If New York City is the Big Apple, then Central Park is its core. Scores of tourists and locals enjoy the more than 9,000 wooden benches that dot the massive park. Of these, about a third have been “adopted” by park-goers who want to own a tiny piece of history: 120 characters on a five-by-two-inch stainless steel plaque, to be exact.
There are countless mysteries etched into the dedications and inscriptions on Central Park’s benches: some romantic, some in memoriam and others just plain weird. The Central Park Bench Project, founded two years ago by Dan Gonzalez, seeks to document the plaques throughout the sprawling 843-acre park. His goal is to create a free online archive and map.
“These plaques tell a story that over 3,000 people are telling all at once. Sometimes they’re mysterious plaques, sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re heartwarming, but in the end, it’s telling a larger story about what New York City is all about,” Gonzalez said. “When you read these little plaques and you read these little mementos, it makes you kind of appreciate your own life a little bit and make you wonder what you would put on a park bench plaque.”
Stanley Gotlin and Barry Waldorf are doing just that. They have been together for 35 years and are planning to adopt a bench soon. “I thought, rather than go to a cemetery, which is so depressing, wouldn’t it be nice if [our families] went into Central Park and sat on our bench and remembered us and talked about all of the good times the family has had,” Gotlin said. “That’s a much nicer way of remembering us when we’re no longer here.”
The park started its Adopt-A-Bench program in 1986 in an effort to raise money for maintenance and restoration. It costs $7,500 for a standard bench and $25,000 for a rustic hand-made bench. While many are still available for adoption, some of the park’s most popular areas are full, including the benches near the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, the Mall and Strawberry Fields. If you’re interested in adopting one, see the Central Park Conservancy’s website.
Monica Alba and Angela Reece are master’s students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.