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Wild about Saffron

New York City: a February Tuesday in Central Park; 55 degrees and sunny...

by Kristen Richards
February 21, 2005

No matter what the nay-sayers say, it is magic.


On a Tuesday in the middle of February, you would have thought it was a Sunday in the middle of July – but for the winter coats and baby buggies wrapped in thermal-plastic layers). I joined the thousands of people meandering through Central Park.


Many of us New Yorkers should have been doing something much more work-like – but it was a perfect day to play hooky in the park. (And, I dare say, there wasn’t a pang of guilt among us.) I entered the park at East 86 Street, planning to spend an hour or so wandering. Four hours later, I found myself at 5th Avenue and Central Park South, having talked to dozens of people from around the city, around the country – and the world (my French and Italian still work).


Perhaps this is what makes The Gates such a happening. Total strangers striking up conversations, debating the merits of such an undertaking, whether the city and the parks department should have embraced such a project, and is it really art – or just o-o-o-h-ing and a-a-a-h-ing to each other.


School groups gathered around any number of the 200 “monitors” lining 23 miles of park – gatekeepers, really – who are as friendly and passionately informative as the best docents at any cultural institution or mouse-eared theme park, their pockets filled with handouts like fact sheets and 3-inch-square saffron-colored swatches of rip-stop fabric (apparently not DuPont Nylon).


The gatekeepers carry 7-foot-long telescoping poles topped by day-glo tennis balls used to unfurl any one of the 7,500 sails that might get wound around its lintel after a wintry gust of wind. An added (and probably intentional) function: from a distance, the poles look like Seussian contraptions designed to signal the presence of a gray-vested docent of Whoville.


Most of the park drives are closed to traffic for the duration. For $20, you can hop on and off jolly red trolleys wending their way through the park. One lone taxi made its way past the barriers, and was – very quickly – encircled by police cars that seemed to materialize from nowhere, lights flashing. (One had to wonder what planet he came from not to notice the barriers and large signs announcing the closures – or the preceding weeks of news reports about this “event,” including never-ending special traffic announcements.)


A lone, silvery-gray stretch limo – windows open – slowly glided by. According to a nearby gatekeeper, it was Christo and Jeanne-Claude surveying their “golden rivers.”


There are staggering statistics about what went into making The Gates. The fabric swatch handouts alone – 1 million of them – cost somewhere between $40,000 and $48,000 (depending on what gatekeeper you talked to). All the materials are going to be recycled. Not one hole was drilled into a pathway. The list goes on and on – links below offer loads of information – and opinion.


Souvenir items – postcards, keychains, watches, t-shirts, etc. – are all available at various locations in the park or online (see below); proceeds go to New York City Parks. As of Sunday, February 20, there were 484 items on e-Bay. Swatches start at $0.99; there is one swatch going for $100 – offered by some poor soul in Washington, DC, who says: “This is the only piece we've seen available from this unique world famous public art event! (Needless to say, they’ve had no bids.) Never mind the barbarians who cut their own swatches from The Gates near Columbus Circle, or the unfortunate 15-year-old who tried selling one of the cardboard tubes...and we’re sure to hear more.


Some may say The Gates is nothing more than a temporary eyesore; orange shower curtains or construction cones. Purists should find their way to the Ramble – not one drop of saffron can be seen.


Would Frederick Law Olmsted have approved? Architect (and great granddaughter) Janet Olmsted Cross told me he would. I’ll leave it to the pundits to praise or criticize for posterity. All I can say is that for 30 blocks on a sunny February afternoon, The Gates made me smile. To me, that’s magic.


Useful links:


“The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005”
Christo and Jeanne-Claude

New York Times complete coverage: appraisals, reports, slide shows, multimedia, etc.


Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Gates official web site

FAQ, lots of statistics


Central Park official web site

Links to The Gates online store, maps for self-guided walking tours, etc.

New York City’s official web site all about The Gates


Editor’s note: Robert Lederman, president of ARTIST (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics) claims in an article in Infoshop News (an Internet-based “alternative news service”) that artists and photographers might be subject to prosecution by Christo’s publisher if caught selling their own drawings or photographs of The Gates: Christo: Another greedy corporate artist


ArchNewsNow has yet to confirm this. The publisher is Kunstverlag Schumacher/Edition-Fils.

The site – in German – offers The Gates items for sale, and has links to lots of news articles about The Gates (in English and German). We could not decipher any threats to artistic freedoms – but then, we don’t speak German.



(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Kristen Richards)
Detail: The Gates

(Kristen Richards)
Central Park South

(Kristen Richards)
Gapstow Bridge at The Pond

(Kristen Richards)
A breezy path

(Kristen Richards)
This gatekeeper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art also manned one of the forklifts that placed the 15,000 steel footing weights

(Kristen Richards)
Gatekeeper with parrots (not his own)

(Kristen Richards)
Harmonica Man at The Gates

(Kristen Richards)
Shakespeare at The Gates

(Kristen Richards)
Balto at The Gates

(Kristen Richards)
The Arsenal

(Kristen Richards)
The Plaza Hotel

(Kristen Richards)
A quick hem fix

(Kristen Richards)
Truckloads of tubes left over from the unfurling

(Kristen Richards)
A tunnel at The Gates

(Kristen Richards)
Over-the-top view

(Kristen Richards)
The Gates climb steps

(Kristen Richards)
The Great Lawn

(Kristen Richards)
A pretty path

(Kristen Richards)
Catching the sun

© 2005