Friday, August 13, 2010

The Mayor of Central Park

by Wendy Moonan

New Yorkers normally don’t depend on the kindness of strangers, but Central Park joggers thrived on the encouragement of a mustachioed mystery man for more than 70 years.

The man with the flowing white hair stationed himself on a bench at the South Gate House of the Central Park reservoir, and no matter who you were – especially if you were female – he would wave and shout “Looking Good!” as you passed him on the track.

This friendly man, named Alberto Arroyo but much better known as “the mayor of Central Park,” died recently at 94, and now a bronze plaque has been dedicated to him, to the applause of countless friends.
Alberto Arroyo started jogging at Central Park's Reservoir decades ago. All regular runners know him. He's known as The Mayor of Central Park. Click above for a short profile two students did of him in 2002.
A native of Puerto Rico who arrived in New York in 1935, Arroyo once said he began jogging around the Central Park reservoir in 1937, after a policeman told him he was bothering the horses while running on the bridal path. After retiring as an office clerk, he became a fixture at the track, circling the 1.6-mile course well into his 80s.

“Neither rain nor snow kept him from his appointed rounds,” said Adrian Benepe, the Parks Commissioner who formally dedicated the plaque. “I knew Alberto since I was a park ranger.”

Arroyo became a New York institution.

“He didn’t care if you were a beginning jogger, he would run alongside you,” Benepe said.
People arriving with dogs (and children and friends) at the bridge to the South Gate House of the Central Park Reservoir, to attend the plaque dedication.
Entry bridge to South Gate House.
The South Gate House.
The crowd begins to gather for the formal dedication of the plaque in honor of Alberto Arroyo.
He was there 10 hours a day. Everyone liked him, including those who never knew his name.

“He had friends in wheelchairs and friends in strollers,” said Edmund Mehring, a banker who initiated the creation of the plaque with a fellow runner, Suzanne Charle′. “He would not have been happy without friendship, and his friends were young and old, rich and poor, famous and not famous.”

(They included both Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who thanked him for a get-well card six days before she died in 1994, Anthony Quinn, Madonna and Dustin Hoffman.)
Adrian Benepe, Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, at podium. Douglas Blonsky, President of the Central Park Conservancy, at right, at dedication of the Alberto Arroyo plaque.
New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito. Like Arroyo, she grew up in Puerto Rico and liked to talk to Arroyo in his native Spanish. Suzanne Charle, a longtime jogger from the Upper West Side, who was instrumental in getting a plaque dedicated to Alberto Arroyo, shown here next to the plaque at the ceremony.
Edmund Mehring, a banker who helped to initiate the dedication of a plaque in Arroyo's honor.
“He had few worldly possessions and had taken a vow of poverty,” Mehring recalled. “He would tell me, ‘You have to be happy with nothing. I have cereal in the morning, fresh air in the afternoon and Chinese take-out at night.’ “

He lived a frugal life but liked to raise funds for the park.

“In the 1980s he helped with the restoration of the track,” said Douglas Blonsky, the president of the Central Park Conservancy, which paid for the fabrication of the plaque. “We worked together for 25 years.”
Jogging around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir where Arroyo circled the 1.6-mile course well into his 80s.
Arroyo raised $100,000 with help from Richard Traum, the president of Achilles International, a club for disabled runners. “No one remembers how many holes there used to be in the track,” Traum said. “Alberto donated his fortune to the Central Park Conservancy. He loved and protected this track.”

A few years ago a friend named Seton Melvin paid for a marker on Arroyo’s favorite bench, his perch for his last years, just opposite the gatehouse. “Thank you for making your life’s path one for generations to follow” it says.

At the dedication of the plaque, Benepe quoted a proclamation from Mayor Bloomberg that was delivered to Arroyo a few days before he died. It read: “Congratulations from a part-time mayor to the fulltime mayor.”
 
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