Emerald Empire evicts autos

On June 27, the last sections of Central Park's loop drives will be closed to cars, returning the park to its original use as an urban refuge and recreation space. Photo: Clarrie Feinstein
For the first time since the 19th century, Central Park turns its back on the internal combustion engine, embraces anew its original purpose as an urban refuge


It was November 13, 1899, when the city granted legal permission for the first automobile, by permit only, to drive into Central Park.

After 119 years — and a backlash dating to 1906 that intensified over the past half-century — that green light is about to turn red.

Beginning on June 27, the park will become car-free, and the oasis that Frederick Law Olmsted once dubbed the “lungs of the city” will breathe a little easier.

“Our parks are for people — not for cars,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, who unveiled the ban two days before Earth Day and described it variously as “permanent,” “forever,” “for all times” and “irrevocable.”

His theatrical props were well chosen: Clad in a green tie and standing at the south end of the Mall, near the Balto Statue, Frisbee Hill and the Olmsted Flower Bed, the mayor declared, “Now, the Earth’s most iconic park will be car free.”

For more than a century, he said in the April 20 announcement, “Cars have turned parts of the world’s greatest park into a highway. Today, we take it back.”

Local elected officials were ecstatic. And City Hall rounded them all up for statements. “The perfect way to celebrate our planet,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“A historic decision,” said Council Member Keith Powers.

“A long-overdue victory for all New Yorkers and our environment,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal.

“Countless families, joggers and cyclists can now enjoy an even safer, healthier park space,” said Council Member Mark Levine.

“An oasis of calm and greenery is about to get even better,” said Assembly Member Richard Gottfried.

Not everybody shared their enthusiasm. The 6.1-mile park Loop affords a route the subway doesn’t provide, said taxicab driver Frank Elais. It can also offer a shortcut from midtown to LaGuardia Airport. Closing off park access limits options and eliminates faster routes that can bypass traffic congestion, he said.

“It will definitely be an inconvenience” for cabbies, Elais said near Columbus Circle on Monday. “Ultimately, it will make traffic worse in the city.”

Others interviewed near the park’s southern entrance applauded the ban, which goes into effect the day after public schools close and affects Center, East, West and Terrace Drives below 72nd Street. All park drives north of 79th Street have been permanently car-free since 2015, and the four transverse roads, at 66th, 79th, 86th and 96th Streets, will remain open to motor vehicles.

“It’s rare to be in a nature-only setting in Manhattan, so having no cars will really honor the park and how people experience it,” said bicyclist Rachel Admit.

“It’s more important for bikes and pedestrians to have this space,” said Clyde Stanton, a former cab driver who works at the Rent-A-Bike kiosk at Columbus Circle. “It’s easier for everyone if cars don’t drive in the park.”

Horse-drawn carriage driver Christina Hansen, a spokesperson for the industry, says the ban will improve both traffic and safety, noting that bike-renting tourists are often completely unaware that cars drive through the park.

“You have lanes for cyclists, joggers, pedestrians and horse carriages, and that’s all there should be,” she said.

How did cars penetrate the park in the first place? “In the 1890s, cars were a hobby for rich folks,” Hansen said. “They argued that if horses could ride through the park, they should also be able to do the same.”

The blowback was swift: In July 1906, a New York Times editorial lashed out at the noise, ostentation and “bad odor” emanating from vehicles it variously branded a “devil wagon,” “Blue Assassin,” “Red Juggernaut,” “Black Avenger” and “Yellow Terror.”

The purpose of the park was being “perverted,” The Times thundered, and a civic leader should step up, confront the “automobilists,” and say, “Ye shall not speed, ye shall not be noisy, ye shall not defile the air.”

By 1966, Mayor John V. Lindsay initiated car-free summer Sundays. The next year, weekend restrictions were extended year-round. In 1972, a few car-free hours were added on weekdays. In 1975, they were expanded.

But even as the first tentative efforts were made to squeeze out autos, parts of the great park became a hellhole. A sea of mattresses showed up for prostitution and drugs. The Sheep Meadow resembled a dust bowl, Belvedere Castle was caked with graffiti and attacked by vandals, needles floated in the Bethesda Fountain.

Lakes and streams resembled sewers and cesspools, and it wasn’t until the 1980s, after the founding of the Central Park Conservancy, that a turnaround began. That in turn spurred new efforts over three decades to close entrances to cars, curtail hours, discourage motorists and, ultimately, take the finally step to reclaiming the entire park.

“Wow!” said Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. “Now, we’re making history by demonstrating just how clean, accessible and safe an urban park can be.”

Douglas Feiden: invreporter@strausnews.com