History isn’t the Past

Featured image
Looking south from the north end of the Great Lawn in Central Park. Photo: JH.

October 7, 2020.  A beautiful early Autumn day in New York with lots of Sun, and big, pearly cumulus clouds moving under the  lots of blue sky.

History isn’t the Past, it’s the present as seen in the Past. I was reminded of this yesterday. On this beautiful day, I went over to Central Park to the Women’s Committee Picnic for the Park (which was generously sponsored by Nordstrom, the new department store on 57th Street and Broadway).

I mentioned the sponsor because it all falls into the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy — all that was raised by the Committee is money for the upkeep and improvements in the Park. 

The Women’s Committee was started 40 years ago, by Norma Dana, Jean Clark, Maggie Purnell, and Phyllis Cerf Wagner. They were women with foresight and the get-up-and-go to do it. They came together because by that time the Park, then more than a century old, was getting very run down from age, use, and lack of care. The Missus Dana, Clark, Purnell and Wagner put their heads together and came up with many ideas for restoration.

Over the years, the Committee has raised many many millions and also connected the Park to many more millions over the years with their events. Their biggest (most publicized) event is the annual Hat Lunch that NYSD has been happily covering for 25 of those years.  Last year it raised $4 million. Their philanthropy is for EVERYBODY.

The scene at last year’s Hat Lunch.

This year’s “picnic” luncheon was the adapted replacement of their annual fundraiser luncheon which has taken place in previous years at this time at the Mandarin Oriental. You may also have read about that in the NYSD. Like everything these girls do, it is a great luncheon with a speaker and moderator. This year, the Speaker was the Park itself.

The situation was of course altered by the seemingly ongoing pandemic which has changed not the face, but the pace of New York these days. The Women’s Committee, however, is dedicated and unstoppable. The show must go on, somehow or another.

Following the rules.

This particular annual luncheon which has always drawn about 200 guests, was based on Mother Nature’s agreement  since it was out of doors. Eleanora Kennedy’s invitation first stated that it was to be held Monday in the Park. Then the weather forecasters stepped in and predicted Rain. The change turned out to be perfect.

I’ve been to the Park thousands of times like millions of others in and around New York. Each time it’s new. This year, because of social distancing, the “picnic” was held in various locations. My invitation called for attendance at the Bethesda Fountain terrace on the edge of the lake.

I arrived at the entrance on 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue. I had passed by but never noticed before the actual gateway with a plaque now weathered after more than 60 years. I read it for the first time:

The Inscription on this gate
And the Adjacent
Landscape improvement
were donated to the
City of New York
In Memory of her parents
June 2, 1954

I was late because of other commitments demanding, but fortunately Eleanora called to remind me (“where are you?!”). But on arrival I was inspired by Ms. Kerbs’ donation.  The Bethesda Fountain is a brief hike along some winding paved pathways. And then when you arrive the view of the plaza, the fountain, the lake and the visitors, you’re impressed all over again by the grandeur in partnership with Mother Nature, who provided the ideal day.

The view on arrival from the top of the steps. You can see my “picnic” located underneath the green banner.

Walking down the steps toward the tables (there were three — two of eight, and one of six) on the left hand corner of the plaza. I studied the view.

Bethesda Fountain and its centerpiece, Angel of the Waters, an eight-foot bronze angel who stands above four small cherubim representing health, purity, temperance, and peace.
The waterfowl gliding across the Lake looking for a little snack. Or lunch.

On the opposite side of the terrace, there was what looked like a wedding party with photographers. This is a not-uncommon scene in the Park, a beautiful location for the beauty of the occasion. Although in this case, I realized later when leaving, that the bride, who was very pretty, was also leaving with the photographer and an associate – it was a professional occasion which we’ll probably see someday in a magazine.

The wedding party.

There were eight at my table including my hostess Eleanora along with Sima Ghadamian, Sheila Labrecque, Robyn Joseph, Amanda Taylor, Grace Meigher and Wendy Carduner. I was number eight. And late. They’d all finished their main course – which when arrived at table which was waiting for me in a big basket (which you could take home, and I did). As you can see by the photograph I took, I missed getting Grace and Wendy (duh!).

The ladies who picnic in the Park: Eleanora Kennedy, Sima Ghadamian, Sheila Labrecque, Robyn Joseph, Amanda Taylor, the right shoulder of Grace Meigher, and next to her, the hands of Wendy Carduner who has hosted me many times at the famous Hat Luncheon in the Park.

Conversation at the table wandered because of the surroundings. Beauty everywhere. And peeking over the trees we could see some of the very tall buildings nearby. Our table overlooked the Loeb Boathouse which has a popular restaurant inside. But amidst this metropolis of noise and pandemonium, we were only a couple of blocks away in Paradise.

Eleanora Kennedy welcoming fellow Committee members.

I was reminded of a passage I’d read long ago from the Diaries of George Templeton Strong, who was a prominent New Yorker in the middle of the 19th Century. In those days Mr. Strong lived in the City that was entirely way downtown and had grown in size only to the canal where Canal Street exists today.

Strong’s entry was dated somewhere in the middle of 1859. It recounted a trip he’d been invited to make, by horse and carriage, up to the newly created The Central Park. He recounted the rough ride over hilly, rocky territory, not smooth with ups and downs of the undeveloped land. Manhattan was rocky, rough and stony along the primitive path. 

The objective of his exploratory trip was to see the excavation that had just been completed by explosives of what is now and has been for more than a century, the pond on the Southern most tip across from what is now the Plaza Hotel (which was constructed almost 50 years later in 1906).

Strong described the landscape well enough to get a picture of  wilderness just being tinkered with by man building. There was nothing beautiful about a big empty excavation with mountains of removed dirt surrounding it, and he was quick to point that out. There were no buildings or neighbors —  other than the previous shanties that occupied that part of the territory). It was ugly. 

He had to admit it. But — and here is what struck me, and has stayed with me about his view — despite the earth’s starkness, he wrote in so many words: “In a hundred years, this will be a beautiful park” that will be the pleasure of all New Yorkers to love and enjoy.

Finishing the staircase at Bethesda Terrace, 1862.

George Templeton Strong was right, of course, and far-seeing. I was struck by his perception of our times on this land, and how we at this time don’t see ahead of our own lifetimes in terms of goodness. Such was the sensibility of a New Yorker back at the beginning of this great city. And many other New Yorkers who funded and foresaw the creation of the Park which would be the city’s heart, and still is. And how right George Strong was.

I have to add that the invitation to picnic was as follows:

MASK REQUIREMENTS: As required by city and state regulations, we kindly ask that you wear a mask or face covering and maintain 6 feet of social distancing when not seated. Masks may be removed when seated at your table.

The guests at my table felt compelled to wear their masks. Just this side of being invisible. Everyone kindly removed them for the photo. Something Mr. Strong, with his great foresight, could not have foreseen about us New Yorkers one hundred and eighty-one years later. But then, you had to be here.

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