As I’ve been waiting for the right occasion to call 311, the Mayor’s complaint hotline, and it came when my mother recently almost took a header out of her wheelchair in Central Park.
Let me explain. She was feeling rather depressed, so I thought a visit to Strawberry Fields for some people-watching might brighten her mood. But the path leading through the John Lennon memorial was so pitted and potholed, it took all my dexterity to prevent her from falling out of her conveyance.
The inexplicable, entirely unacceptable thing is that the path has been this way for years. It makes no sense. The rest of Strawberry Fields—the grass, the shrubs, even the boulders—are immaculately groomed. The “Imagine” mosaic may as well be a religious shrine the way Lennon fans garland it with rose petals, leave mementoes and missives, and commune with his spirit.
So I had this conspiracy theory that Yoko Ono was behind the path’s decrepit condition. That this ageless avatar of the avant-garde was trying to send a message to all the alter kockers and their caregivers that have basically turned it into a senior citizen’s center: Do your drooling elsewhere.
I considered contacting Ms. Ono directly to raise hell and even Googled her in search of her Web site. But since even people I know personally don’t respond to my e-mails, why should she? I also toyed with the idea of approaching Sean Lennon. Yoko isn’t getting any younger; perhaps her son had taken over care of the family plot. But then I recalled an encounter with him once that hadn’t gone very well.
This was a number of years ago. My wife and I had entered the elevator in my mother’s building, and there was a young chap standing there holding a guitar case and wearing a familiar-looking red, military-style jacket with gold trim. Says I, not recognizing the kid but always sociable, “Hey, that looks like the jacket in Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!”
Because it was the jacket. Sean just grunted, the elevator doors opened, and the Beatles scion and I went our separate ways. My wife claims I made a fool of myself. But my feeling was that if the guy was wearing the iconic garment in public, wasn’t he trying to attract attention? If he wanted to remain anonymous, why didn’t he wear a sweater?
In any case, I decided to call 311 instead. The operator couldn’t have been more courteous. I stated my complaint, and the operator took my name and phone number and even gave me some sort of 12-digit reference number. He confidently added that the Parks Department would respond to the problem within 14 days. I asked whether the Parks Department would contact me directly, so that I might share with them the precise nature and scope of the problem—its location, duration, the depth of the potholes in question.
“A complaint of this nature, probably not,” he stated gingerly. “To be honest with you.”
Having worked in city government myself, I was familiar with the glacial pace at which change happens (and more often doesn’t) and not at all confident that the next time I took my mother to Strawberry Fields, she wouldn’t do a face plant. I came across the name of Henry Stern, the former Parks Commissioner, and called him for advice. It wasn’t long into our conversation—30 seconds or so—that Henry reminded me that, back in 1980, he was the then City Councilman who had sponsored the resolution to turn a piece of Central Park into a John Lennon memorial. He claims that he even came up with the idea of calling it Strawberry Fields after “the most bucolic of any of his songs.”
And lest I was short of copy, former Commissioner Stern added that his resolution had met with stiff resistance from a conservative Republican Councilman from Brooklyn named Angelo Arculeo, who was damned if he was going to vote to devote a precious piece of urban greensward to a pothead and even suggested that a monument to Bing Crosby would be more appropriate.
Eventually, Mr. Stern prevailed, Yoko Ono donated $1 million to the cause, and the area was dedicated in 1985, with Mayor Ed Koch—and Henry, by then the New York City Parks Commissioner—presiding. “Half went to a zone gardener,” Henry explained, “and half went to capital construction.”
He added that part of the deal was that the Parks Department would assume all responsibility for the maintenance of Strawberry Fields. Yoko Ono, who lives overlooking the site at the Dakota, wouldn’t be expected to head over there with a spade and a bag of dirt every time a squirrel (or whatever) dug a hole to bury his nuts. “She would not be asked to do anything to keep it in shape,” Mr. Stern explained.
As a matter of fact, I thought I detected a note of defensiveness in Henry’s voice as he parried my questions. It seems that he’d even made a couple of calls to the Central Park Conservancy before returning mine, to get briefed on the path’s perilous condition and get his talking points. “Where you have paving over soil, the soil shifts, settles,” he contended. “You have to, every few years, have to redo it. There is no policy to abandon it or not redo it.”
Fair enough. But I’ve been traveling through Strawberry Fields to my mother’s house ever since I was a lad, or at least in my 20’s, and I don’t recall any repairs to the path ever. Henry suggested I call the Central Park Conservancy directly. When I reached Lane Addonizio, the Conservancy’s associate vice president for planning, she claimed that it has been the conservancy’s intention to fix the path all along. “Last fall we did a focused assessment,” she reported. “We brought in people who specialize in mosaic conservation.”
A focused assessment? I just wanted them to fill in the potholes.
But Ms. Addonizio explained that the mosaic and the surrounding blacktop are interrelated. You can’t fix one without the other. The tiles on the mosaic keep popping, and since it’s considered a work of art, any repair requires the approval of obscure city agencies.
“Once we go to Landmarks and the Art Commission, we do expect this summer to be working on it,” she stated cheerfully. “It’s just scheduling.”
I got back to Henry Stern with the good news. “It may be fixed a little faster because of your watchful eye,” he confided. “It always helps to have inquiries of this sort. It puts a little spring in your step.”
Even so, something was still bothering me. I finally figured out what it was: I disagreed with the former Parks Commissioner that “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the “most bucolic” of the Beatles songs—“Norwegian Wood” was. Besides, it was a better song. Why didn’t they name the Lennon memorial after that?
“We weren’t in Norway,” Henry stated with uncharacteristic petulance. But recovering quickly, he pulled a sound bite out of thin air. “And Strawberry Fields was directly across the road from Cherry Hill. So we maintained the fruit theme.”