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Who Owns Central Park?

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Rivals gossip that Foundation pays bonuses to Quintero for each victory. “If it’s a club event, there’s no reason to pay a bonus,” Mike Sherry, the director of the Empire team, tells me. Racers have been known to hiss “Ka-ching” when Quintero crosses the finish line. Foundation’s founder, Inson Wood, denies that the team pays riders to win. “There’s no bonus policy,” he tells me, saying that the team only buys cycling gear for its top riders, just like other competitive teams. “Cash bonuses are not what we’re about.”

Last summer, Ken Harris, the CRCA president, received an irate e-mail from Mark Albertson, who is with advertising-and-design firm the Concept Farm, after an altercation erupted with a Foundation rider in Central Park. “At 6 a.m. one of these guys started an exchange with me that led to a two-mile dialogue which resulted in the guy hitting me on the back repeatedly, trying to take me down. Fortunately for me, his riding skill left him on the ground,” Albertson wrote. “Something has to be done about these animals … Retaliation on the part of these guys will not be tolerated.”

There’s one issue about which runners, cyclists, and dog owners are in full agreement: cars. For years, Transportation Alternatives, the bicycle-advocacy organization, has been waging a campaign to banish cars from the park. “We’re incredulous that we don’t have a car-free Central Park already,” Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul White tells me. “The anger you see in the park is similar to the ire you see in Park Slope with the double-wide strollers. Our view is, Don’t get mad at the stroller moms. Get mad at the city for providing such limited car-free space.”

In this effort, having business titans on your side is an advantage. Last April, about two dozen executives signed a letter delivered to the mayor’s office arguing that the administration’s car policy is hurting the city’s ability to prevent hedge funds from decamping to Greenwich, or Wall Street jobs’ being shipped overseas. “The talent pool we seek to draw from is increasingly focused upon maintaining personal fitness. They are disproportionately triathletes, marathoners, and the highly fit. Cycling in particular is a key interest, and has become a key business-related networking activity,” the group wrote. “What about the loss of yet another team of financial professionals, formerly based on Wall Street, who decide to move to Connecticut to start a hedge fund, because life is just too difficult in New York City?”

While many in the city might view this as a desirable outcome, last summer, as a concession, New York’s Department of Transportation expanded the car-free policy in Central Park by an hour per day. But White and his coalition aren’t satisfied. “This debate is very emblematic of the challenge all of New York faces: It’s about the politics of public space. Who gets that space? And how is it apportioned?” White says.

With the death of congestion pricing, many are hoping progressive traffic policy in the park will rise on Bloomberg’s agenda. In May, Scott Stringer sent a letter to the Bloomberg administration asking for a three-month car-free trial in the park this summer. “The car should not take precedence in the transportation hierarchy in the borough,” Stringer told me.

For now, though, the park’s users must make do with the park they have, not the one they want. “Everybody knows they’re a little bit wrong here. This stuff can be fixed pretty easily if people put their heads together,” Douglas Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy, says.

Already, the precinct in the park is doling out tickets to bikers who ignore red lights. On a recent morning, I saw a half-dozen cyclists pulled over in the span of twenty minutes and served with $50 tickets. Their reactions ranged from surprise to indignation.

If tensions continue to rise, the Parks Department might be forced to step in with more-drastic measures. One proposal would set up barriers at congested intersections to slow bikers and runners, a move that Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe hopes doesn’t happen. “The best thing to do is to expect people to behave like adults and be respectful that your liberties aren’t infringing on the rights of others,” Benepe tells me. “People need to behave more like members of a shared society and less narcissistically.”

Benepe’s dream is as beautiful as Olmsted’s park. And if you believe it’s going to happen anytime in the near future, you might be interested in purchasing—cheap—a large parcel of heavily wooded real estate in the center of Manhattan.


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