Central Park is in full bloom as I write this; the orange Gates that lit up the park in the gloom of February are a faint after-image. The grand achievement of Christo and Jeanne Claude is overshadowed by the changing seasons and the press of daily life in this impossibly busy city. But think back to the Gates for a moment: was there ever in our New York experience a public art event so successful on so many levels? Was there ever one that so captured the imagination of people who don’t ordinarily flock to see conceptual art? And yet only a few months after the Gates were taken down, in a move that surprised the public for its stealth, the Bloomberg administration opened another chapter of the park numbers game by signaling that it would limit gatherings on the Great Lawn to fifty thousand people or less.
If it remains in effect, this policy will bar not only large concerts, but also political rallies such as the one the mayor and the Police Department refused to permit during the 2004 Republican National Convention. As a sociologist who studies the life of urban public spaces, I am worried about the privatization of public spaces; and like many New Yorkers, I fear the loss of Central Park as a gathering place for rallies and demonstrations. Because I had an insiders’ view of the Gates installation, I want to use it to reflect on some critical issues of art, community, and public space.
Central Park manager Doug Blonsky called me for a meeting at his office a few weeks before the Gates were to be placed along the park’s pathways. The Mayor’s Office and the Central Park Conservancy, which Blonsky also heads, were getting signals that hotel reservations were skyrocketing for the weeks in February when the Gates would be up. There was a great deal of official interest in knowing how many people would actually come to the Park. Could I devise a method of counting visits to the park during the two weeks of the Christo event? With students and colleagues at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, I had often been called on to conduct surveys of park users, and I frequently consult on planning issues or problems of conflict in the park, so perhaps I was a logical choice for the assignment. But it’s no small chore to count park visitors and come up with credible numbers. In fact, the problem of figuring out how people use a park raises broader issues about public places as public goods.
In Capitalism and Freedom, economist Milton Friedman questions the need for government funding of parks (along with many other things that we often hope governments will provide). There is no reason, Friedman argues, for the federal government to use public funds for national parks, because they usually are accessible through a limited number of roads, where entrance fees can easily be collected. Only those who wish to visit the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, or any of the federally managed natural and historic pa...
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