A literary stroll through Central ParkAugust 17, 2012: 7:27 AM ET
Distinguished writers evoke one of the world's great urban sanctuaries. A review of Central Park: An Anthology, edited by Andrew Blauner.
By Lawrence A. Armour, contributor
FORTUNE -- Susan Cheever's "My Little Bit of Country," her contribution to a delightful new collection of essays and short stories set in New York City's Central Park, could have easily been called "A Love Letter to My Favorite Place in the World."
Her earliest memories are of family strolls through the park after her father returned from World War II. Cheever recalls her good friend Joe, a chimpanzee, who entertained her and other visitors by roller-skating around the Central Park Zoo in a New York Giants baseball jersey. Years later, her own children would clamber over the park's statues and splash in its fountains.
Cheever also gives us a behind-the-scenes look at her Pulitzer-Prize winning father, John -- "an artist, but he liked to keep up appearances." Each morning, dressed in his Brooks Brothers suit, rep tie and felt hat, the elder Cheever would ride the elevator in their apartment building, accompanied by similarly dressed men who were heading out for work. But he would make a detour in the lobby and take the stairs to a windowless storage room in the basement, where he would deposit his suit on a hanger and sit, in his boxer shorts, at a typewriter, crafting short stories for the New Yorker and dreaming of the day he would write his first novel.
Central Park: An Anthology, edited by Andrew Blauner, contains another 18 stories, plus an introduction by Adrian Benepe, New York City's parks commissioner, and an epilogue by Doug Blonsky, president of the Central Park Conservancy. It's a fact-filled read that tells us what we need to know about how Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux turned 843 acres of polluted swamp and rocky outcroppings into a landscaped gem that opened for business in 1857; the "bad old days" of rampant crime, graffiti, abandoned buildings, and bare lawns; and the park's subsequent re-birth into a stunning collection of lush meadows, gardens, lakes, and trails that host roughly 40 million New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors each year.
It's also a fun read. The stories range from serious to light hearted, with many stops in between. They include fresh material as well as pieces that first appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, and excerpts from books by Paul Auster, Adam Gopnik, Donald Knowler and Colson Whitehead.
"The Sixth Borough," by Jonathan Safran Foer, is a charming fable that evokes Central Park in magical terms, as a stand-alone entity that started to drift away from the mainland and "was pulled, by the people of New York, like a rug across a floor, from the [fictional] Sixth Borough into Manhattan."
Nathaniel Rich's "Squawkeye and Gang on the Dendur Plateau" describes the Turkey-Lurkey Bowl, a Thanksgiving weekend football game that Rich and far-flung friends from high school play every year on a sloping field near the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In "Goodnight Moon," Ben Dolnick recounts how he took a job at the park's Children's Zoo so that he could find material to write about. Lily and Chili, two pot-bellied pigs, never gave him the time of day. But he grew close to Newman, a pure-white Nubian goat, who appeared in one draft of a novel as a Zelig-like figure who pops up in various guises, including a rabbi, a doctor, and a stand-up comedian.
In "Carp in the Park," David Michaelis explains how he and his sons bonded during catch-and-release fishing jaunts in a lake that once teemed with condoms and crud. In "The Hidden Life," Alec Wilkinson recalls childhood days at Turtle Pond, following the escapades of its inhabitants. His favorite was a snapper that "moved like a battleship among the flotillas of smaller turtles that gathered for handouts by the deck behind the Delacorte Theater." Snappers, we learn, are "the Greta Garbo of turtles, who keep to the bottom and emerge only to breathe."
My favorite story -- "Beastie," by Brooks Hansen -- is about a young boy named Phillip who lives in an apartment high above the park. One day, when Phillip's parents are away, one of his favorite baseball mitts goes missing. That night, with the help of a toy soldier he and his nanny had acquired that day, Phillip makes his way into the park where a Cheshire Cat, a rabbit in a dress coat, a buck-toothed dwarf in a top hat, and a slender girl with long hair provide moral support as he confronts the Beastie and retrieves the missing glove.
Adrian Benepe puts it perfectly in his introduction. "Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions," says Benepe, who will be wrapping up a decade as New York City Parks Commissioner on Labor Day and joining a national conservation group in San Francisco. "Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishment of the 19th century. Once you add people and time, it becomes an ever-evolving work of art and performance art."
Postscript: If Central Park sounds like your kind of book, you'll probably get a kick out of a 2011 cousin, Heart of the City. Sub-titled "Nine Stories of Love & Serendipity on the Streets of New York," it was written by Ariel Sabar, who takes us through Central Park, Washington Square Park, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, the Met and other iconic New York locations where chance meetings of strangers turned into lovely long-term relationships.
Our Weekly read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. Lawrence A. Armour is deputy editor of custom content for Fortune, Time, Money and Sports Illustrated.
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