Magazine

Power of the Park: Reflecting on a Year of the Pandemic and Central Park

Year after year, spring marks a time of hope and exhilaration, especially for New Yorkers. Surrounded by the first crocuses emerging from the earth, the pure whimsy of daffodils in bloom, and a chorus of birdsong, the City lets out a communal sigh of a relief. Winter has come to a close and our hometown grit propelled us to better—or at least warmer—days.

This spring is particularly poignant. Next week will mark one year since New York City first shut down. On March 20, 2020, with 5,683 confirmed coronavirus cases in NYC, the governor’s office issued a PAUSE order that would go into effect two days later. With that, our vibrant, teeming city was suddenly rendered solemn and silent. We continue to face more of the unknown in the months ahead, however one thing has remained a constant throughout this difficult time: greenspaces like Central Park. During a year like no other, New Yorkers have rediscovered local parks as essential sources of mental and physical wellbeing and reconnected with our intrinsic human need to spend time outdoors.

The electrifying beauty of spring never ceases to amaze New Yorkers, and nothing says spring better than Central Park’s cherry trees in full bloom.

When it seemed everything that we knew and loved about the City faded away, these public spaces remained open—reliable and peaceful respites. Solitary springtime walks gave way to socially distanced summertime picnics with friends and family. Throughout the fall, parks transformed into a spot for preschoolers to gather, athletes to train, and seniors to stretch their legs. The winter months granted us the quiet beauty of these urban landscapes blanketed in snow, a safe place to commune with the natural world and the people we missed. And now, spring is upon us once again. Amidst the grief, turmoil, and uncertainty, new life continues to grow in the City’s greenspaces, with New Yorkers making use of their shared backyards in creative and resourceful ways.

Even in the early days of the pandemic when much of the City closed, the Central Park Conservancy remained dedicated to caring for the Park, which provided ample space and the promise of better days to come.

All that Central Park has come to represent during this time calls to mind its original purpose. In fact, a devastating public health crisis, much like the one we find ourselves in now, largely informed its creation, purpose, and design. Frederick Law Olmsted, who lost a child to the cholera epidemic, along with Calvert Vaux, sought to bring fresh air and open space to New Yorkers so that they could escape the physical and spatial constraints of the City. Prevailing theories about disease and the urgent need to address public health directly led to one of the first places in our bustling metropolis to enjoy fresh air and water—as essential to our health then as they are now.

A couple trudge beneath Dalehead Arch in a snowstorm

Throughout the seasons, New Yorkers use Central Park exactly as Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned 160 years ago.

Looking back on this past year, it becomes clear how much we’ve all needed greenspaces. In a world that often felt turned upside down, stepping into Central Park provided a sense of equilibrium. It righted and restored us—its expansiveness freeing and its consistency a comfort. Even when things seemed the darkest in New York City, the Park was a saving grace for thousands of people who formed new depths of gratitude for its wide-open landscapes. And despite it being a time marked by separation, the Park allowed for a community to form.

An example of the banners highlight this photo of parkgoers lounging on a lawn.

While New Yorkers grappled with the pandemic’s myriad challenges, the Park offered a rare place to relax and breathe easier. The Conservancy’s #myCentralPark campaign captured visitors’ profound appreciation for the Park and the camaraderie within it.

It’s also come to light just how much the Park relies on the people of New York—the very people who saved it from neglect and deterioration 40 years ago—to remain the beautiful space it is. The Central Park Conservancy proudly upholds Olmsted and Vaux’s founding vision for the Park, but we cannot do it without the dedication of our friends and neighbors who share our love for these 843 acres. With the help of our generous supporters, we’ve continued to care for this essential greenspace throughout the pandemic, our dedicated staff keeping Central Park clean and accessible so that all visitors can find sanctuary within it. Each flower planted, path cleared of snow, or historic structure maintained is our way to ensure New Yorkers have a place to relax and escape from the stresses of daily life.

“It’s a rough time right now, but Central Park brings out the beauty in everything.” Marshall, a groundskeeper with the Conservancy, reflects on his work maintaining the Park and its role in New Yorkers’ lives during the pandemic.

As we all search for a “new normal,” we’re met with both glimmers of hope and more of the unknown. But Central Park—and all that it has come to represent—remains steady, thanks to the determination and dedication of the people of this City and those who care for it. The Park is not only central to our city, but now ever more part of our shared history as New Yorkers.

Support the Park

The Conservancy relies on donations from the public to keep Central Park a thriving public space for all to enjoy. Please consider supporting the Park and the community we serve with a gift today.