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Who Owns Central Park?

How Frederick Law Olmsted’s 843 acres of civilizing wilderness became a type-A battleground.

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Image composed from the loop in Central Park.   

It’s shortly before six on a recent morning in Central Park. Dogs frolic, off-leash, through meadows. Joggers breeze along the roadways. In the half-lit hours just past dawn, the park is the urban idyll that its founders, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, envisioned at the park’s birth, 150 years ago.

But then you hear it, approaching in the distance, a stiff wind rustling leaves. The presence grows louder and crescendos until—whooooosh—they’re upon you: a teeming pack of cyclists bursting around the corner in a flash of neon spandex. Runners brandish their fists—or middle finger. Dogs and their owners scramble across the road, lest they be run down by the onrushing horde. It is every biker, runner, or canine for him, her, or itself. Before many New Yorkers have even had their first cup of coffee, the ongoing battle for Central Park is in full swing. “People think the park is a refuge, when you’re actually going into a cage match,” says Chris Yerkes, a Citi staffer who races on an amateur cycling team in the park. “You can liken it to an area which has no local government, no rules,” Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer told me. The current situation is a New York City case study of the economic phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons, whereby a shared resource is, inevitably, overexploited. Although interspersed with the tragedy are moments of high comedy.

The struggle for Central Park is, in its essence, like any other New York neighborhood conflict, with the same kinds of seething antagonisms and the same immutable stereotypes. There are the old-timers (I was here first!), the colonizers (The park is ours!), and the new-money arrivistes (Who do you think you are?). Cyclists see runners as a domineering mass that has controlled the park since the jogging boom of the late seventies. “You’re not going to do a ride without having someone beam at you some feeling of resentment,” says Ken Harris, the president of the Century Road Club, the largest bike-racing club in the country. Runners, in cyclists’ view, shuffle along the road and are prone to swerve erratically in an iPod-induced trance. “Most of the runners have the headphones on so loud that they don’t have a clue where they’re going,” adds Thomas Kempner Jr., chairman of the Central Park Conservancy and a frequent cyclist. “There is a lot of hate,” nationally ranked cyclist Sarah Chubb, the president of Condé Nast’s CondéNet, tells me. “The Road Runners club can take over the entire park, and they get pissed at us if our races go past 8 a.m. The runners don’t stay where they’re supposed to stay, they’re wearing headphones, and they’ll scream at you if you ask them to get out of the way!”

Even cyclists’ efforts to communicate with pedestrians can trigger physical resistance. Yerkes recalls one ride when a pedestrian attempted to clothesline him as he called out that he was passing by. “That made me think that I’m going to stop communicating and just speed past people if I’m going to get coldcocked by some guy,” he says.

Runners, not surprisingly, see cyclists as out-of-control maniacs orbiting the park at terminal velocity. And the cyclists’ vivid, skintight plumage doesn’t help, to say the least. On a recent Saturday morning, Jerry Macari, a running coach and the owner of Urban Athletics on Madison Avenue, had a dustup with a cyclist on the west side of the park near 79th Street, as he stood on the sidelines of a running race. “He’s whizzing by me and screams, ‘You’re an asshole for being in the lane!’ ” Macari recalls. Not to be outdone, Macari lobbed an expletive back. “The reality is, the bikers feel safe because they’re riding away when they yell something at you.”

The conflict between bikers and dog owners is, if anything, even more fraught. In 2006, a coalition of about 50 citywide dog groups won a lawsuit that protected their right to keep dogs off-leash before 9 a.m. and after 9 p.m. in designated areas, and they vigilantly guard their canines’ freedom. Recently, accidents between bikers and dogs have left relations raw. “Several times, while crossing with the signal, I and other dog owners have had close calls with cyclists bombing through the light,” one commenter rails on the Website Urbanhound.com. “Our dogs—and ourselves—have nearly been hit by the arrogant idiots. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to yell at them: ‘Red light! You have a red light!’ Most ignore us. One guy had the gall to shout back that dogs aren’t allowed off-leash in crosswalks (huh????). I yelled, as he kept going, that I was a pedestrian, in the crosswalk, under a walk signal [expletive deleted].”


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