Image from Central Park Conservancy
A Secret Section of Central Park Reopens
By JAMES BARRONMAY 10, 2016
The New York Times
Since the days when Fiorello H. La Guardia was mayor and Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, it has been a well-kept secret of New York City — to people, if not to migrating birds, the occasional wandering coyote and annoying, invasive plants like wisteria: a four-acre peninsula in Central Park that the groundskeepers did not bother with and that was off limits to the public.
Now it is on its way to being less isolated. Not since the 1930s has it been open regularly; now, it will be — from 2 to 5 p.m. three days a week through June 30, and four days a week from July 1 to Aug. 31 with slightly different hours.
The opening is the result of work done under the Central Park Conservancy’s Woodlands Initiative, a $40 million project that involved revitalizing areas of the 843-acre park, including the Promontory, as the peninsula was originally known. It received minimal maintenance even after it was renamed the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in 1986 as the conservancy dealt with more prominent parts of the park. But it remained fenced off.
It still is, but it has a new, rustic gate and new pathways. There is also a sanctuary within the sanctuary — benches at the top of the Promontory — given by Sima Ghadamian, a dealer in rare gems who has lived nearby for the last couple of years, and her husband, Morad, an investor and carpet importer, and named for her parents, Mahrokh and Iradj Sakhai.
“The story is, Robert Moses closed it off because he wanted it to turn into a bird sanctuary,” said Douglas Blonsky, who as president and chief executive of the Central Park Conservancy is the park’s administrator. Moses became the parks commissioner in 1934.
Sima Ghadamian, a dealer in rare gems, donated a small sanctuary within the sanctuary in honor of her parents. Credit Ramsay de Give for The New York Times
So, yes, the birds made the sanctuary a stop on their way north in the spring or south in the fall. But the trees and plants that settled in were the wrong kind: Norway maples, black cherries, Japanese knotgrasses — invasives all.
“Wisteria was a huge problem, too,” Mr. Blonsky said. “In a woodland, it will strangle everything, and that’s what was happening here.” The sanctuary, on a big boulder made of Manhattan schist, was covered with wisteria, he said. Leading the way to the sanctuary on Wednesday, he said some root systems remain embedded in the creases in the rock, despite parks workers’ efforts to weed them out.
Mr. Blonsky said parks workers began the labor-intensive process of clearing the sanctuary about 15 years ago. It became a stop on tours for high school students, with parks workers opening a gate, but it was not open to the public, although he said that homeless people often found a way in.
Ms. Ghadamian said she heard about the Promontory after visiting a friend who had leukemia and soon died. “I thought, ‘I’m having such a hard time, and I have a support system with family and friends,’” she said. “I thought, ‘How hard it is to be in New York and not have that, not have a place someone could go.’”
The Hallett sanctuary was supposed to be such a place, but, she said, “Everything was so overgrown.” Now, with new pathways and benches, she said, “It’s exactly how I think Frederick Olmsted wanted it.”
Olmsted, of course, was, with Calvert Vaux, a designer of the park, and to Ms. Ghadamian he was an inspiring figure, not only for the park, but also for his other accomplishments, including his work on the United States Sanitary Commission, whose mission was to improve sanitation in the Union Army’s camps during the Civil War and thus the health of its soldiers.
“He got vegetables to soldiers and stopped scurvy,” Ms. Ghadamian said. “He really saved so many lives. To me, as an immigrant, that was how America does something special.”
Ms. Ghadamian, who was born in Tehran, arrived in New York in June 1978. Her first memory of Central Park is from the following summer. “I said, ‘This cannot be a park,’ and I never went back for maybe 15 years,” she recalled. “This looked nothing like parks in England where I had lived. It was a dump. It looked like a wasteland with needles” — addicts, even before the crack epidemic of the 1980s. “It was soulless,” she said.
Ms. Ghadamian and her husband now live in an apartment on Fifth Avenue that once belonged to Nelson A. Rockefeller. It looks over the park, and they can see the sanctuary from their windows, prompting a visitor to wonder why Mr. Rockefeller, who pushed for so many building projects when he was governor, did not do something about the Promontory.
The conservancy recently extended irrigation lines into the sanctuary, so workers could water the area regularly. Workers also replaced the invasive plants they removed with native species — Dutchman’s breeches, shooting stars and trillium, among others.
Ms. Ghadamian said she left the planting to the conservancy, for a reason.
“I’m not a good gardener at all,” she said.
A version of this article appears in print on May 11, 2016, on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: A Once-Secret Section of Central Park Opens.