When I arrived at the East 79th Sreet entrance to Central Park this morning, mounted and ready for my customary bicycle ride, a friendly policeman blocked the entrance. He told me that I had to enter at 72nd Street or 90th street because the middle of the park was blocked off to set up for tonight's Bon Jovi concert on the Great Lawn. "You'll have the park back tonight," he said cheerfully. I wish it was that simple: the policies and precedents invoked for this concert are one more step in closing off the park to large public activities--like concerts and demonstrations.
In the Eighties, large concerts (Simon and Garfunkel in 1981) and large demonstrations (the roughly one million people who gathered to support a nuclear freeze in 1982) were a recognized presence on the Great Lawn. Since the restoration of the Great Lawn, similarly large gatherings have been banned there because they are deemed too damaging to the grass and ball fields on the lawn. In 2004, this logic was applied to reject a demonstration on the lawn during the Republican Convention.
I don't care much for Bon Jovi. (As New Jersey rockers go, they can't hold a candle to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.)
But even more disturbing is the way this event, which is being put on in conjunction with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, is being promoted. Admission is free to people who showed up to get tickets at ball parks and other locations around the city. But only 60,000 tickets will be distributed in an attempt to safeguard the integrity of the lawn.
The Great Lawn holds only 60,000 people? Hogwash. And should the lawn be so protected, as the mayor says, because it safeguards the public's investment in restoring it? Bologna.
The restoration of the Great Lawn was a worthy achievement, but the goal of that enterprise was not simply to create a great lawn. It was to restore a place that is, among other things, the greatest public gathering place in the city.
It insults the public, and New York's traditions of democratic assembly, to say that the Great Lawn is fine for 60,000 people gathered to hear a Jersey rocker but off limits for larger crowds that want to make political statements.
We should categorically reject the idea that 60,000 people is the most that the Great Lawn can hold--for concerts or demonstrations. And the sooner we test this proposition with a healthy political demonstration for a good cause, the better.