Year After Storm, Central Park Sees Its Original Vision

By Sarah Maslin Nir

New York, NY (August 17, 2010)- The brevity of the storm belied its destructive strength: in just over half an hour, it felled more than 500 trees in Central Park and damaged hundreds more so badly that they had to be removed in the months that followed. That was one year ago on Wednesday.


Parkgoers and park employees were initially horror struck. “Central Park has been devastated,” Adrian Benepe, the city parks commissioner, said at the time. “It created more damage than I’ve seen in 30 years of working in the parks.” But the cleanup is mostly completed, and parks officials now say there is a silver lining: the chance to restore an overgrown park to the original vision of its creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won a competition to design it in 1858.

“The storm wasn’t all bad, because it created some opportunities,” Mr. Benepe said on a recent tour. “The storm was like a giant chain saw coming through here creating a circumstance where you could look at it for the first time and say: ‘Well, do we want to have a woodland here? Or do we want to have a meadow?'”

Sunlight now bakes a path into the park at 100th Street and Central Park West that was once shaded by the overarching limbs of stately horse chestnut trees. A slope nearby, at 102nd Street, shows how the park’s very topography has been altered: Before the storm, it was thickly forested by 30-year-old black cherries; it’s bare now, the trees shredded by last year’s whipping winds.

The invasive cherries, seeded by bird droppings, were not part of the original plans by Mr. Olmsted and Mr. Vaux, said Neil Calvanese, the vice president for operations of the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit agency that runs the park. The patch where they stood is clear, though crisscrossed by biodegradable buttresses made of coconut husks, called coir logs, which crews have laid out throughout the park to ward against erosion.

The cherries will not be replaced. Instead, the area will become a lawn, hemmed in by meadow sprouting grasses like rye and fescue, across which a distant body of water – formerly obscured by the grove – is visible. The de facto thinning out of densely wooded areas is closer to what the park’s original designers intended, said Douglas Blonsky, the Conservancy’s president and the administrator of Central Park. “The concept was of drawing you into the park and having these visual experiences,” he said. “You would see something in the distance that would cause you to say, ‘Hey, I want to go see what that is.'”

Mr. Benepe said: “They were painting a portrait in the land. And this is like when you find a painting and it’s been overpainted somehow over the years, and you have the opportunity to take all that overpainting off and see the landscape as Olmsted and Vaux intended it.” In some cases, teenage trees, mostly native to the East Coast, have been planted where once trees like elderly London planes or wizened pin oaks, some of which dated back to the park’s founding, once stood. Elsewhere, saplings like wiry witch hazel are being coaxed to take root, their thin trunks encased in pyramidal green plastic bags that seep out 20 gallons of water over several hours. Some new plants are bedded down in wood chips made from last year’s victims.

More than 350 trees are to be put in the ground, at a cost of $175 to $300 per tree, depending on the species. Planting and maintenance expenses bring the price up to $1,000 per tree, Mr. Calvanese said. “Seldom do you have an opportunity to plant as many trees as we did and really set them out in ways that future generations are going to enjoy,” he said.

In the days after the storm, more than 3,000 people, 900 of them first-time donors to the parks, donated $1.1 million, Mr. Benepe said. JPMorgan Chase donated an additional $1 million to the Conservancy. But, Mr. Benepe said, an additional $1 million is still needed for plantings, as well as things like monitoring and maintaining branches of damaged trees, a concern drawn into sharp relief after a baby was killed by a falling limb in late June.

But some things cannot be replaced or replanted, like the 158-year-old turkey oak that stood in the Tarr Family Playground off Central Park West at 100th street. It was surrounded by a wooden play platform designed to wing out from the mighty trunk like a treehouse. It had been completed just two weeks before the destruction.

The treehouse now stands treeless. But Jacob Donahue, 3, who scampered along its planks last week as his mother Jennifer, 35 and cousin Stephanie Corwin, 29, watched, did not seem to mind. Ms. Corwin however, still felt the absence. “At first it was a big adjustment,” she said. “It felt really empty. I’d walk into the park and just expect in certain spots to be completely surrounded by trees and foliage and it just wasn’t there.”

A year later, the storm has left a bittersweet legacy. “I can look around and I feel the missing presence of the big mother trees,” Mr. Benepe said, “but the trees that we’re planting now will be the mother trees for our children and grandchildren.”

Related Resources:
Year After Storm, Central Park Sees Its Original Vision
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation