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At park's helm, a man with green in his veins

June 02, 2003|GERALDINE BAUM

"I don't think most New Yorkers really appreciate Central Park," says Adrian Benepe, a New Yorker who really does. "They love it for softball fields or jogging paths or playgrounds. But they don't know its soul, really." And how could they?

Twenty-five million people enter the park every year never knowing what an extraordinary act of human imagination this place is. Never mind the green vistas and trickling rivulets. The true miracle of Central Park is that a century and a half ago an unlikely ban of elite visionaries imagined a city that did not exist would grow up around a park that did not exist. And that's exactly what happened.

In 1853, the state set aside more than 700 acres of rutted roads and tangled forests in the heart of the island of Manhattan. Squatters, their hogs and acres of brush were cleared away for a public park, the first of its kind in this country. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed a work of landscape art with hills, bridges and waterfalls.

Rocks were laid out artfully at the edges of a lake so small children could catch tadpoles without falling in.

From the start, Central Park was more beautiful than nature itself. It looked like a Hudson River Valley painting and served rich and poor equally as a place to escape the city without ever leaving it.

Now New York is celebrating the150th birthday of this human construction with museum exhibits, walking tours, lectures, lawn bowling, races, fireworks and a big party in mid-July.

But it is celebration enough to take a long walk with Benepe, on a fine morning, to his favorite spot in this mythic oasis in the middle of an equally mythic city.

Benepe is the 14th commissioner of Parks and Recreation for New York City. He oversees 28,312 acres of parkland throughout the five boroughs. But it is easy to see that his commitment to urban nature began and still thrives in Central Park. He has lived much of his life there. As a young boy, he rolled down its hills into piles of leaves (and dog manure). By the time he was a teenager, Benepe had a summer job cleaning park bathrooms, and later sold soup from an illegal pushcart.

After college, Benepe became an urban park ranger and rose through the parks department bureaucracy, which meant doing everything from giving tours to preschool children to telling 100,000 people at a rock concert not to forget, please, to pick up their garbage. He even got married there 20 years ago at his favorite spot, around 103rd Street, under an old English elm tree at the bottom of a sloping hillside.

Last winter at City Hall when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg named him the commish, Benepe accepted, saying: "I like to joke that if you cut me, I bleed green."

A compact man of 46, Benepe is the sort who often breaks into song -- the theme from "Davy Crockett" or "SpongeBob SquarePants." His relentless enthusiasm makes him seem like some crazed high school principal who knows every corner of his campus and every student on it. And so he greets rangers by name as well as two of the park horses, Ben and Jerry.

All conversations stop when he spots something new in bloom and effortlessly identifies it by the Latin name. He fusses over anything out of place and is forever doling out directions to lost souls -- his driver, a cranky tourist, small children painting watercolors near a waterfall.

One recent morning in a fit of spunk, he removed his suit jacket but not his good shoes to climb into a waterfall to point out a pipe that makes that seemingly natural phenomena work. To him, Central Park is a 19th century Disneyland, with everything made to look "as it exists in nature. Only better." Much of what is beautiful in the park may seem to the unformed eye to have been put there by the hand of God. But, in fact, Central Park is a miracle of human engineering and imagination. Which is what this anniversary is all about.

"It celebrates that Central Park is a creation and not some big piece of land that somebody threw a fence around," he says, admiring a blade of grass and making it whistle.

But as important as the act of creation was the act of preservation. Like the city around it, the park has survived periods of considerable neglect -- most recently in the 1960s, when a crime-fearing New York considered removing all the parks' shrubs so that muggers would have no place to hide.

A decade later, the ball fields and the Great Lawn were a dust bowl, and the walls of Belvedere Castle were falling into a lake.

It was at the peak of this disrepair that Benepe became a ranger in 1979. But that year was also a turning point when the restoration of the Sheep Meadow began, and one of Benepe's first tasks was to diplomatically tell people to stay off the sod.

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