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‘It Sort of Gives You Hope’: One Place New Yorkers Go to Escape Their Homes

Antsy children, frazzled mothers, seniors strolling on paved paths and young families with newfound free time all shared the familiar green spaces of New York this week as the city shut down around them as a result of the coronavirus spread. Being in a park felt both liberating and subversive, and a public statement of sorts — one made at least six feet away from stranger and friend alike.

In Central Park, a global model of urban open space, an elderly couple walked beneath the trees. “We took it for granted,” said Paul Wassarman, who turns 80 next week. “We don’t take it for granted anymore.”

His wife, Eveline, stood a few feet away. “There is nowhere else to go now but outside — the movies are closed, everything is closed,” she said. “And it is beautiful. And you don’t have to worry.”

And yet, there was plenty of worry. On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for city leaders to determine whether to order people to shelter at home. He added that the order in place in San Francisco, where going outside for a walk is still permitted and parks remain open, would be “the right guidance.”

“Please let them not close the park,” said Anne Powers, strolling along the lakeside in Prospect Park with her friend of 40 years, Millie Fulford. She pointed out the daffodils blooming, the magnolia trees: “It sort of gives you hope.”

At the opposite end of the sprawling, 153-year-old park, two parents with their young sons claimed a stretch of lawn for throwing a Frisbee, a new routine.

“We’ve made it part of our schedule,” said Jesse Farrell, even as his wife, Jennifer Podorson, feared for what was next: “We have to get out when we can, because if there’s a time we can’t? We have to get out now.”

The parks commissioner, Mitchell J. Silver, said there were no current plans to close parks.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “It’s critically important to get fresh air, it builds the immune system. People are out using parks. Twenty minutes in the park reduces stress, anxiety. You see people doing that today, given the times we’re in.”

Not in recent memory have the city’s parks been called upon to provide what Frederick Law Olmsted, one of their celebrated landscape architects, said in 1866 was “the feeling of relief experienced by those entering them, on escaping from the cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town.

“In other words,” he continued, “a sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park.”

Escape and freedom can seem scarce these days.

“One of the most important things that they talked about is how the park is not only a place to go for health and a physical escape, but also a mental escape,” said Marie Warsh, a historian for the Central Park Conservancy. “That openness was the relief from the city being a crowded place. But now we’re experiencing that openness in new ways. The park is now the only place to escape the confines of your own house.”

New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds came together this week — but not too closely — for a few minutes or a few hours of what could feel at fleeting moments like a peaceful, early spring. (City health officials have said that keeping a distance of 6 feet from other people is important, but so too is a little fresh air.)

“Thank God for the park — I say it every 10 minutes,” said Luiza Kurzyna, sitting on a bench along the edge of Prospect Park’s lake, her baby and husband at her side.

There is no real-time data available for how many people are visiting the parks this week; the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation canceled its public events days ago. On average, some 42 million people visit Central Park alone in a given year. This week, the biggest difference is the distance they traveled to get there.

“With work and school disrupted, we’re seeing more of those people visiting the park, and fewer tourists,” said Mary Caraccioli, a spokeswoman for the Central Park Conservancy.

Frequent visitors this week said attendance was robust, but measured, with little close contact. Parkgoers kept more distance, but with collegial nods and smiles, as if all on the same team.

“Wow, it feels like going for a walk now is such a novelty,” said Lauren Schlanger, 36, walking in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park with her roommate, Hannah Carroll, 29, who admitted to worrying about the optics of what might seem like a nonessential outing. She decided people might be “less judgey” if she kept moving and did not linger.

“Don’t ‘escapegoat’ me,” Ms. Carroll said.

Ms. Warsh, the historian, said the parks were ideal for face-to-face gatherings.

“There’s room for social distancing, but people can still feel together,” she said. “In the park, you can be with other people and get back to what it means to being a New Yorker. It’s one of the only places where you can do that now.”

Nearby, Joe Peppe, a cabinetmaker, found the return to nature a balm (“I told my wife, ‘I’m definitely going outside, I won’t touch anything’”) as he watched a squirrel who in that moment was keeping an eye on a nearby hawk.

“It’s good to get out and see how the hawks are doing,” he said. “He’s watching the squirrel, the squirrel’s watching him, the cherry trees are blossoming. It’s incredibly important, especially right now, to get out here and see spring, see nature carrying on.”

Nearby in the park, Fabio Guzman, 20, a boxing trainer from Bushwick, agreed: “Out here, you think natural thoughts, kind of like the old-school days when kids would go into the backyard.”

In Riverside Park near 90th Street in Manhattan, Michael J. Reilly, an instructor and trainer at Equinox, led a noon exercise for six women with yoga mats.

“Gotta do something,” he said. “People need to get out. We’re properly spaced.”

In Central Park, Michael Michiue, 24, fished in a pond that he had all to himself.

“I’ve fished this water countless times, but I’m out here today because I don’t know what will happen, and this might be my last time doing this for a while,” he said. “For some people, fishing is all about the need to catch fish. But that’s very single minded. Fishing is also a relaxing thing to do.”

He caught three bluegills.

In Brooklyn’s Inlet Park in Bushwick, Jeremy Jackson, 28, was reminded on Wednesday of playing outdoors as a boy along the Tennessee River near Nashville. The memories were a comfort more than ever this week.

“Nostalgia,” he said, “is very important right now.”

John Leland, Corey Kilgannon, Azi Paybarah, Alex Vadukul, and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

New Yorkers have headed outdoors to the parks to enjoy sunshine and nature — as long as they are 6 feet away from each other.


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