People of the Park: Jud Santos

The Central Park Conservancy depends on the Park’s community to support its mission of providing a sanctuary from the pace and pressures of city life for all New Yorkers. We couldn’t do it without the dedication of people like you who get involved in caring for Central Park in your own ways—the Park needs us, all of us.

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created a space designed to bring New Yorkers together regardless of their backgrounds. As a result, people from all walks of life now use the Park every day, and we’re talking to some of them to get to know the people behind the people’s Park.

Jud Santos works in information technology at New York Road Runners. He moved to New York City from the Philippines in the 1980s, at age 18. An experienced birder since childhood, and a running and biking enthusiast in his teens, he easily transferred all these passions to Central Park. Jud is still an avid runner and started his own running club, Adobo AC, a decade ago. He can be found enjoying the Park daily, sometimes several times a day.

Central Park Conservancy: The Park community plays such an enormous role in caring for Central Park. Conservancy staff takes care of the day-to-day maintenance and long-term restorations, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. The role of the public has been critical since day one of the Conservancy, and the need for its involvement has become abundantly clear over the past year and a half as Park usage has skyrocketed. What’s your relationship with Central Park?

Jud Santos: I’ve been coming to Central Park since the 1980s, but even before then, I had read about it growing up in the Philippines. I wanted to run there. There are so few parks where I can run on dirt paths, and I love that about Central Park.

I really need the Park when I want to take a break from the crowds of NYC. During the pandemic there were no running groups, so I explored the Park more by myself, more than I ever have before. When you’re so intent on miles, you miss a lot of things. I started birdwatching more; they are fascinating creatures.

When spring migration season came along this year, I was really overjoyed when I saw a scarlet tanager for the first time. They are really hard to spot—they are brightly colored, but they stay high up in the trees. They only come in spring and fall, and they don’t travel in flocks. It was just so brilliant.

Photo of Jud Santos looking through a pair of binoculars

Jud Santos birding before sunrise near the Obelisk in September 2020.

Credit: Valerie Raffle

Spending quiet time in greenspaces reminds so many of us not only what the Park offers, but how much these spaces rely on all of us. What are some actions we can all take to lend a hand in the Park’s care?

Everything has improved by leaps and bounds thanks to the Conservancy. I’m of course drawing from my memories of the 1980s and '90s when many of the fields were dust bowls, the Reservoir’s Stephanie and Fred Shuman Running Track had an eight-foot-high chicken wire fence and was flooded all the time, the Ramble was creepy, and there was graffiti everywhere.

A big thing that many people do already is taking out their trash—whatever they bring in, they bring out. When there’s an event or a really nice day for picnicking, I notice the trash situation is worse. But in the mornings, the Park is so clean. A lot of other big city parks have a lot more trash, but comparatively, Central Park is so clean. The Conservancy’s maintenance is amazing, but there’s so much to do!

We really appreciate when our visitors carry out their trash! New Yorkers feel a sense of ownership here, which both the Conservancy and the Park depend upon. It’s a real team effort. Speaking of New Yorkers, how have you noticed the people of NYC making use of the Park, and how has their relationship with the Park changed over the years?

When the Conservancy started cleaning up the Park in the ‘80, there was a snowball effect. The cleaner the Park was, the cleaner other people wanted to keep it.

In terms of during the pandemic, birdwatching specifically has really jumped up in participation. I used to go birding in the Ramble, and I’d be the only person there. But now I’ll go in the morning and there are a lot of birders, all ages. It feels safer too, than in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now you see young women birders. It used to be mostly old men, but young women, never. It’s amazing.

Listen to Jud discuss how his childhood passions in the Philippines transformed into a deep connection to Central Park.

Our recent initiative gives voice to iconic features in the Park so the public can hear what Central Park needs in order to continue giving people this amazing respite. In return, what we’ve heard from our visitors is that the Park is a very personal space for people and takes on many different meanings. What’s your favorite part of the Park, and what do you wish people understood about what it needs, how everyone can help protect it?

I love the water bodies. When you walk up to them, the Park just opens up. You see a lot of sky. You see the weather. You walk in from a New York City street surrounded by a canyon of buildings and all the sudden the buildings are far away, and you can’t believe you’re in the middle of the City. A lot of people’s idea of New York is Times Square, and to them I say, you’ve never seen Central Park.

I hope that the uptick in Park use since the pandemic began will result in better stewardship. I want new visitors, those without the perspective I’ve gained from watching the Park change over the past 40 years, to better appreciate this space.

You’ve been a Park visitor for years. Is it still exciting?

I’ve had friends visit from the Philippines. We would go running in the Park, and they would say, this is even bigger than I thought! It’s a running mecca. It blows minds. It still blows my mind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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