In his book Fifth Avenue: The Best Address, Jerry E. Patterson quotes Frederick Law Olmsted, Central Park's co-designer, on the site of his future masterpiece: "I had not been aware that the park was such a very nasty place. In fact, the low grounds were steeped in the overflow of the pigsties, slaughter houses, and bone-boiling works, and the stench was sickening." A century-and-a-half later, the hills, outcroppings and meadows of the park — not to mention the recreational features added over time — belie the less-than-idyllic origins described by Olmsted, while representing the high watermark for urban park design in America. Even visitors to New York who don't end up liking the city, usually have to admit that the sanctuary of Central Park is something exceedingly special. This year the park is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The celebration may be a little premature (city commissioners only began the process of purchasing the land in 1853 — for a mere $5 million) but any reason is a good reason to spend time in America's park of parks. On July 19, the park's birthday party proper will kick off as early as 6am, with a multi-lap bike race beginning at the Boathouse parking lot. But for kids, the day starts at 10am with the "Central Park 150th Birthday Kids' Races" (for ages 2-12) along the 72nd Street Transverse Road. (Organized by the New York Road Runners Club, the Kids' Races are preceded at 8:30am by a four-mile adult run/walk along the same route). Participants must register at www.nyrrc.org. At the same hour, kids who would rather show off their canines than their racing skills can bring their pets to a parade and park birthday party at Cherry Hill, located just off 72nd Street Transverse Road, west of Bethesda Terrace. Also from 10am-4pm, "A Revolutionary War Encampment" will be set up on the Great Hill, giving guests a realistic look at both military and civilian activities of the 18th century. For one hour, from 11am-noon, at the Hans Christian Andersen Statue at East 74th Street, by Conservatory Pond, storytellers will exercise their age-old craft for young ears; while at 1pm and continuing to 3pm, 10 park playgrounds will be the site of various juggling, magic, mime, and bubble-blowing acts. Other July 19 birthday events include a full eight hours, beginning at 10am, of croquet and lawn bowling at the Lawn Sports Center, located at Mineral Springs (West 69th and Sheep Meadow); and a brief processional along Literary Walk to Bethesda Terrace by the Police and Parks Enforcement Patrol Band, starting at 10:45am, followed by the ceremonial cutting of the Central Park birthday cake at Bethesda Terrace at 11am. Guests with an interest in the park's history will enjoy hooking up with the Urban Park Rangers as they provide a walking historical tour of Central Park from 1pm-2:30pm, starting from Belvedere Castle. All-day events include the 42nd World Archery Championships at the North Meadow and Recreation Center; and the "Discovery Hunt" — an opportunity for families to explore the park with the help of a special book created by the Women's Committee of the Central Park Conservancy. The book will be distributed throughout the day at park entrances and at select playgrounds. Live music performances begin at 3pm, with "Jazzmobile at the Band Shell", and conclude with an 8pm concert by Andrea Bocelli, "The Tuscan Tenor", on the Great Lawn.
Among the current and continuing park features:
• Victorian Gardens at Wollman Rink: If the one thing in the world Manhattan previously lacked was a theme park, it has one now — at the Wollman Rink, of all places. Through Sunday, September 7, New Yorkers can turn back their calendars by a century with a visit to "Victorian Gardens at Wollman Rink", a Victorian-style amusement park packed to the rink's perimeter with rides, attractions, and games (10am-10pm; $15 per person; children under 36 inches FREE with a paid admission). For more information, call (212) 439-6900.
• Central Park Zoo: Over 1,400 animals, more than 130 species. Penguins, exotic monkeys, tropical birds, polar bears, even leafcutter ants; plus the Tisch Children's Zoo, where the smallest of animal lovers can meet some of their gentler friends up close. Open 365 days a year, Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday, Sunday and holidays 10am-5:30pm. Admission: adults, $6; children 3-12, $1; seniors (65-plus), $1.25; under 3, FREE. For more information, call (212) 861-6030.
• The Carousel: Located mid-park at 64th Street, the carousel's horses might look a little wild, but they're really OK. A darn good ride in a great setting. Open 10:30am-6pm. Admission: 90 cents.
• The Harlem Meer: For kids who enjoy wielding the old fishin' pole, the Harlem Meer, at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, is stocked to the gills (please excuse us for that one) with catfish, large-mouth bass, golden shiners, and bluegills. Through October 19, the Meer will host free "Catch-And-Release" fishing events. Representatives from the Central Park Conservancy will be on hand to demonstrate the proper technique for catching — and safely tossing back — the Meer's stock. Bamboo poles and bait will be provided to anyone with a valid picture ID. Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. Held Tuesday through Sunday, from 10am-3:30pm. The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center is located inside the park, at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue.