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Thousands celebrate the 150th birthday of New York's Central Park

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - New York City threw a 150th birthday party for Central Park yesterday, and thousands of people celebrated by doing exactly what they do every day: jogging, biking, walking their dogs, practicing the guitar, playing volleyball and sunbathing.

If officials needed proof of the park's place in the hearts of New Yorkers, they couldn't have asked for a better show.

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Nanny Junee Reyes took her charges, 4-year-old Gus Lange and his sister Alice, 2, to their regular stop - the statue of the hero sled dog Balto. Gus, wearing his Spiderman costume, clambered onto the dog's back. "Everyone loves the park; you can have a break here," Reyes said.

Nearby, a hopeful saxophonist played in a stone underpass, his case open for contributions, though he performed nothing but scales for the better part of an hour. At the north end of the park, nearly 50 members of the Rantin family gathered from all over the country for a reunion, one of many groups picnicking throughout the 843 acres under a blue sky yesterday.

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For those who wanted a more structured celebration, there were official festivities as well, part of a yearlong commemoration of the date that officials set aside land in the middle of Manhattan for what would become America's first major landscaped public park. The huge undertaking, which now includes 51 sculptures, 36 bridges and arches and 58 miles of pedestrian paths, took 16 years and $14 million (or about $260 million in today's dollars) to build.

Hundreds of children gathered yesterday to take in Sleeping Beauty at the Marionette Theatre, while others headed off to storytelling at the Hans Christian Andersen statue. Runners and bikers raced. A game of croquet drew just a small group of participants, however, with nearly one news photographer for every youngster playing.

In the North Meadow, the stands were full for the 42nd World Archery Championships, an Olympic qualifier event.

And over on the Great Hill, Gabrielle Wright - a certified nurse practitioner-midwife from Mohegan Lake, N.Y. - stood in the blazing sun wearing a multi-layered Revolutionary War costume as she ladled out hot beef stew that had just come off a smoldering fire.

Wright was part of a Revolutionary War encampment re-enactment that also drew a George Washington impersonator on a white horse and demonstrations of blacksmithing and wool spinning.

On the Great Lawn, early birds camped out for the night's outdoor concert by tenors Marcelo Alvarez and Salvatore Licitra, performing together for the first time in the United States.

The park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux and opened in part by 1861, wasn't always such a success story. At cutting of a birthday cake yesterday, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe recalled its days as a "municipal embarrassment, a national symbol of decline." It was revived in the past two decades thanks to a public-private partnership between the Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy.

In an acknowledgment of the new reality of budget-strapped cities, Benepe thanked the numerous corporate sponsors of the day's events, saying: "The city doesn't have the money to pay for birthday parties."

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Thanks to its revival, the park draws 25 million visitors each year, many from well beyond the city's borders.

The Tayag family drove in from Bogota, N.J., just to spend the day at the party, said Edgar Tayag. "We love the park," he said. His children Francis and Elizabeth, ages 7 and 5, stood on a rock outcropping next to the Balto statue as their mother, Maria, recounted the story of the dog to a passer-by who couldn't understand why the animal had its own statue. Balto was an Alaskan malamute who in 1925 led a dogsled team through an Alaskan blizzard to deliver medicine needed to stop a diphtheria outbreak.

Though he has no official connection to New York, Balto - his fame boosted by a 1995 animated movie - is one of the park's most-visited attractions, so popular that his bronze coating is wearing off from all the petting. Yesterday, a group of seven Spanish-speaking children shrieked his name in delight as they saw the statue, before racing off in a whirlwind in the direction of the Central Park Zoo.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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