East Coast Shoot, Day 7 continued: drug busts in palace grounds

July 2, 2009

It was a gorgeous day in Central Park.  The early summer heat was not yet oppressive, and visitors to the park came out in happy hordes.

We sat with Adrian Benepe, commissioner of New York City Parks, in a section of the Ramble, the woodlands area just north of Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, on an elegant bank that gave us an exquisite view of Bow Bridge.  On that Friday afternoon, we all felt like we’d arrived at the Four Seasons of city parks:  the lake was filled with joyous (and noisy) boaters, the grass was expertly manicured, Bethesda Terrace and Bow Bridge were shining, nary a napkin or water bottle lay on the ground, and there was soap in all the public bathrooms.

Bethesda Terrace

Then the Commissioner told us a story about how, when working as a park ranger here in 1979, he almost got shot during a drug bust, mere feet from the clean, peaceful oasis of green in which we were sitting.  “I was walking along that path,” he said, motioning to the footpath that leads from Bethesda Terrace to Bow Bridge, “when I heard  someone shout, ‘Don’t move [expletive]!’  Then there were gunshots, and I got down on the ground.”  Animated, he described the ensuing chase, and the kung-fu kick that the officer laid into the drug dealer’s back, taking him down on the ground.

Bethesda Terrace, the romatic spot of weddings and bluegrass quartets that we witnessed this past weekend, mere decades ago was one of the most notorious spots for drug dealing in the city.  Olmsted and Vaux’s vision, which Benepe described  as “effectively creating palace grounds for common people,” in the 1970s and early 1980s, was covered with graffiti and litter.

Commissioner Benepe and Bow Bridge

Commissioner Benepe and Bow Bridge

How did the city make the turnaround?  “You need to shoot for perfection,” he said.  “You should create a wonderful and elegant park experience, and people will rise to it…Litter attracts litter.  Graffiti attracts graffiti,” he said, meaning, essentially, if you build it, they will come.

And come, they have.

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