A Ride in the Park

If it's Fame and Fortune You Seek, Check Out New York City's Playground

By Nancy Luse | Posted on 07.24.13 – Destinations, Travel

Photo courtesy Central Park Conservary
Photo courtesy Central Park Conservary

Manhattan is known for money and celebrity—I’m thinking of our Midtown hotel that charges $5 for a Kit-Kat in the room’s snack bar and offers luxurious bath products so that everyone in the elevator smells of lemon grass. The celebrity moment, as it were, is when my friend hisses as we stroll down Central Park West: “Don’t turn around, but I swear that’s Meryl Streep’s daughter getting out of a car.”

If you want an entertaining combination of wealth and fame on your next trip to New York City, not to mention a brush with nature in the middle of concrete and skyscrapers:

There’s nothing better than a pedicab ride around Central Park with a delightfully chatty tour guide to point out where the rich and famous not only dwell, but also where some of their movies were filmed.

We enter the park at the western corner and fall in with Dorin Birca, a young man with an engaging smile and sturdy legs for peddling us around. We have the option of the $50 ride with no stops and the more leisurely $80 one that allows us to get off and mingle with the dog walkers, joggers and hot dog vendors, as well as examine some of the sites up close. What’s an extra $30 when you’re surrounded by buildings like The Pierre, a hotel that has a $73 million penthouse apartment for sale?

The tour starts with the Dakota, a co-op apartment on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. Built in the late 1800s and boasting high gables and multiple dormers, Birca says it got its name when Manhattan’s Upper West Side was so sparsely populated that people complained it was as far away as the Dakota Territory. More recently, the Dakota is known as where Beatle John Lennon lived and was killed in December 1980 by a gunman outside the building.

“You see the top floor? Where the triangle is? That’s where Yoko Ono still lives,” Birca says of Lennon’s widow. “I see her all the time.” Other residents are Sean Lennon and Roberta Flack, but when Bill Clinton, Madonna and Antonio Banderas wanted to call the Dakota home, the board of residents said “no.” More specifically, says Birca, “Yoko said no” because she didn’t want even more paparazzi lurking about the place.

Our guide, a European transplant now living in Queens, admits to being star-struck and says he’s amassing a photo collection of the VIPs who cross his path. He will approach anyone except Robert De Niro, whose film roles—from streetwise mobsters to a cranky dad—has possibly affected his demeanor. “He is all the time in a bad mood,” Birca says.

One Huge Rock

Central Park was built in the middle of Manhattan, an island that Birca describes as “one huge rock.” The park encompasses 843 acres and stretches from 59th to 110th streets. “Basically, the city was built around the park. It’s totally manmade,” he says, referring to the waterways, chiseled boulders, rolling lawns and wooded areas. “It was started in 1858 and they used more dynamite than they did in the entire Civil War.” The park contains the largest collection of American Elms in North America.

The Sheep Meadow—at one point, livestock was raised in the city—is known to New Yorkers as the “green beach of Manhattan” because it’s where they go to spread out blankets to picnic or catch some rays. Planted with Kentucky blue grass, there are times when the conservatory overseeing the park limits access so the massive lawn remains lush. Birca says the conservatory spends $30 million to $35 million a year for maintenance. Last year, an Eastside resident anonymously donated $100 million to the park.

The tour winds past long-time park staples such as the Wollman Rink, the park zoo and a carousel with handmade wooden horses that was once powered by real horses. The Dairy House harkens back to earlier farm days and was where Muppets Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog were married, Birca says. There are also newer attractions to point out on the tour, such as the building that was under construction during the wrath of Hurricane Sandy last year, a crane dangling precariously at the top.

Birca has been giving tours for about two years and has devoured information from tour books and by listening to other guides. He’s now able to rattle off facts and figures like a native New Yorker

“There’s where Good Morning America Friday concerts are held,” he says with a wave of his arm, adding that when Lady Gaga performed, her fans lined up Thursday and spent the night, the singer sending pizza and doughnuts to sustain them. Concerts are very much a part of the park, whether it was protest concerts during the Vietnam War or an elaborate 1964 performance by Barbra Streisand. Spur-of-the-moment music is also a Central Park experience. A lone saxophone is heard near the lake. When we visit Strawberry Fields—a spot memorializing John Lennon that garnered financial donations from people in 121 countries—there’s a guitarist on a bench singing “In My Life.”

Gone to the Dogs

As with any wide open space, Central Park is a natural attraction for those with dogs. A man on roller blades flies past with a bounding German shepherd tethered to a leash. Beagles are keyed to any squirrel sightings and poufy lap dogs try to bring out their inner wild nature.

One of their ancestors is immort-alized in bronze near the zoo. Erected 85 years ago, Balto is a sled dog poised on a rock outcropping. He was one of the heroes of a 1925 journey in Nome, Alaska, to mush 674 miles through a blizzard to fetch crucial diphtheria medicine. “Balto toured America and was quite popular,” Birca says. “They brought him here when they unveiled the statue. He didn’t even look at it; he wanted to pick a fight with another dog.”

That brings to mind that despite all the natural beauty surrounding the park, there’s also the dark side—the muggings and slayings that too often come with big cities. Birca points out a spot once popular as an open air market for drugs and guns. Various city administrations have responded to the crime threat, often by increasing a police presence. The park now closes from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.

Sometimes the crime in Central Park is manufactured by Hollywood. The guide tells us that the lake area alone was used in more than 300 movies, no doubt some of them action films.

Before the tour ends, Birca imparts just one more gem about fame and fortune, pointing out the building where comedian Jerry Seinfeld plunked down $1.4 million for the basement garage to store his extensive Porsche collection.

That’s a lot of Kit-Kat bars.