[Editor’s Note: this is the first part of a two part series exploring Central Park as a group of musicians make their way through the park.]
Central Park is a place that doesn’t simply exist as that big strip of isolated nature that runs down the middle of Manhattan. Central Park seems to take on a more important role for New Yorkers whose routines are defined by constant travelling via foot, bike, taxi, or train. Central Park is the realm that New Yorkers often must to pass through when traversing the city, meaning that the park functions as a gargantuan, versatile public space for all (while many seemingly try to remain as private as they would on a crowded subway car).
For the businessperson, this might mean you need to cut through the North East corner by the Natural History Museum in order to more quickly access your destination on the other side of the street, coffee and cigarette in hand, with headphones acting as that last resort barrier between yourself and sensing the hundreds of people you will pass even on this short walk in your routine.
For the performer, the park shows itself to you in segments that may change each time you visit. You happen upon different nooks and crannies of the park with different types of people who are on different routines, all casually flowing around you as you fill a portion of Central Park with your “thing.” Other areas are dominated; you could not possibly hope to perform for passersby when you are near the performer who comes with a loud exotic voice, showcasing bells, drums, ribbons, and other extravagant, eye-catching things. The space will belong to that performer until that performance has concluded, the crowds dissipate, and it becomes just another area of Central Park again.
For these reasons, Central Park might be a key destination for the flâneur, for the passionate observer. It might be a kind of bohemian idealism I can recognize inside of me as a New Yorker, but New York as a collection of spaces means wonders for “performing the streets,” as it were. The flâneur is typically on the observing side of such performances, the smaller-than-small kind of performance that accompanies your day during the seven minutes you stand waiting for the train at Union Square, or the one that makes you decide to stop, sit, and enjoy on a walk through the park. Central Park is very much like that; it is a condensed design of the larger city, an interaction machine inside of an interaction machine. For me, being on that side of the machine, letting such performances act as subtle overtones to what is an otherwise regular, routine-driven day, is very much a part of what it means to be in New York City.
“Performing the streets” is something that enables me to remain a flâneur in all my bohemian idealism (whatever amount that may be), yet I can be on the other side and gaze back at the functioning strangers of Central Park, operating as if in tandem with them, not dominating the space any more than they might be, simply playing music. Doing so has revealed a completely new way of understanding New York City as a machine of interaction, Central Park being one of its more crucial cogs.