voices, clipped from the source, never came near me but never went away, not until I was out the other side.

Before I got there, I stood and looked down at Bethesda Fountain. All those steps, the plaza, and poking up in the middle that silly vertical accumulation of basins and little statues, dinky and at the same time over elaborate. It all sat under a black sky. I never would’ve thought I’d see the place like that. I wouldn’t even have wondered about it. But here I was. I was the millionth or maybe five millionth law-abiding citizen to be standing there at night and feeling just fine, black sky overhead.

I asked my brother and sister-in-law how long has this been going on. They live five minutes’ walk from the park and they didn’t even know there was a change. Admittedly my brother never heard of the Mid-Manhattan Library, which has been sitting 30 minutes from his building (walking, I mean) since before he moved in. But everyone knows about Central Park, and everyone has something to say about crime. People certainly did when I was a boy. Now Central Park has become safe at night and no one says a thing about it. In this age when everything’s a topic.

As civilization rots and the political system teeters, you’d think the heart of New York would be ripped from society whenever the sun went down. That’s how things were in 1974. Now the place has been reclaimed, and I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t walked across it myself. 

Roman thoughts. I don’t have a lot of guy moments, so it was nice to hear that Rome is a guy thing. More specifically, thinking about Rome is. The difference strikes me as significant. We’re not talking about scholarship or tourism, just reverie. Every now and then a guy’s got to drift and think, and what comes into his mind is Rome. Among other topics, of course. Videogames, fantasy football, titanium claws, Rome—butch, outlandish, useless, a puzzle to girlfriends. On the internet women expressed amazement that their fellows thought about Rome every week, every day, several times a day. I’m older, my peak is past. But I think of Rome every few months. I’m a map kind of guy. I look down on the familiar expanse and wonder how the empire could’ve played things differently. In my case, Rome is kind of a sad business. Second thoughts and do-overs are the theme. But Justinian could’ve been a lot smarter about handling the western Mediterranean, that’s all.


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