When Elizabeth Barlow Rogers walks to the windows of her New York apartment, she takes in the full panorama of Central Park. What she sees from her vantage point is an 843-acre work of art, more so even than a natural creation. She points to distant rocky outcroppings and speaks of their sculpted quality, the patinas and sheens of their schist. Noting undulating landscapes at the park’s center, she refers to them as “romantically picturesque.”
“People think I’m responsible for painting every tree blossom,” she says, referring to her work as the visionary founder of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980, a nonprofit body that has since grown very deep roots in the life of New York and whose effects and success have germinated similar organizations in other cities. “But I always tell the people who thank me that what saved Central Park was a collective effort. You have to remember, it’s all man-made. What’s meant to be picturesque, meant to be scenic, meant to seem natural is actually naturalistic.”
When Rogers, a Texas native, moved to New York in 1964, Central Park was more than overgrown. The expanse at the center of Manhattan, dating from the 1850s, had devolved into a dangerous, graffitied, unkempt place. “There was a pervasive atmosphere of lawlessness,” she recalls. “It felt dangerous and it was. Hotels told visitors not to go in, especially to the Ramble,” she says, referencing a densely wooded thirty-acre expanse, which her Conservancy has since made into one of the most sought-after destinations, with pathways that follow bird trails, a creek, and the shoreline of the park’s lake. At a time when few New Yorkers would venture deep into the park, Rogers took regular walks there, admitting that she was once “lightly mugged, meaning that when the guy demanded money, I told him ‘No, you’re not getting it.’ He walked away.”
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PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY BY WENDY YOUNG
WRITTEN BY DAVID MASELLO
This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of MILIEU.