October 6, 2005 12:52 PM PDT

Central Park: Virtual to real

NEW YORK--I'm sitting on one of the horses in the Central Park Carousel--a wonderful relic of the early 20th century. As I glide in circles, I can see parents on the periphery, clutching cameras and snapping pictures of their children.

Through the archways along the side, I spot Central Park's famous Heckscher Ballfields where, each spring, the men and women of New York's theater world square off in softball in the Broadway Show League.

Why I'm here on a sunny Wednesday afternoon instead of in an office somewhere has everything to do with Aric Boyles and his fledgling Web site, CentralPark.com. Launched on Aug. 31, the site is a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to know anything about New York's gem of a park.

Central Park

Earlier, I met Boyles in a downtown office. There, he guided me through the features of his site. Among the best was a Flickr-like photo-sharing element with which any user can view photos of the park or upload their own. Anyone can also rate existing photos or comment on them. The top-rated photos are eligible for prizes, Boyles told me.

The site also boasts an events feature, which is based on a daily accumulation of any event scheduled in the park that has been posted on Central Park's own Web site, as well as that of many other agencies. Users can also post their own events, either public or private, for listing on CentralPark.com.

CentralPark.com is one of many sites using the virtual world to help people make a better connection with the real world--in this case, Central Park.

Throughout the site, any point of interest can be mapped. Boyles has incorporated a high-resolution aerial picture of the park he took years ago from a plane at 12,000 feet. Thus, any point in the park can be zoomed in on for detail.

Boyles agreed to show me his site and create a virtual tour that I would then follow in the real park. I took copious notes during an hour-long demo of CentralPark.com, and I was out the door.

As Boyles and his site suggested, I began at the Conservatory Water, a small pond just west of 74th Street and Fifth Avenue. There, I was promised, I'd be able to see firsthand the madness that surrounds some of Fifth Avenue's most famous residents: Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk, and his mate.

Today, though, there was just Rick Davis, a photographer who sat on a bench alongside the pond hawking his Pale Male pictures. He also had a telescope aimed at the birds' nest near the top of one of the Fifth Avenue buildings. Alas, the birds were not to be seen.

Still, a tourist asked of Davis, "It's a pretty good spot?"

"It's hawk heaven," he said.

As Boyles' site suggests, I then headed up to the Lake and the Loeb Boathouse, where for $10, anyone can borrow a rowboat for an hour. I'm amazed at how, from one side of the water, with so little urban noise, it's easy to close your eyes and forget you're in the middle of the largest city in the United States. Yet opening my eyes, I see, across the pond and far behind the stand of trees, the two towers of the San Remo, one of the city's most famous apartment buildings.

Suddenly, the quiet is broken as a tourist, trying to step out of her boat, trips and falls.

"I just didn't have my sea legs," she says, embarrassed.

Next, Boyles' virtual tour took me to the Bethesda Fountain, a spot famous from many movies. Here, it's bright and beautiful, and still quiet, despite a fair number of families and couples and wanderers strolling around. The cinematic quality of the scene is broken, though, by the construction materials piled up around the edges.

I begin to head southeast, and stop briefly in a plaza in front of the Naumberg Bandshell. There, an attractive woman in a black tank top and white shorts is spinning around on roller-skates, dancing to the music playing on her Walkman.

Nearby, as a photographer aims his camera at three older men sitting on a park bench, each of whom is shirtless and sporting leathery tans, one of the men shouts out, "Hey! Don't put the camera on my face!"

His friend explains, "He doesn't like to have his picture taken. He's KGB."

One of Boyles' highest recommendations was for the Central Park Zoo, located almost at the southeast corner of the park, and a venue with prominent placement on CentralPark.com.

Inside, it's a cacophony of screaming children. On one side of the zoo swim two hungry polar bears. On another are three small red pandas, fox-like creatures that bear no resemblance to the big, gentle black-and-white pandas I know. There are also toucans, river otters, snow monkeys, penguins and other non-city dwellers. Of course, New York is America's most diverse urban environment, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

The noise and chaos of the zoo is a little strange after the peace and quiet of the rest of the park, and it's odd to see so many people in one place. Yet it's fabulous to see these beautiful animals in the middle of a park in the middle of a city. After squeezing my way to the exit, I finally leave, but I'm sporting a huge smile.

I'm running out of time for my tour, so I decide to make the Carousel my last stop. Along the way I see one of those only-in-New York images: Power-walking along a path, an immensely pregnant woman is jabbering away on her cell phone about the shipping dates of her company's latest project. But no one else nearby seems to even notice her.

Finally, I make it to the Carousel, which originally, according to a sign outside, was built for Coney Island. But after another carousel on this Central Park site burned down in 1950, the current one was moved here.

I pay my $1.25 and hop on. It seems a fitting end to a terrific tour of the park; there are a number of people there, but not too many. I can tell we're in an urban park, but only from the barely visible tops of the skyscrapers surrounding it. And a fair number of squealing and happy children are on the other horses. But as the ride slows to a stop and I get off, I wonder if I might be the happiest one here.

 

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