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Manhattan Week: Great Lawn Transforms From Dusty Arena To Lush Oasis

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From dust bowl to lush, green getaway, the renovation of Central Park’s Great Lawn is the next story covered in NY1's look back at two decades of reporting the Manhattan borough beat. NY1’s Shazia Khan filed the following report.

It was once a reservoir, drained and reimagined to become one of Central Park’s great pastoral retreats for some three million visitors a year. But the Great Lawn, as the pasture is now known, was once anything but.

Strolling through the Great Lawn, it is easy to see why New Yorkers and tourists delight in the park’s "emerald city."

“Mostly for its openness,” says one New Yorker. “You can’t play things like volleyball or play Frisbee unless we had something amazing like this.”

“You can’t beat the Great Lawn,” says another New Yorker. “Central Park has always been the aspirin of New York City.”

From the intimate moments, such as college friends playing guitar in the park, to the monumental, the 14-acre swath of green has been the venue of choice for some of the city’s largest and most memorable gatherings.

One of them was Simon and Garfunkel’s 1981 reunion concert. Two years later, it was host to Diana Ross’s memorable but controversial concert under the stars.

In 1995, the faithful came out in droves to see Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass during his historic visit to the city.

And what would summer be without free symphonic concerts courtesy of the New York Philharmonic?

But the string of hits eventually came to an end due to heavy use and little upkeep. The once great pasture was left in ruins.

“The Great Lawn was referred to as the 'Great Dust Bowl' because there wasn’t a blade of grass out here, and any time it was windy you could not walk around here. The dust and the dirt were just coming up all over the place,” says Doug Blonksy, president and CEO of Central Park Conservancy.

In 1995, the Great Lawn underwent a two-year, $18 million renovation.

Blonksy was present at the lawn’s grand reopening in 1997.

“People were so excited to come back onto the Great Lawn when it was closed for two years,” he says. “When they saw this lawn, they were blown away.”

The great challenge now for the Great Lawn is keeping its lush luster.

“The most important thing is to make sure it never becomes the Great Dust Bowl again,” Blonsky says.

That task, Blonsky notes, weighs on not just the conservancy, but on the parkgoers as well.

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