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Peace, Love and Central Park

       The construction of Central Park began in 1853 when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux "created their vision of the Park as a place where people of all social and ethnic backgrounds could mingle."1 The park would eventually inhabit 843 acres and became the focal point of downtown Manhattan. Activities such as bike riding, boating, jogging and many others have long been a part of Central Parks landscape. Additionally, the nature of Central Park, with its unparalleled open spaces, has made it an important spot within the city for the congregation of large numbers of people. However, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s the park became and area of contestation as to who could assemble in the park and for what purpose.

      The United States involvement in the war in Vietnam produced an enormous outcry within some communities. Additionally the emerging counter-culture, with their anti-establishment mind set and impromptu public displays challenged the ways in which public space was used. This blatant challenge of authority coincided with the 1965 declaration of Central Park as National Historic Landmark and its 1974 declaration as a New York City Landmark2, all of which caused a reevaluation of the ideas of Central Parks use by the public. "Under the brief, dramatic and well-publicized leadership of Mayor John Lindsays first Parks Commissioner, Thomas Hoving, Central Park became a giant stage for the improvisational drama of urban life. The people of the city embraced their roles as actors in a variety of spontaneous performances and planned spectacles"3

       The war in Vietnam incited protests throughout the world. New York City was no exception. The closing years of the 1960s numerous protests, both large and small were held against the war, many in Central Park.

        In May of 1966, nineteen young women draped in white sheets and donning death masks led a mock funeral procession. The protesters carried yellow, white and purple chrysanthemums and hummed in monotone as an empty coffin reading "American Dead 4,000- Vietnamese Dead 1,300,000". Some spectators were "embarrassed or awed" and many children became frightened and began to cry. One many was heard to exclaim: "Theyre ashamed to show their faces."4

"Isnt this young generation awful? What are they coming to? In my generation things were never like that."5

        "Happenings" or "Be-Ins"were a frequent occurrence through New York during this time period. Central Park provided a particularly good arena, as they could make use of the wide open space and natural surroundings.

      On New Years Eve in 1967 around one thousand people attended a Happening and rang in the new year with avant garde music, a flock of quacking geese and the burning of a Christmas tree. The event was well received by Parks Commissioner Thomas P.F. Hoving, who was in attendance at the event. He remarked: "Were going to do this know, its old hat to go to Times Square when we can have such a wonderful happening in Central Park."6

       Just a few months later, another holiday, Easter, was celebrate "be-in-style" in the park. This time, around ten thousand people descended upon Sheep Meadow in the park.. They were patronizingly described by the New York Times as "poets from the Bronx, dropouts from the East Village, interior decorators from the East Side, teachers from the West Side and teeny boppers from Long Island...They wore carnation petals and paper stars and tiny mirrors on foreheads, paint around the mouth and cheeks, flowering bedsheets, buttons and tights."7 The group chanted L-O-V-E in a display meant to "express the love of mankind on Easter".8 Participants claimed: "We wanted to be a celebration of being alive, of having that experience in the park...people in New York dont look at each other, dont see each other, dont talk to each other...This is one time we could do all that without being uptight or afraid of it...Its an affirmation of not being afraid, an affirmation of love and happiness."9

     The days activities also demonstrated both a distain and respect for the local authority. Police, while making no arrests, were subject to many unwanted personal encounters. Groups of people covered cop cars with flowers while chanting "daffodil power" and later hundreds surrounded a small group of officers alternatively crooning "we love cops...turn on cops".10 One of the events organizers, Jim Fouratt remarked, "The police were beautiful. It was really strange and it freaked them out, but they were beautiful."11 It was not only hippies at the days festivities, many families joined in following the Easter Parade down 5th Ave, signs in Spanish also welcomed many from the Puerto Rican community and three nuns were even seen wearing Be-In buttons.12 However not all those present in the park that day enjoyed the festivities. Some onlookers were described as "stunned, amused and dismayed" and one woman was heard to remark "Isnt the young generation awful? What are they coming to? In my generation things were never like that."13

"Make Love Not War"14

       The Easter Sunday Be-In, as well as the many smaller ones that took place throughout the spring of 1967 were organized in conjunction with "The Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam". Less than a month later, on April 15 a large specifically anti-war rally took place. This marked a shift from the fun and free spirited nature of the Be-In to the more serious tone of the political rally. On April 15, 1967 police estimated between 100-400 thousand people participated in the peace demonstration, which was said to be the largest of its kind at the time. The marchers assembled in Central Park and as the Village Voice stated "the grass will never be the same".15 However, as a spokes man for the park explained, "we were requested by the police to let them use the park in the interest of public safety."16 The group then marched down the Avenue of the Americas towards the United Nations where the protest culminated with speeches from among others, Dr. Martin Luther King. Mayor Lindsay, recognizing the potential for unruliness, instructed protesters exercise their rights "peacefully and quietly" and warned police to be "courteous and maintain total objectivity", even in the face of provocation.17 However, despite the size of the demonstration and the burning of draft cards by a group of 75 men in the park, the only five arrests that were made were counter-demonstrators, who staged an Anti-Communist rally.18

