Who Owns Central Park?

Image composed from the loop in Central Park. Photo: Peter Funch

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].”

Image composed from the loop in Central Park. Photo: Peter Funch

Just who is at fault, of course, is a subjective matter. “No one ever tickets the bicycle people!” says Susan Buckley, president of the dog group Central Park Paws. “They should.”

On a recent morning in the park, I stood with a group of about a dozen dog owners as their dogs romped near the Great Lawn. The mention of the word biker triggered an angry Pavlovian response. “We want to ram a stick through their spokes!” one dog walker said. “Or string up some trip wire across the road!” another chimed in, apparently pleased with the joke.

Over on the west side of the park, I found similar anti-bike sentiments. Standing with a group of dog owners, Kelly Deadmon, a flaxen-haired actress, with her six-year-old basset hound, Barney George, stiffened when I asked about the state of dog-bike relations. “They all think it’s the Tour de France,” she said, recalling how a bike had clipped Barney George a couple of years ago. “When you try to cross the road, that’s when they speed up like a bunch of Lance Armstrong wannabes!”

For a cyclist, however, loose dogs can be a mortal threat. Caryl Gale, an accomplished cyclist and creative director at a fashion company, slammed into an unleashed dog that darted into the middle of a bike race last summer. “It was like going into a brick wall,” Gale told me. “It’s ridiculous,” she said, that dogs are allowed to run off-leash near the roads, and it was lucky that she walked away with only a fractured shoulder and a broken bike. Characteristically, she didn’t mention what happened to the dog.

And a bicycle traveling at upwards of 40 mph is no longer a toy but a potentially deadly projectile. In August 2005, David “Tiger” Williams, a former Yale hockey star who founded the hedge-fund-trading firm Williams Trading, accidentally rode his bike into a homeless man who was crossing the road along the east side of the park during an early-morning bike race. Williams suffered compression fractures in his back. The unidentified man was killed. (Williams was not charged with any wrongdoing.)

To begin to understand the pressures that have been building in Central Park in the last few years, a good place to start is about 60 blocks downtown. The Cadence Cycling & Multisport Center, set on a windswept block hard against the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, occupies a sparsely furnished 11,000-square-foot loft. The place looks like a gym dropped into the middle of an art gallery. Sober black-and-white photographs of New York sporting events adorn the walls alongside racing bikes—some costing as much as $30,000—hanging like sculptures from racks. The cavernous training room can hold two-dozen riders spinning in place on their own bikes, and projectors hanging from the ceiling can display virtually any racecourse in the world onto three giant flat-screens set against exposed brick walls. Cadence opened its doors last year. Its founder, Jay Snider, son of the Philadelphia sports mogul Ed Snider (chairman of the Flyers and 76ers), seeks to tap a market of Wall Street clients who desire scientific training methods previously reserved for professional athletes. “It’s the kind of person who does a spreadsheet for their dating life,” says Alex Ostroy, the founder of the local cycling Website nyvelocity.com. “You can slice and dice the numbers all day long. It’s addictive, and you can see yourself making progress.”

“The type of personality who is attracted to cycling or triathlon is an addictive personality,” Karim Pine, Cadence’s marketing director, tells me. “I always say there is very little difference between an endurance athlete and a heroin addict. It’s the same type of person who has to hit that button again to get that buzz.”

Inside New York’s tightly woven bike-racing community, there’s a rift between the old-school riders and what they see as the new-money poseurs who have imported the aggression and boorishness of the trading floor. Another group of poster boys for this new breed of cyclist is a cycling club called Foundation. Founded in 2000, the team has a large contingent of Ivy League and finance types. Established teams were exclusive, with strict admissions tests based on performance, and cliquey. But Foundation’s admissions policies were looser, and Central Park soon became dotted with bankers and lawyers sporting Foundation’s signature fire-red jerseys. Not everyone was pleased with the upstarts. “They had a reputation for being squirrelly riders,” says Alex Ostroy, a coach of the NY Velocity team.

At first, Foundation floundered. Two years ago, it finished dead last in the local rankings. The team’s official mission is to raise money for charity, but its members also harbored competitive ambitions, so they went out to assemble a winning squad. “They did what the Yankees do: They got a couple of big guys from other teams,” David Wagener, who has his own private-equity firm, says. Last year, some of the team’s wealthy patrons kicked in money, in part to recruit new talent. The team’s endowment grew significantly, and this season, Foundation lured star Colombian rider Lisbon Quintero from another New York team. Since he arrived earlier this season, Quintero has already won three races, and the team is now No. 1 in New York.

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.

Who Owns Central Park?