Want to Relax in One of New York City’s Parks? Join the Crowd
New York Times
August 3, 2016
Staircases were barred. People could barely move. Workers implored everyone to quit stepping on the flowers.
“There’s seriously an insane amount of people here,” exclaimed Brian Ciccotelli, 35, a sales training manager, who posted a video on YouTube.
This mass of humanity was not rushing toward commuter buses or trains, but descending on the High Line — in fact so many people tried to squeeze in that the park had to close.
Across New York City, outdoor time used to be the perfect antidote to the bustle and frustration of urban life.
Not anymore. Today, it can just add to the stress.
More people than ever are jamming into the city’s public parks, pools and beaches, filling the most popular ones to bursting, creating noise and trash problems and making the experience altogether less enjoyable for those looking for a bit of serenity.
Central Park alone will see a record 42 million visits from residents and tourists this year, up from 35 million in 2011, according to estimates by the Central Park Conservancy, which has rolled out a campaign to raise money to repair the wear and tear on the park’s infrastructure.
Just south of there, Bryant Park, a six-acre shaded oasis among Midtown high-rises, now packs in huge lunch crowds year round. More than 3,000 people came at peak lunch hours on each of 112 separate days in 2015 compared with 74 days in 2010. Bathroom lines have grown as well over that period, increasing to 62,000 users in a single month (August) from 56,000 users.
And across the East River, Brooklyn Bridge Park has become a wildly popular destination for a surging number of park-goers. Opened in phases since 2010, it has seen its weekend attendance more than double, to 127,307 last year from 63,408 in 2011.
Of course, the city’s prime recreational areas have long been crowded, especially the beaches that have been a release for generations of apartment dwellers. Look no further than the photographer Weegee’s classic 1940 black-and-white shot of the beach in Coney Island with bathers covering nearly every speck of sand.
But at a time when tourism is soaring and the city’s population, 8.5 million, is larger than ever, the sprawling public park system — 2,000 parks, 55 outdoor pools and eight beaches — has never been busier, according to park officials, volunteers and conservancy groups.
City beaches drew a record 22.8 million visitors last year, up from 18.1 million the year before, in part as the city has completed rebuilding areas damaged by Hurricane Sandy. In the Rockaways, construction has brought a boardwalk, bathrooms, restaurants and more people — 7.7 million visitors last year, up from 4.2 million the year before.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the elbows were out as dozens of beachgoers crammed into a stretch of the Rockaways shoreline near 90th Street. It was gridlock on the sand — so many bodies on blankets or under umbrellas that moving without bumping someone was a challenge. A young woman tried to make her escape to the waves only to be whacked on the shoulder by a Frisbee. She rolled her eyes, then kept walking.
Even the surfers felt crowded. Switchaya Yingseree, 29, an interior architect, said experts and beginners all jostled for room. “I think surfing here is like getting a yellow cab in the city,” she said. “There’s a board everywhere you turn.”
The pools are often no better. At McCarren Park in Brooklyn, pool attendance climbed to 150,149 last year, from 129,732 in 2014. One visitor, Ida Herrington, said that after standing in line for an hour some days, there was hardly a sliver of water to swim in. The best she can do is find a spot to cool off.
“If it’s really a hot day, don’t expect to swim,” Ms. Herrington warned. “It’s an outdoor bath tub.”
With more people also comes more trash and noise. The throngs at the nearly 60-acre Astoria Park leave behind so much garbage — pizza boxes, soda cans, chip bags, wrappers — that the Astoria Park Alliance, a group of volunteers, has increased its cleanups, bought additional trash cans for the park and handed out plastic bags to visitors.
At the southern tip of Manhattan, seven million visitors annually — compared with one million more than a decade ago — descend on the 25-acre Battery, a park that in the 1990s was mostly a walkway for commuters heading to ferries. In the last two years, as newly planted lawns and gardens have opened, the Battery Conservancy has raised $150,000 to pay for seasonal workers to pick up trash and clean bathrooms and wants to add more next year, said Hope Cohen, the chief operating officer.
Adrian Benepe, a senior vice president for the Trust for Public Land who served as the city’s parks commissioner from 2002 to 2012, said crowded parks were becoming a problem in many neighborhoods.
Though his office is just blocks from Washington Square Park, Mr. Benepe said he rarely went there just to relax. Too many people. “There are some parks that are crowded from morning to night,” he said. “In some cases, it’s no longer an oasis.”
On a single weekday in May last year, 54,000 people — more than enough to fill Yankee Stadium — visited Washington Square Park. Workers have to hustle to keep up lawns and flower beds that were redone just a few years ago and empty trash cans before they overflow. The two dog runs can get so packed on weekends that some regulars stay away.
The day after the High Line was overwhelmed by the turnout for its event, Gonzalo Casals, a vice president of Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit that oversees the park, sent a mass email in apology, acknowledging that “our preparations for the event were not what they should have been.”
Attendance at the High Line more than tripled to 7.6 million visitors last year from two million in 2010. Cub Barrett, a spokesman for the High Line group, said crowd control had been enforced only a few times, during the park’s initial opening in 2009 and again when it added new sections in 2011 and 2014.
This year, New York City park officials have spent $6 million to hire 500 additional seasonal workers to clean and maintain heavily used neighborhood parks and playgrounds. They are extending the beach and pool season past Labor Day and expanding free programs such as outdoor movie nights, swim lessons and yoga classes.
The city has also refurbished existing parks and recreation areas to maximize their use, including transforming an underused asphalt strip at City Line Park in Brooklyn. A $285 million program started in 2014 directs improvements to historically underfinanced parks. The city has also sought to create parks in high-density neighborhoods, acquiring 261 acres of new parkland in the past five years. In total, there are 500 projects at new and existing parks in the works.
Liam Kavanagh, the first deputy parks commissioner, a 35-year veteran of the parks department, attributed the increasing park use to lower crime, improving park conditions and a growing city. “There are absolutely more people using parks,” Mr. Kavanagh said. “When I started, there were a million less people in the city. And here they are, and they want to use the parks, too.”
Not everyone minds the crowds. Tobi Bergman, the chairman of the local community board that oversees Washington Square Park, said people loved going to public parks because they were “the city’s democratic places” serving as a common ground for rich and poor alike.
“While sometimes parks do get crowded — and that’s a problem for some people — I think we have to recognize how important parks are,” said Mr. Bergman, 69, a retired chief of operations for Central Park. “The parks that have problems are the ones that are not well used.”
For others, going outdoors is not what it used to be.
Sharon Ascher, a visual artist and designer in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said that when she first started going to watch sunsets along her neighborhood waterfront, she had to pick her way through garbage on the ground. But after the city cleaned the area and opened WNYC Transmitter Park in 2012, she has been joined by a lot more people.
“It used to be a place where you could go and find a little peaceful space and really feel like you were in the country,” she said. “Now it’s becoming harder and harder to find that space because it’s not a secret any longer.”