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An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition


This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video, filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.”

Approaching The Mall in Central Park 

When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months.

The Mall in Central Park

I hadn’t ventured into Central Park since before the pandemic. While I’ve been meaning to go there, the early days of the health crisis kept me closer to home. And while I’ve explored several of the streets and avenues of Midtown and downtown since those frightening days of April and May, I’ve been more inclined to wander in remote natural areas such as in Inwood Hill Park near my apartment or farther north along the trails near the Metro-North Hudson line.

Early autumn in the park. The peak of foliage here is usually around the first of November.

So, in part inspired by the Krall video and to satisfy my conflicted longing to wander once again in Central Park, I made the trip. And, yes, it’s still beautiful, with socially distanced activities and all sorts of things to do. 

Bethesda Terrace 

Walking in the park felt like being in a willful suspended state of animation, as if the activities of walking or biking or chasing birds in migration had become a way to interrupt the pressing passage of time. 

The Boathouse

Every news day brings a startling revelation of how life seems to change rapidly, but wandering in the wilds of The Ramble or through The Mall feels the same as ever. Take away the face masks, and these pictures of Central Park in autumn look like ones I took several years ago. These pictures should counter misperceptions that the city has wholly descended into a lawless nightmare. 

Bow Bridge

One difference between then and now - not so many tourists. The Central Park of autumn 2020 is the province of New Yorkers, for the most part, especially for those who live within proximity to the park. Though I’ve found the buses and subways as clean as advertised by public officials, many of us who live in the city have become accustomed to staying close to home.    

Bow Bridge

The walk begins at an entrance off of Fifth Avenue at E. 69th Street. On Saturday, a jazz trio was playing music to a handful of listeners, just as I remembered from this time last year. The walk continues north and west up to The Mall and Literary Walk and then to the Bethesda Fountain. There again, I encountered a familiar scene of usual suspects. A photo op for a girl celebrating a QuinceaƱera in her frilly pastel dress brightened the scene, an event that would continue on the famous Bow Bridge to the north.

View of the San Remo Apartments from The Ramble

A comforting aspect to this sameness of Central Park is how the park feels like a constant in a city that has changed in profound ways. On my bus ride down Lexington Avenue, I saw store after store that had permanently closed. Restaurants and cafes that have survived now spill out onto the sidewalks and streets, changing the streetscape in new ways, often for the better. Still, right now there’s no live theater, symphony, or opera. Most of the museums are back open, but timed tickets are required in advance. Walking the High Line even requires timed tickets and one directional walking. At least here, I can still wander in The Ramble any way that I choose.

A walk in The Ramble

The walk continues into the western edge of The Ramble, one of Central Park’s denser and wilder features. A few people hurdled up rocks at The Gill, the stream that winds through the area, or stopped to admire the rustic Ramble Stone Arch. Few people were taking pictures, except for me, or self-portraits, another sign that mostly locals are now visiting the park. They have little incentive to prove that they were here.

The Ramble was designed as a naturally wild area of the park.

The western edge of The Ramble encompasses several stunning views of both the built and natural environments. Chief among them are scenes of the San Remo Apartments on Central Park West. 

A hint of autumn in New York

Walking anywhere in nature tends to bring healthy benefits, and walking in Central Park does feel like home. In pandemic times, though, I find it hard to enjoy the same things that usually bring me joy without mixing in a dose of anxiety. Is autumn in New York always like this, with the foreknowledge of the aftermath of the fall? Or, does the fall of 2020 feel like a reckoning?  

On the western edge of Central Park near the American Museum of Natural History

The walk ends just south of the 79th Street Traverse near the American Museum of Natural History. The walk had already been a colorful one, though still early in the season. A large banner advertising a museum exhibit stood out as a fitting backdrop for a city ever ready to demonstrate its colors. 

It's not winter yet. It's still the first week of autumn. This is really a September song.


Images from Saturday, September 26, 2020. Read more about the song "Autumn in New York" in this post from 2011

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