Thirty years ago today was that horrid day when John Lennon was shot and killed outside his home at the Dakota, the iconic building overlooking Central Park. No doubt a multitude of fans are gathering at Strawberry Fields, a 2.5 acre memorial in the park.
The peace memorial was inaugurated on what would have been Lennon’s 45th birthday, 9 October 1985, by Yoko Ono, and Lennon lovers from around the world stream in to pay tribute all day … and all night.
In honour – or dishonour – of that tragic day, I’m including an article I wrote on my introduction to the memorial. And I would advise that you never ever go about being introduced to Central Park the same way.
(But if you do want to go to the peace memorial, the entrance is on Central Park West at West 72nd St right across from the Dakota – ps, as far as I know, the night tours never took off so if you want to go in you’re on your own.)
Central Park at Night – an unadvised urban night crawl
Slinking into Central Park at night is probably not high on every tourist’s list of things to do, but an ad for Central Park Night Tours catches my eye. As a solo traveller, an organized tour is the only way I’ll ever check out this notorious icon of green after dark. And I am curious. Bigger than Monaco, the Park is part of America’s identity and who knows what secrets it will reveal after hours?
As I wait at the meeting point, the International AYH-Hostel on 103rd and Amsterdam, I wonder what my fellow tour-goers will be like. Thrill seekers? Night owls? None of the above. Other than Eric, my amiable New-York born guide, no one shows up at all.
“It’s the weather,” he says.
It’s a rotten rainy night all right, but it’s my last in New York and if I’m going to take the plunge it’s got to be now. Before I continue, I make Eric show me his tour guide license, his driver’s license, then leave his license plate number with the hostel desk clerk.
“In case I disappear,” I tell her.
“He doesn’t seem the type,” she says, as we scrutinize his face as if it’s a sweater at Macy’s.
The tour’s first point of entry is Harlem Meer (Dutch for lake) at the Park’s northeastern edge. It’s a historical area – the bluffs near the Meer’s south shore were pre-park military sites in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In the dark, however, all I see is a black murky pond backed by a forest of trees. And a squad car. I’m so happy to see police protection, I run for the car then slow down in case the officers think I’m attacking.
Officers Raymond and Eddy think no such thing. They don’t even think it’s weird I’m in the park. They’re here every night; for them it’s normal.
Within minutes I’ve got Eddy’s cap on my head while Raymond, with obvious pride in his beat, tells me to check out the Ramble, a secluded section of wilderness mid-park complete with rocky cliffs, a stream and woody trails.
“It’s one of the top birding sites in America,” he says.
“Is it dangerous?” I ask.
Raymond shakes his head, and tells me that some terrible things have happened. “Someone killed a swan, awhile back. And then its mate disappeared, too. But we don’t go there,” he adds cheerfully. “Our squad cars don’t fit on the paths.”
“Do we go there?” I ask Eric nervously.
“Only if you want to.”
Reentering the Park on 5th Avenue, Eric and I walk around the back of the Metropolitan Museum. Though Eric does point out the sight of the Preppie Murder, where Jennifer Levin lost her life in 1986, the tour is not about mayhem but about seeing the Park from a new angle. A barely illuminated one. Still, the wide paths are surprisingly populated, with cyclists, joggers and businessmen. Further in, traffic sounds fade. Lampposts glow orange in the misty rain and the sky is a deep burnished rust. It’s actually quite peaceful, I realize, walking through damp velvety air past Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk dating back to 1600 BC; a sculpture of King Jagiello of Poland and Turtle Pond.
“Central Park is the safest precinct in New York City,” Eric tells me, as we pass another policeman. “Because of the good lighting and the heavy police presence.”
That’s very reassuring except I’m not sure it includes the Ramble which we’re fast approaching.
“Are you game to go in?” Eric says. “I can show you Bow Bridge, the only place in the Park where you can see both the east and the west skyline.”
Torn between knowing better and wanting to see it all, I find myself following Eric down a rocky path hewn out of grey mica schist, the slate-like rock that lies underneath the park. The trees here are dense, closing us in. Trails twist and loop. As we go under an archway a shadowy figure glides by. Another passes over a walkway above us. I’m all for the edgier side of sightseeing, but this is out of my league.
“Eric, I’ve got to get out!” I cry.
Eric seems disappointed that I don’t care about the view from Bow Bridge, but with a couple of quick turns we’ve left the Ramble and are heading south to Strawberry Fields.
Located in front of the Dakota apartment where John Lennon was shot, this area of the Park has been endorsed by 121 nations as a ‘Garden of Peace.’ It’s the flip side of the gloomy Ramble, populated by the young and hip. Someone discusses baseball scores. People laugh. Flowers are left at the IMAGINE mosaic, dedicated to Lennon.
In the upbeat atmosphere my breathing returns to normal. “Eric, just how popular are your tours?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he admits. “As far as paying guests go, you’re the first.”