Hand-in-Hand with Harlem: The Conservancy's Four-Decade Restoration of Central Park's North End

This article has been updated to reflect changes since its original publishing.

Like most of Central Park by the 1970s, the area north of the Reservoir—a 225-acre tract that includes the North Woods, Harlem Meer, and its surrounding landscapes—had severely deteriorated. A group of New Yorkers concerned about this state of disrepair joined together to restore their beloved greenspace on behalf of the community. Born out of these efforts, a nonprofit, the Central Park Conservancy, was formed. It pledged to transform the northern end into a destination for the neighboring communities through capital building and landscape management, increased maintenance, and new public programming. Its restoration of the Park has been conducted in many phases over the course of more than four decades.

A Gateway to Harlem

In the 1980s, the Conservancy turned its attention to the Harlem Meer. This transformational project included dredging the water body and removing 34,000 cubic yards of sediment and debris from the lakebed, as well as restoring and stabilizing its shoreline through the addition of Manhattan schist and new wetland plantings.

The construction of the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, located on the north shore of the Meer, rounded out the area’s restoration and served to welcome community members to a newly revitalized space. Its doors opened in 1993 and since then, the Dana Center has hosted activities and events that engage its neighbors, including tours led by Conservancy staff, seasonal festivities, environmental education, and other public programming.

Photo of the Harlem Meer circa the late 1970s/early 1980s. 

The Harlem Meer circa the late 1970s/early 1980s.

“Bit by bit, we’ve tackled all aspects of the north end of the Park, from naturalizing the shoreline of the Harlem Meer and restoring the woodlands to building the Dana Discovery Center. As a Harlem resident, when I first started coming to the Park, there was just a burnt-out structure [where the Dana Center now is],” John Reddick, the Conservancy’s Director of Community Engagement Projects, recalls. “When I see this area now, I’m reminded that all of this was accomplished through an engaged dialogue with the community.”

Indeed, an integral part of the Conservancy’s work is grounded in understanding how our friends and neighbors use the Park, and Reddick is responsible for helping to guide those conversations. He stresses, “The needs and concerns of community-based groups are prioritized and balanced throughout the design phase.” The goal? To make the Park more welcoming to a wide range of users. The Conservancy’s restoration created a space, he explains, where people from all backgrounds could gather and use the Park in different ways, whether they’re birdwatching in the North Woods, jogging around the Meer, attending an exhibition at the Dana Center, or taking part in myriad other activities.

Runners at the Harlem Meer and Dana Center in 2022

The Harlem Meer and Dana Center today. “Bit by bit, we’ve tackled all aspects of the north end of the Park,” says John Reddick, Director of Community Engagement Projects at the Conservancy.

A resident of Harlem since 1980, John got involved in advocacy work with the Ralph Ellison memorial in Riverside Park, which was unveiled in 2003. Almost eight years later, as a member of the Conservancy’s community engagement team led by Erana Stennett, and working in consultation with community-based organizations, John helped spearhead the redesign of Frederick Douglass Circle, a memorial to the 19th-century abolitionist. Together, they continued to oversee community and government relations for the Conservancy, establishing a more structured form of communication with neighbors and elected officials.

This series of renovations—among others—signaled the rebirth of the “upper park” and led residents and local politicians to conceptualize the revitalized north end of Central Park as the “Gateway to Harlem.” But this was just the start. Over the subsequent years, the Conservancy continued to make improvements to the Park’s north end.

A Place for Play

Perhaps no public space would be complete without a way to entertain and engage its youngest visitors. Central Park has 21 playgrounds, nine of which are in the north end. The most popular is the East 110th Street Playground, offering children a range of play experiences in a scenic location along the shore of the Harlem Meer. The Conservancy regularly updates these play spaces to address wear and tear and accessibility standards, and in 2013 rebuilt this playground with new equipment and infrastructure that is seamlessly integrated into the landscape. In fact, the Conservancy has been working to rebuild or renovate all the Park’s playgrounds since 2011—including Bernard Family Playground (East 108th Street) and Robert Bendheim Playground (East 100th Street)—in order to give local families imaginative play spaces that are accessible to kids of all abilities.

