Travel: Long haul - New York's green heart

The transatlantic fares war means a walk in Central Park is a real possibility this winter
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One man speeds along Central Park's loop on a racing bike, singing a Broadway medley at the top of his voice. Another flies along on cross- country skis with wheels attached. A hyperactive woman almost crashes into other joggers and flips round to do some reverse power-walking. Running backwards is the latest trend among fitness fanatics in New York's outdoor pleasure dome.

On the Central Park promenade, a dreadlocked dancer performs t'ai chi on in-line skates. Close by, dozens turn and spin to the beat of techno music in the weekly disco for skaters. Several older couples perform a spontaneous tango on the terrace of Bethesda fountain.

Central Park, the first public park built in America, allows for just about every leisure activity imaginable in a rectangle of just over one square mile. But it may best be used for the most entertaining sport in New York - people-watching. Visitors can have no better introduction to the dizzy diversity of New York than a stroll in what Henry James called the "polyglot park".

On a recent Sunday, a wedding party posed for photographs in the Park's formal gardens, dressed in ornate African purple-and-gold robes. Meanwhile, in the rose garden, another wedding party gathered around another bride - in a white dress, with a large, black tattoo clearly visible under her veil.

Some 5,000 joggers a day race around the park's reservoir, which once acted as the lungs of the city. President Clinton has been spotted among the runners. Other park users prefer a more relaxed game of open-air chess.

More than 15 million visitors flock to Central Park each year. They are joined by more than 270 species of migratory birds, which use the space as a major stopping-point on the Atlantic flyway.

Central Park did not always embrace such variety of human and animal life. When a competition for the park's design was held in 1858, the winners, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, imagined the place as an island of order in a disorderly city.

The growing metropolis of New York wanted a park to rival London's Hyde Park and the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The upper classes lobbied for a pastoral park, where ladies could take genteel exercise without having to be disturbed by "rough" immigrants. Another reason for building the park was the high level of infant mortality, especially during the summer.

According to The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, the lower classes were meant to gaze on the carriages of the rich and aspire to better themselves. Olmsted himself declared that "the main object" of the park was to "produce a certain influence on the minds of people".

But the park board never fully enforced a regime of order and decorum. From the day the park opened, popular culture seeped through the gates - as did workers themselves.

This haven from the grinding streets of New York City was constructed by thousands of Irish labourers. The workforce moved nearly 5m cubic yards of stone, earth and topsoil to build the park. The construction period lasted 16 years, during which time five men were killed.

In the early decades, ethnic sports and festivals were forbidden. But immigrant groups offered monuments to the park during the 19th century, including statues of Walter Scott and Robert Burns. The dedications of these statues sometimes turned into ad hoc ethnic festivals.

Central Park had a lasting impact on the life of the city. "It changed the face of New York, and spurred real-estate development uptown," says Sara Cedar Miller, a historian for the Central Park Conservancy, who took me for a walk through the park. "The place formed an exquisite oasis of green in a wall of buildings."

Olmsted had been determined to create the illusion of country in the heart of New York. He would have been horrified that skyscrapers are now visible over the park's tallest trees. But it is this contrast between pastoral and urban landscape that makes the place so special today.

The park was declared a national historic landmark in 1965. But in the recession of the Seventies it fell into neglect, with large stretches marred by litter and graffiti.

Between 1979 and 1986, 35 murders took place here - and John F Kennedy Jr is just one of a long list of celebrity crime victims. The park is now the only one in New York with its own police precinct.

There are still reports of stabbings, usually part of gang blood rites. But many visitors claim that the place has never deserved the reputation it got for violence. They say that incidents here tend to get more publicity than crime elsewhere in the city.

In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy, a private group, took over the running of the park in partnership with New York City. Together they have restored more than half the park's famous landscapes - and it has enjoyed spectacular fundraising success, collecting about $20m annually.

One of the most important recent additions is Strawberry Fields, a parcel of land near the West 72nd Street entrance, which has been landscaped as a memorial to John Lennon, financed by Yoko Ono. The pop star was killed on the steps of the nearby Dakota building.

Take a walk through Central Park and you get a quick tour of the range of different cultures in New York. However, not everyone feels equally welcome in all parts of the park. Puerto Rican and black working-class youths hold barbecues and play boom-boxes around Harlem Meer at the northern end. White middle-class New Yorkers tend to gather at the southern end. Yet many natives of the city see the park as a place to transcend some of the boundaries that otherwise divide them into different neighbourhoods. It is not for nothing that Central Park has been called the most democratic space in the city.

Getting there: half a dozen airlines will get you to New York from Britain for about pounds 170-pounds 180 return, except in the fortnight immediately before Christmas.

The subway lines B and C run the length of the park on the Upper West Side, with regular stops from 59th Street to 103rd Street. The 59th Street/Columbus Circle stop is served by the 1 and 9 Broadway/7th Ave lines, and the N and R Broadway local trains stop at 57th St and 5th Ave at the southern end of the park