       The activities that took place in Central Park itself included a peace fair featuring performances by folk singers, rock groups and dramatic readings, which featured such big names as Peter, Paul and Mary, Harold Pinter and Tony Randall. Along the parade route placards expressing the various intentions of the participants read:

"Pale Faced President Speaks with Forked Tongue" (held by Sioux demonstrators)

"Dont Make Vietnam an American Reservation" (held by Sioux demonstrators)


"Johnson Half Bright/Kennedy Fullbright"

"Romney is a Phoney too"

"MacBird is a Hawk"

"Impeach Elbie Jay"

"Eat What You Kill"

"Children in Vietnam Want To Grow Up Too"

"Be Nice to Others"

"Children of Vietnam" (which included pictures of mutilated children)

"No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger"

"Make Love Not War"19

        The demonstration had a very multi-faceted political tone. Sioux Indians from South Dakota and other native groups from upstate New York attended. As well, there was a strong showing from the African American community. Many were enticed to join when Rev. James Bevell, an aid of Dr. Kings declared that the war in Vietnam was a "conflict against a coloured people" and "that anti-poverty programs would not succeed while the country was fighting a war." Furthermore, it was stated that "white Americans are not going to deal in the problems of coloured people when theyre exterminating a whole nation of coloured people." Meanwhile, Martin Luther King himself "urged Negroes and "all white persons of good will" to boycott war by becoming conscientious objectors to military service."20 The demonstrations theme was "The Bread is Rising", borrowing from the French Revolution call to arms. This theme acknowledge the fact that the demonstration was about more than the war in Vietnam. Its cry was for all oppressed groups, both inside and outside the United States, for greater social justice and human rights.

       Later that spring hippies again invaded Central Park, this time "armed with electric guitars". About 450 attended a concert held on the Mall, where the Grateful Dead, among other bands, performed. The event, which was originally scheduled to take place in Tompkins Square Park, was forced to move to Central Park. The attendees of the event were described by the New York Times as "young people, some with bare feet and others wearing sandals or socks", who "did some moderately contortionate dancing at first. But then the pace quickly changed and soon they were jumping around like rag dolls being jerked by wires."21

       In 1968 the Peace Rally and Easter Be-In were combined into one event. Mayor Lindsay, an opponent of the war in Vietnam, greeted the marchers. Around 90 thousand people assembled at Sheep Meadow, representing over 120 different groups, including veterans, religious groups, the African American community, the Puerto Rican community, womens groups, labour groups and many students. One marked difference from the previous year, was the absence of Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated in the year following the 1967 rally. Dr. King's widow did however speak to the crowds, declaring that "My husband always saw the problem of racism and poverty at home and militarism abroad as two sides of the same coin. The inter-relatedness of domestic and foreign affairs is not longer questioned. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all the devasting [SIC] potential."22 It is interesting to note that the only incidents of disruption came when fist fights ensued after the rally was interrupted by pro-war demonstrators who charged at the assembled Socialist Workers Party and who later burned the flag carried by the National Liberation Front.

"The Be-In was Not Exactly a Love-In"23

       The following year, the Easter Be-In/Peace Rally/Kite Flying Be-In, was an even more dismal event. As the Village Voice reported: "Every year it gets a little larger, slightly more exaggerated, a bit further out, a mite more bizarre, and altogether hairier than the year before." In 1969, between 15 and 20 thousand people assembled in Sheep Meadow. However as one participant remarked "These people just dont have it together"24 Indeed, later in the afternoon, as bonfires roared giving Sheep Meadow "the aura of a bombed out battlefield", tragedy struck when a young man, leaped into one of the raging fires. As onlookers pulled him from the fire, word came down from the police that an ambulance would not come to the park unless the area was cleared. The man had to carried through the crowd to the police compound before being transported to the hospital. Additionally a police scuffle with demonstrators left three officers injured after being hit by rocks.25

Despite the tragic events of the day the Village Voice rather optimistically reported on the hippies use of the park, saying:

"A park is a hold-out against the city by nature, and thus it is not inappropriate that it has become the meeting ground for an annual convention of some of the citys strangest inhabitants...In the park, among their own kind, hippies have the rare occasion to really bust loose and let down their hair. Out in the streets they tend to be isolated and swallowed up by the overwhelming bustle of money-minded New York...Up close, however, it becomes evident that hippies are not afraid to actively use the park (even to the extent of leaving it littered and scarred). Their coutner-parts, on the other hand, the mainstreamers, seem to enjoy it only passively. For those who attend be-ins the grass is barefoot, the trees indefinitely climbable, the rocks for scrambling and perilous leaps, the mud for wallowing and the wind for erasing the mind. Lie under the wind if it gets to cold and invite the sun to spring."26