Conservancy staff working on the 2013 reconstruction of the East 110th Street Playground Completed East 110 Street Playground IMG 4775

The Conservancy’s 2013 reconstruction of the East 110th Street Playground; children at play in the restored space (Photo by Timothy Schenck).

Adults and children alike can be found wandering through the North Woods, the largest of the Park’s woodland landscapes. Nestled within its 40 acres is the Ravine, a densely wooded valley defined by the Loch and its three waterfalls, which eventually empty into the Harlem Meer. Like the Park’s other woodlands, the Ravine suffered from erosion, the spreading of invasive species, and other deterioration caused by time and severe weather events. The Conservancy’s restoration of this landscape, which was completed in 2017, included the removal of accumulated sediments from the Loch, a complete reconstruction of paths and infrastructure, improvements to the planting and irrigation systems, and the restoration and reconstruction of rustic bridges and stone steps.

The ecological value of the woodlands is on par with the cultural value it provides to Harlem residents and all New Yorkers. Thanks to this work, families often frequent the North Woods either on their own or on Conservancy-curated walks to uncover the area’s unique qualities and learn how this complex ecosystem within the Park supports the City’s native plants and animals. Many other projects over the years have also allowed more people to enjoy the benefits of a well-cared for urban greenspace—from the restoration of the Great Hill’s naturalistic landscape in 1985 to the current work underway in the Conservatory Garden.

The Ravine and Loch in Central Park before restoration The Ravine in Central Park, October 2022 People explore the North Woods in Central Park

The Ravine and Loch before restoration; the Ravine in October 2022; explorations in the North Woods.

A New Named Entrance in Harlem

The Conservancy's dedication to its Harlem neighbors took on historical significance in the winter of 2022. Dedicated on December 19, 2022—the 20th anniversary of the Exonerated Five’s vacated convictions—the Gate of the Exonerated is the first and only addition to Central Park’s official entrance names since the 19th century. It is the product of more than two years of extensive, in-depth dialogue among the Harlem community and a response to their desire for healing and belonging in the aftermath of the case and its impact on Black and Latino New Yorkers. Located on 110th Street between Malcolm X Boulevard and Fifth Avenue (near the neighborhood where the Exonerated Five once lived), the Gate of the Exonerated reflects the ideal that inspired the Park’s entrance names in the 1860s: to acknowledge the City’s people, their work, and their stories.

Coming Full Circle

Among the Conservancy’s more recent and ambitious projects in the north end of Central Park is the new Harlem Meer Center. Along with a pool and ice rink, the new facility will repair damaged natural systems and provide unobstructed access across the north end by reconnecting the watercourse that runs through the Ravine. The Conservancy is also curating the Center’s year-round public programming and developing a wide range of free or low-cost programming for children and adults. Collectively, this project will improve the essential experience of the Park as an open and inviting greenspace for everyone.

As John explains, this project is the culmination of a long, continuous dialogue with the Harlem community. Through these partnerships, the Conservancy has gained the input it needs to better understand how the Park is used and continue its mission; for John and his colleagues, the aim is for the community to be a full participant in the evolution of Park improvements. Just as the Park keeps evolving and adapting, these conversations, too, remain ongoing.

Harlem Meer before the renovation Artists rendering of the Harlem Meer's outdoor space

Along with a larger-than-Olympic-size pool and outdoor spray pad for summer usage, the new Center will offer an enhanced skating experience in the winter with a full-scale ice rink. The shoreline restoration will also expand the footprint of the water body and enhance the visitors’ experience with nature in the middle of New York City.

The Park’s original purpose to serve as a green respite for citizens of the City remains a guiding principle throughout each and every one of the Conservancy’s projects. Caring for this space is not only about keeping the trees healthy and the grass green. It is also about fostering a space that is truly an extension of the community surrounding the Park: a backyard for all New Yorkers.

Marc W. Polite is a freelance writer and author. His work has appeared in The Amsterdam News, and he is a member of the Harlem Writers Guild.

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