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Green apple of Big Apple’s eye is turning 150

New York, June 3 (Reuters): New York’s Central Park, one of America’s most famous public green spaces, turns 150 this year, and its friends are throwing a party.

Gallery shows, jazz and opera performances, scholarly gatherings and Shakespeare productions are set to run through the summer and autumn. The highlight is a day-long party on July 19, capped by a free evening concert by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli on the park’s Great Lawn.

Sprawling across 843 acres in the middle of Manhattan, Central Park is larger than Monaco. Some 25 million people visit each year to stroll along its 93 km of pathways, sit on one of its 9,000 benches or admire its 26,000 trees.

It took about $14 million to buy the land and build the park — about $260 million in today’s dollars. That cost was about twice the amount it cost the US to purchase the entire state of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

As part of the birthday festivities, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently opened an exhibition on the park’s creation, Central Park: A Sesquicentennial Celebration.

The park’s design came from an 1857 competition that drew 33 entries. The winning plan, on display at the museum along with the surviving losers, was submitted by London-trained architect Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who became America’s most prominent landscape architect.

Their grand Victorian vision took 16 years to fulfil and required a major overhaul of the area. “One of the big myths about Central Park is that it represents the original landscape of Manhattan,” said Edwin Burrows, co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Vaux and Olmsted had to wrest the park out of a rocky, muddy area of hills and swamps. “It didn’t look anything like it does now,” Burrows said.

As well as the huge cost of building the park, the project brought with it a human cost as well. Although upper Manhattan was sparsely populated at the time, the city still had to evict some 1,600 people who were living there in shanty towns, including Irish pig farmers and German gardeners. A black community, Seneca Village, was also uprooted.

The Central Park Conservancy reckons its birthday was July 21, 1853 — when the New York state legislature authorised the creation of a public park in the heart of the rapidly growing metropolis at the state’s southern tip.

The drive to build the park stemmed from a mixture of motives, said Roy Rosenzweig, co-author of The Park and the People, a history of the park. Real-estate interests wanted to develop uptown property, merchants longed for a public space like London’s Hyde Park or the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and rich folk simply wanted a place to drive their carriages.

Others had more altruistic concerns. “Some people had more of a social-reform vision of the park as the lungs of the city, of uplifting and reforming the unruly classes,” he said.

Although the park today closely resembles the Vaux-Olmsted design, it continues to evolve. After John Lennon was murdered in 1980 in front of the Dakota, the building where he lived facing the park, his widow, Yoko Ono, donated $1 million to landscape a 2.5-acre parcel across the street.

Called Strawberry Fields after a 1967 Beatles song, the area includes a black-and-white mosaic bearing the word Imagine — the title of one of Lennon’s most enduring songs. On evenings and weekends, fans gather to play Lennon’s tunes.

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