History tours of Central Park, New York city explore the dark side

The Tavern on the Green on Central Park, one of New York's most historic restaurants, is a movie star. But can you remember which film made you decide to put this quintessential Central Park institution on your "must-do" list?

Oliver Stone's Wall Street? Bette Midler in Beaches? Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors? The scene in Ghostbusters where Rick Moranis's character is chased by a demon?

My movie memory - Jim Carey in 2011's Mr Popper's Penguins - comes to mind during a sumptuous lunch of jumbo crab cakes with curried apple relish, followed by grilled local brook trout Almondine in the tavern's recently reinvented chandelier-illuminated restaurant.

From its grand opening in 1934, "the tavern" cemented itself as a Manhattan icon. In 2007, it was the second highest grossing restaurant in the US, beaten only by somewhere in Las Vegas. But then bankruptcy, the loss of a liquor licence and proven allegations of sexual and racial discrimination saw it close from 2010 till 2012.

Before he became President, Donald Trump offered to rescue it on a 20-year lease. But the then mayor, failed 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, never responded. Still, it reopened in May 2014.

And it is here we meet our Central Park walking tour guide, Adrienne Nguyen. She is waiting outside, eager to share some of the darker stories about one of the world's most famous parks. "See the tavern's emblem," asks Nguyen - a postgraduate at New York University in Greenwich Village. "Why two sheep?"

Because, Nguyen explains, Tavern on the Green was designed by architect Calvert Vaux in the 1880s to house 700 Southdown sheep grazing in the park's sheep meadow.

Central Park guides usually focus on the positive. They'll tell you the first landscaped park in an American city was a benevolent gesture, conceived in the salons of America's extravagantly rich "aristocracy". They maintain it was an egalitarian project, providing the overcrowded metropolis with a huge "lung" rivalling London's Hyde Park or Paris's Bois de Boulogne. That the vision was for a park that all New Yorkers could enjoy - whatever their income, creed or colour.

If that's the kind of commentary you want, don't ask for Nguyen, a guide for Big Onion Walking Tours. This company, founded in 1991, is recommended by The Village Voice for its use of opinionated and passionate local guides who love their city - and all of its flaws.


Her first question is: Why were these 3.4 million square metres selected for a park? A classic example of visionary urban planning? Not quite, Nguyen insists. By the 1850s, New York's ultra wealthy were moving north, building mansions far away from the industrial, poverty-stricken hubbub in lower Manhattan. Among the "undesirables" the rich were fleeing were African-Americans escaping slavery in the Deep South. Others were "godless" orientals. But the worst scourge, says Nguyen, were the Irish Catholics. (Exhibit 1: Martin Scorsese's 2002 movie, Gangs of New York.) So the main purpose of Central Park, says Nguyen, was to create a buffer between rich and poor.

Manhattan had been levelled to facilitate the avenue/street grid that became the norm for modern cities. Yet this central part of Manhattan was unsuitable for construction, consisting of swamps, rocky outcrops and the city's old reservoir. But it was not , uninhabited.

Around 1600 people lived here - including 250 African Americans who had created Seneca village, with three churches and a school. T

All were swept off the land. In 1858, a design competition for the new park was won by landscape artist Frederick Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. Vaux's contribution is less conspicuous, since he was only allowed to design four buildings, yet his four road tunnels under Central Park have contributed mightily to the park's appeal.

Olmsted, torn between the unspoilt beauty of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York and the manicured Arcadian follies of Marie Antoinette's Versailles, delivered everything in one park: sheep meadow, boating lake, Italianate grottos, Belle Epoque fountain, ice-skating rink and marionette theatre.

Thousands of Irish, German and other dirt-poor immigrants built Central Park. But they were precisely the kind of people discouraged from using it. Nguyen cites the baseball fields. "There were no signs saying 'Rich Kids Only'," she says. "But boys playing baseball needed a headmaster's note saying they had permission to miss school. Working class kids didn't go to school…'

Even so Central Park soon became a much-loved destination by many, and sprouted two "battles" to save it. The firstwas organised by an army of wealthy white women after Robert Moses - Manhattan's equivalent of Paris's Baron Haussmann - proposed a children's playground be demolished to make way for a bigger Tavern on the Green car park. Big mistake. On April 17, 1956, wrecking crews arrived to find a barricade of mothers, prams and babies lining up against the bulldozers. "MOMS v MOSES" screamed the tipped-off Daily News.

