Soul of the City

November 22, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Herb Gardner’s forthcoming movie of his highly successful Broadway play “I’m Not Rappaport” lifts a shout of praise to the fires of old age, the old standards of honor, real language, old-fashioned loyalty, the imagination, humor when humor was still funny, and hardly least to New York’s Central Park. Not a moment too soon.

As a location in the culture, Central Park has most recently been associated with rape and murder. Before that, with the terrible attack on the Central Park jogger. Even the movies have been showing the place in a frightening light. A killer waits in a tunnel in the still of the night. On a catwalk above the reservoir in “Marathon Man,” Dustin Hoffman confronts Lawrence Olivier, whose villainy gave a worse name to dentistry, if that were possible and to the park.

ACTOR: I say that’s close enough.

OTHER ACTOR: It’s out of hand.

ACTOR: Stop!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Herb Gardner clearly knows Central Park in all its parts and on all its levels. So “I’m Not Rappaport” gives us admiral Central Park, its dappled beauty achieved after and within a long life of struggle, like the movie’s main character. And like that character is a sublime absurdity carved into the middle of cold, steely Manhattan, 843 acres of walks, meadows, Italianate fountains and bridges, lakes, baseball fields, tennis courts, a carousel, a theater, a reservoir, a castle, old trees, street lamps, skating rinks, pools, playgrounds, gardens, bridle paths, statues, not to mention every kind of person in the book.

If the park seemed like a wild idea in 1857 when Fred Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began to create the thing among the shanty towns, slaughterhouses and pig farms of the upper West side, you should see it now–a pastoral imposition in a mob of city towers–green on gray and silver, an abstraction inside of concrete. But the abiding power of Central Park, however much bucolic and European grace it lends the overwrought hectic island, does not deride from its being an oasis.

Rather, it is the indispensable soul of the city, a rectangular reminder like an office memo that all of New York’s lofty rampant ambitions are rooted in a place where people are free to be a bit different and eccentric. So children are at home in Central Park and lovers and skaters and roller bladers. Families are at home here and also artists and musicians and actors. If villains are at home in the park too, that’s the way life goes. Mainly the park, an assertion itself, provides the grounds for the individual companionable assertion of others.

If New York does drop dead, Central Park will be the part that it sends to heaven. On the right day, there is no place more beautiful, and yet, the park, like the city and its people, is much more beautiful than it looks. It’s a cliche to speak of New York’s division, though, to be sure, divisions are real. Yet, tell me what city anywhere in the world has more different people getting along better. Tell me where the dividing races and classes know one another better. And tell me what place in the world is a better celebration of those emerging differences and of the strange, lovely ceremonies of living in groups, and of the reason that cities exist than Central Park. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.