The Most Prestigious Address in the World

October 15, 2010

The distinctive yellow of the taxis.  The tumble of people and languages on the streets. The smells of the sidewalk right after the late summer shower. A sensory bombardment of images and memories that could only occur in this one place.

Every corner, if it hits me the right way, reminds me of my past.  I’ve walked the streets a million times.  It is NYC.  It is my home town.

A proud product of the city’s public schools, I could never see myself living anywhere else when I was a kid.  And now that I have lived in scores of other places, it is hard for me to think of moving back.

I currently live in Chicago – once the second and now the third city. Business took me back to Nueva York for 24 hours, and I am determined to find something to share, some insight.

Before I go on my quest, or do my business, I cannot help but notice one of the things I love/hate about NY. This is the view out of my $400 per night hotel window –

As I said, I Heart NY.

Anyway, my idol in journalism, CBS Newsman Charles Kuralt – once said that the assignment desk used to send him out to bring back a story – and along the way he would find something better and tell that one. Today my internal assignment desk is sending me to Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

I want to see what has become of it about 30 years after.

It is fall, and should be gorgeous, ringed with trees – changing color framing the glory of a skyline to be found nowhere else.

Frederick Law Olmsted was the genius who designed this park, before the city grew up around it, as well as its sister – Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where I fished for the first time, courtesy of the NYC Parks Department and A&S Department Store, and learned to ice skate at the Wollman Rink, not to mention had birthday parties, and rowed a boat and grew up.

In Central Park, Olmsted and his partner designed previously unimagined innovations – the first overpasses – to separate people from horse traffic, curvilinear walkways, and transplanted sierra vistas to Manhattan residents, because they saw their Park as an alternative to the angular concrete, steel and commercial outcroppings in the city.

Sheep Meadow, in Central Park, was first a parade ground, and later a pastoral field, one of many, but this one literally to be cared for by a Parks Department shepherd (how is that for a civil service designation!) and his flock – naturally trimming  and greening the lawn – and thus saving mowing and fertilizing expenses while adding to the re-creational effect of the pastoral scene.

When I came home from Yale after graduating with the first class of the School of Management, my second job was with a public organization having what I considered the most prestigious address I could find in the city.

I went off to study at Yale because I wanted to be a public administrator.  A great one.  I had dreams of doing like Robert Moses. And the new School of Management at Yale was designed to train the public administrator in the sciences of the business administrator, and the business administrator in the heart of the public administrator.

The address – The Arsenal, Central Park, New York, New York.   I would work in Central Park.  In the middle of the Zoo (literally and figuratively), no less.

My first job upon graduation from  SOM was at 2 World Trade Center, another great address, but how I got there and what I did there, and why I left is another story, for another day.

I was hired by the first Central Park Administrator, Elizabeth Barlow, to be her management analyst, and help her:

  • Figure out ways to raise money from the New Yorkers of all shapes sizes and incomes who loved the park as they did no other place in NY
  • Interface with the Parks Department bureaucracy
  • Figure out how to extract more work from a decimated NYC Civil Service workforce that had undergone round after round of cut-backs… to the point where Landscape Architects and Recreation Specialists were reduced to emptying garbage cans – and shepherds and sheep… well, they were a story told by grand-dads to their disbelieving grand-kids. After all, this was NYC.

But as a NYC kid, there really was no greater place than Sheep Meadow to hear free concerts by the NY Philharmonic, or the Metropolitan Opera, or play pick-up games of touch football with millionaires, or bums, trust fund babies or street hustlers, movie or tv stars and regular people, or be a ringer on the Viking-Penguin softball team in the publisher’s league that played weekly in the evening right there on Sheep Meadow against teams from the Gray Lady herself – the New York Times, or The Village Voice or Random House and the rest.

The great peace demonstrations of the 60’s and 70’s ended on the Meadow.  The Gay Pride Parades, and the Puerto Rican Day Parades and all of the wonderful street demonstrations and public gatherings.  It was truly a multi-use 15 acres.

But the lawn was no more.  It was mostly dust.

As I remember it, our Governor – New York’s Hugh Carey came to hear the Met perform on a day when the wind was blowing a bit.  It was more like a Scirocco, and I don’t mean car.  Apparently there was so much sand, he could barely see the stage.  At which point he turned to our Parks Commissioner, Gordon Davis, and said something along the lines of – I will find you a million bucks.  FIX IT!

Now this was a really big deal.  The city was broke and practically defaulting on its bank loans. But the big guy said do it and it would be done.  Gordon turned to Betsy Barlow who turned to me.   Fortunately the professionals of the Parks Department knew how to build and maintain their jewels.  I was the guy who had to write the management plan to justify the political decision. It was easy, because that was what my boss wanted, and her boss wanted, and his boss wanted.  But I am not sure it was what I wanted.

Certainly behaviors would have to change if sod were laid. And I liked the behaviors that happened there currently, thank you very much.

Sod meant a sprinkler system.  Sod meant no more free concerts with 100,000 attendees.  Sod meant no more baseball, or softball, or football, or Frisbee, or tens of thousands of people gathered in a giant demonstration or display of pride.

And worst of all – Sod meant a fence would have to go around the site so it could be policed.

This set me off into a serious existential crisis.

Where was the public input?  What if people liked playing softball, or touch football, or demonstrating there. I certainly did. By what right did all those activities for those thousands of people – simply stop, because someone had a little dust in their eye?

I understood re-creation not only meant curves and peace and quiet activity.  Recreation also meant baseball and softball.  But there were already 26 other baseball and softball fields in the Park.

Clearly these weren’t enough. But they would just have to do.

And there would be other meadows or fields – other places for massive concerts and gatherings.

And… and… and…

I wrote the plan, and the construction was started, but I was so conflicted that I eventually left public service uncertain of what my future would bring.  I found it hard to decide what I would favor as public policy, let alone what was in the public’s interest. Ultimately, the anarchy I favored in this most public of public squares was incompatible with either scientific management or pastoral recreation.

And so, I left my job at the most prestigious address in the world, and through a series of wanderings and fortunate occurrences, found myself about a year later, a reporter at the smallest CBS-TV and Radio Station Group in the US – In Fairbanks, Alaska.

And as for Sheep Meadow.  I can almost hear the disbelieving kids.  You mean Geraldo was once young enough to play touch football here? Who is Geraldo, anyway? And why can’t we play football here now!

And as for the Park and the Meadow – they never looked better.

And after decades of moving and living and working in fabulous places, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most prestigious address has always been, and will always be, the one that describes where I am, now, at this very moment, wherever it may be.



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