The second "battle" a few years later was even more benign. Sunday music lovers attending regular free open air concerts at Naumburg Bandshell were surprised to find there were no longer any free seats. Suddenly you had to hire seats (thanks to a corrupt bureaucrat, Nguyen says).The protest - which saw concert goers bringing their own fold-up chairs to a venue which has since witnessed a speech by Martin Luther King and a eulogy to John Lennon - now regularly presents free concerts again.

Wereach the bandshell via the park's "Literary Walk". Shakespeare's statue marks the entrance here, followed by monuments to two Scottish giants, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Nguyen pauses alongside the statue of Fitz-Greene Halleck, once known as "the American Byron" and read by Abraham Lincoln, but now largely forgotten. And he's not the only one it seems. "What do you notice about the statues in Central Park?" asks Nguyen. "There are no statues of real women. There's the Angel of the Waters at the Bethesda fountain, and Three Dancing Maidens in the Conservatory Garden. Otherwise Central Park only honours men."

Belvedere Castle, which is a Victorian folly rather than a castle, is closed for renovations when we visit. Vaux built it in 1869 as a romanticised look-out, and it still offers superb views across the park. Delacorte Theatre, nearby, holds free Shakespeare plays every summer. A bride is being photographed in a portico of Bethesda Terrace, designed by Vaux. Had she looked up she'd have seen Moorish-influenced ceramic panels designed by British-born ceramicist Jacob Wrey Mould.

Central Park has so many choice wedding photographic sites, including the Bethesda fountain, the Loeb Boathouse and surrounding boating lake, that entire websites are devoted to it, says Nguyen, as she warns us not to disturb couples gazing over the boating lake from Bow Bridge. It's the most popular proposal spot in the park.

Central Park Zoo, which began in the 1860s as a menagerie, is regarded as New York City's oldest zoos. Its great claim to fame came in 1874 when the New York Herald published a hoax story about a rhino, tiger, polar bear, panther and lion escaping - to considerable public alarm.

Another big attraction are the park's ponds and lakes which people have skated on since it opened. The official public Wollman Rink (donated by the Wollman family in 1949) is now operated by the Trump Organisation, as is the park's carousel - the park's fourth since 1871. An earlier version appears in JD Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye.

One name forever linked to the park is that of John Lennon. He lived in the Dakota Building, the historic apartment block on Central Park West where he was assassinated in December 1980. On October 9, 1985 - on what would have been his 45th birthday - a 10,000 square metre refuge in the park was reopened as Strawberry Fields, in honour of one of his songs and paid for partly by his widow, Yoko Ono.

The centrepiece of the "peace garden" - now one of the most visited parts of Central Park - is the Imagine mosaic, surrounded (reputedly) by one plant from every country in the world.

Another favourite spot is the model boat pond. Officially known as Conservatory Water, this is a throwback to less frenetic times. And yes, people still gather at weekends to race their model boats as seen in the original Stuart Little movie?

The Ramble - a woodland adventure in the middle of Manhattan - is the epicentre of Olmsted's dream of recreating the untamed majesty of the Catskills in the heart of the biggest city in the US. Our group pauses in front of a waterfall, cascading through a labyrinth of rocks.

"What do you notice about this?" Nguyen asks. "It's totally artificial. Each rock was placed here on Olmsted's orders."






Singapore Airlines' offers a daily service between Singapore and Newark Liberty International. The world's longest non-stop flight is on board an Airbus A350 and has no economy class seats, only premium economy and business class. i. See: Singaporeair.com

Australia's borders are currently closed under the federal government's COVID-19 restrictions. You can only leave the country after obtaining special permission from Border Force. See smartraveller.gov.au


Tavern on the Green. See tavernonthegreen.com


Big Onion Walking Tours cost $US25 a person. See bigonion.com

Steve Meacham was a guest of Singapore Airlines, NYC & Co, and Big Onion Walking Tours.