Just how bad was Central Park in the 1970s?

The opening paragraph from a New York Times story published on May 26, 1977 sums it up well.

“In Central Park, the once-green lawn of the Sheep Meadow is wearing away, gradually becoming a dust bowl with overuse,” wrote the Times.


“At the Bethesda Fountain, drugs are sold routinely, and the Duck Pond at night becomes a receptacle for beer and soda cans.”



Crime, graffiti, and decay are the buzzwords of 1970s New York City. And just because Central Park was the city’s jewel didn’t mean park structures and landscapes were immune.

Just look at this image of Belvedere castle. In the 1970s, meteorologists who read data from the weather instruments there (it was the highest point in the park and a prime spot to measure temperature) were planning to move because thieves kept stealing or destroying the equipment.


The park had deteriorated before, just after the turn of the century, and was brought back to life by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the 1930s. But the 1970s level of decay is hard to fathom today.

Centralparkthemaine1970sThe ancient Egyptian obelisk was spray-painted in white with the words “do it.” The fountain statue of the flutist in the Conservatory Garden was missing its flute.

Above, a boathouse from the 1940s was falling apart and defaced by graffiti. The statues of the monument at Columbus Circle were missing fingers, and the base was also graffiti-covered, at left.

One of the park’s lovely 19th century bridges is closed in this photo, a danger sign posted before it.

Centralparkbridge1970snytFinally in 1980, after studies were funded to help figure out how to save the park, an administrator was appointed. And two park advocacy groups combined to become the Central Park Conservatory, a “board of guardians” to help restore the park to its former glory.

[Photos: the Central Park Conservatory; New York Times]

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21 Responses to “Just how bad was Central Park in the 1970s?”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    The 1970s was the best time to explore the park. Had wonderful relationships then, in and out of the park. And the drug dealers never bothered me, I was a buyer/user at that! The spic and smack cleanliness is what drove me out.

  2. realeyezlife Says:

    wow..brings back memories…i spent almost everyday of my childhood in the 1970s in that park…

  3. carolegill Says:

    Left NY then to live in England. Still here. I hope it’s all different now, I think it is. Will have to see some time. Interesting post,

  4. michael hunt Says:

    Not so long ago…….

  5. marylandis Says:

    Thanks for posting this! It really seemed impossible then that the Park would ever be the safe and beautiful place that it is today. It really is the jewel of NYC and remembering how awful it was in the 70s makes us optimistic that it’s possible to turn things around!

  6. manhattan resident Says:

    Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s the park was best avoided due to drug dealers and users. Now it’s safe, clean and usable again. Let’s hope it never reverts back to the bad old days.

  7. Tom B Says:

    Glad to see Robert Moses was recognized for something positive.
    The Central Park Conservancy has done a fine job. There WikipediA tells the success story. Thanks for showing the old pics. It should impart us ‘never again’.

  8. Walk About New York Says:

    Thank God for the improvements to New York’s crown jewel! My tour guests are always impressed with the condition of the park during the Central Park Walking Tour [http://walkaboutny.com/the-tours/central-park-walking-tour/].

  9. Alex Says:

    In the 1960s and 1970s the city had underfunded the maintenance of Central Park and all it’s public parks in it’s budget. Add the to that the bad economic times and the illegal drug culture, and it was a recipe for disaster. Like everything else public parks require upkeep. I remember Central Park in the 1970s, the grass was unkempt, there was a lot of graffiti, and there was too much trash. The negative elements had overtaken the positive aspects of the park. A lot of work and proper management went into the renovation. Like our infrastructures, parks need to be always maintained.

  10. petey Says:

    wow that brings back memories, esp. the diamonds and belvedere castle. but the diamonds (the Great Lawn, to those not from the neighborhood) were used throughout that time, so the park went on, whatever we remember of its reputation.

  11. Nycsfo Says:

    If you think that was bad you should have seen the subways 😉

  12. Pinball29 Says:

    And yet back then it all just seemed normal.

  13. cdselecto Says:

    Is super interesting to dig in to this information. Thank you!

  14. Nancy Delgado Krelios Says:

    The 70’s in Central Park taught me what rich teenagers do with their time, especially by the Bandshell. Only people hanging out there were rich preppy kids who had nothing better to do but to smoke pot, graffiti, and waste themselves. I finally left in 1979 and never turned back. I was happy to know that even though I wasn’t one of those fortunate wealthy kids and instead just a working class poor person, I was contempt with my life and not jealous anymore of these so-call preps.

  15. 19 Fascinating Facts About Manhattan’s Central Park – All That Gallivanting Says:

    […] 17-Central Park was not always as glamorous as it was during inception and years following and now. In fact, the 1970’s were not so kind to Manhattan’s Central Park. High crime, vandalism, lack of upkeep, and therefore, lack of visitors, all contributed to the decline of Central Park. Luckily, in 1980, Central Park Conservancy was form and eventually the dreary, wasteland that Central Park became, received a $50 million face-lift, which aided in its revival. Check out more here! […]

  16. Escape From New York City Says:

    […] encampments for junkies, prostitutes, and drifters. People feared to wander in large portions of Central Park, even during daylight hours.” – StreetEasy, Apr. […]

  17. roby2000 Says:

    That is another reason I fld NY in the 70s for 7 years.

  18. Robert Dowling Says:

    child of the city and life long resident. remember growing up west 69st and amsterdam ave. and as child with and later without parents either went to central park riverside drive park (those whom know either should know the other). A tidbit, remember in cental park they had ikn some areas on grass little signs less that 12 inches tall sstating STAY OFF GRASS and they meant it, if cop there he made sure you understood the msg. have gone from manhattan to upper man and the Bx, and no S.I. Oh shold have said i was born 1942.

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