Jan 27, 2016
When snow falls in New York City, the only thing to do is rug up and chill out in Central Park. Lance Richardson goes walking in a winter wonderland.
Every November or December a cold front curls across New York and drops the season’s first soft blanket of downy snow. You know to expect it when puddles freeze, breath turns to vapour and heating pipes groan as though the buildings themselves are being roused from slumber. That first fall is a sign of heavier storms to come and New Yorkers greet it with a mix of horror and delight. Horror from office workers who must spend the next four months commuting through salt and yellowing slush. Excitement from everyone else as they get to go to Central Park.
When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the expanded version of the park in 1858, they intended it as a pleasure garden for the city’s residents. They stuffed the plan with promenades and lakes, faux castles and labyrinthine trails that would offer respite from crowded living quarters. Think of Central Park as a giant communal backyard – the thing that makes Manhattan tolerable with its 1.5-million-plus population.
In warmer months, people stretch out under trees for picnics or see Shakespeare plays at the open-air Delacorte Theater. As the weather turns, though, the park transforms. The swimming pool becomes an ice-skating rink. Baseball games are replaced by snowball fights. Sunbathers give way to snow sledders who colonise the steep slope of Pilgrim Hill at 72nd Street or Cedar Hill at nearby 76th. The zoo remains open, its snow leopards thrust suddenly back into their element.
It is sometimes said that the most beautiful place in New York during a winter storm is Bow Bridge, the cast-iron structure that links Cherry Hill with the Ramble woodland. Resembling a violinist’s bow, the bridge is one of the most iconic spots in Central Park. During a blizzard the distant apartment buildings of the Upper West Side turn into shadowy monoliths and everything drains to black and white. Standing on its span can feel like being inside an old and fading memory.
From Bow Bridge it’s an easy stroll to Bethesda Fountain, where the Angel of the Waters statue looks over an icy world. Bethesda Terrace Arcade glows nearby like a hearth, with more than 15,000 patterned ceiling tiles illuminated in amber light. At the end of the arcade a grand staircase climbs towards another icon, The Mall, framed on both sides by towering American elms with branches that meet overhead in a way that recalls cathedrals.
My favourite thing, however, is the silence. Noise in New York can shred your nerves: sirens, engines, screeching, hip-hop, barking dogs. But somehow this all recedes after a good dusting of snow. When I need a break I head to an area called the North Woods, which is meant to resemble the Adirondack Mountains further upstate. The North Woods are about as wild as Manhattan gets, offering tangled pathways and a deep ravine. A coyote lived here for a while, having slunk over from the Bronx using railway tracks.
After the storms, with everything still, I like to walk into the middle of the woods and imagine myself surrounded by wilderness out west. The coyote is gone so I listen for birds instead. In colder months northern saw-whet owls come to Central Park in search of prey. If I’m feeling inquisitive, I might even join the Urban Park Rangers on a winter birding tour. The park is not as empty as it seems.
Frost takes its toll in the end. Revellers must leave the park to frigid darkness, retreating indoors. Even then it’s still possible to enjoy the park’s pleasures by heading to Bemelmans Bar in The Carlyle hotel, where Ludwig Bemelmans – creator of the Madeline children’s books – painted a wraparound mural of Central Park through the seasons. Dazzling and cheeky, the mural depicts rugged-up rabbits and an elephant ice-skating beneath oversized snowflakes.
It’s impossible not to be charmed, sitting at a banquette, sipping a martini. A pianist plays jazz. People stream in from the city outside, shrugging off heavy coats to join the scene. ￼