       Protests continued that year with a Lie-In held in November. Two to three thousand protestors blanketed Sheep Meadow holding white and black balloons to symbolize those killed and those potentially killed in the war in Vietnam. The protesters, who cleaned up their own debris, were hassled only by a small group of passerbyers carrying an American flay and heckling. Mayor Lindsay however supported the protesters saying: "the dissent of those participating today is the highest form of patriotism. It is an attempt to speak out in the great tradition of our historynot through violence and discord, but through peaceful debate and solemn witness."27

"The Parks are works of Art. Go fly a Kite"28

        While Mayor Lindsays support for anti-war demonstrators remained un-waning, other city officials and some members of the general public opposed both their message and their use of the citys public space. In 1965 Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris refused to grant a permit to a group looking to use the Mall for anti-war speeches. His ban was upheld by the city, but not without controversy. Opponents of the ban called it a form of censorship and discrimination.29 The next Parks Commissioner, Thomas P.F. Hoving, was considerably more hippie friendly. When the park was threatened with encroachment by a proposed polo arena. Hoving solemnly declared that "The parks are not for building. The parks are works of art. Go fly a kite."30, referring to the many hippie Be-Ins.

      Similarly in 1967, Parks Commissioner August Hecksher stated that he would not longer permit Central Park to be used as a staging area for mass demonstrations. Heckscher claimed that it disrupted those who went to enjoy the park itself and also cited damages of $4,500 resulting from a previous demonstration. He also said that park regulations were broken by demonstrators who flew unauthorized banners, sold literature and burned flags and draft cards. Heckschers solution to this problem was to set up "forum areas" specifically set aside for discussions, demonstrations and debates. One proposed site was Randalls Island, where "people can gather. And walking down through Wards Island and we hope across the footbridge at 103rd St. they can get into the city."31 However Heckscher said the types of events that would not be banned from Central Park were things like Ringling Bros and Barnum Baily Circus or the previous Saturdays celebration of Canadas Centennial. Heckschers declaration met with much opposition from groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union which said that the proposed ban "would seriously infringe on civil liberties" and pointed out that strict enforcement of the rule would require the cancellation of "I am an American Day"32 The group proposed a compromise that would set aside one area of the park for such demonstrations. Following August Heckschers announcement, Mayor Lindsay put out a statement qualifying the order. The Mayor said: "Applications to use Central Park for mass meetings and as a staging area for protest demonstrations elsewhere will be considered on their "practical merits""33 Heckscher in an attempt to seem democratic stated that his proposed ban was not statement of his view on politics. Rather he says: "It is a declaration of the integrity and greenness of Central Park".34

       Two years later, after numerous hippie Be-Ins and Peace demonstrations. Heckscher again declared his dislike of the counter-culture. "Hippies are not what they once were" he declared. "This year it was a different sort of crew...They had no respect for the park, for the nature, or even for themselves. This year was an absolutely senseless, destructive movement."35 Those feelings were echoed in an editorial in the New York Times two years later. Marya Mannes lamented:

"The People [hippies] are the self-appointed battalions of Freedom. Power to the People to make a mess of what is freely given them. Freedom to ignore the needs and pleasures of others...The People cant live without noise: the steel-drum monotony, the electronic screams of the new disturbers-of-the-peace. They cluster about them, twitching and vibrating ; or stretch nearby on the scabby earth of the Sheep Meadow or above Bethesda Fountain, framed by the debris of their snacks while a faint haze of pot drifts over The Peoples masquerade below them...The Peoples reign [on the fountain] turning into a sick and chilling scene: a combination of decadence and barbarism; cut-rate Fellini Satyricon...Whom do they harm? Themselves, perhaps. But people too. People who come to the park to be at peace; free of crowds and noise and garbage. People to whom a wide expanse of green grass or clear water is balm itself...They cannot exclude any citizen for any violation, since signs about trash or grass mean nothing to those who respect nothing. But perhaps, as in playgrounds for children, they could set aside "peace-grounds" for the tranquillity seekers: areas out of bounds to bands, transistors, freak-parades, or People Power for any cause of purpose. Bethesda Fountain- one of the loveliest spots in Central Park- might well be the first of such serene enclaves. In exchange, The People could take over the Sheep Meadow, already a barren waste, for parades or group encounters; and the Shakespeare Theater in daytime for Counter-Culture charades to the sound of a dozen steel bands playing at top volume to a forest of arms permanently raised in fist salutes. What is a park for? Perhaps to save people from The People."36

       The weakness of the above arguments is that they treat hippies as a singular entity. As this paper has illustrated, the individuals who assembled in Central Park throughout the decade have assembled for a variety of purposes and have been both destructive and orderly. While the 1969 Easter Rally could be seen as disruptive because of both the damage to park property and the endangering of lives that took place, other gatherings such as the November 1969 Lie-In demonstrated that counter-culture activities can be orderly and non-threatening. However, regardless of the relative order of the given events barring a group from using a public space is a violation of the constitutionally protected right of freedom of assembly. Furthermore, what one group finds disruptive may been seen as appropriate to another. Take for instance the case in 1967 when plans were made to construct a polo grounds on park property. Many found that to be exploitative of the parks resources and the citys money since only a fraction of the population would truly engage in its activities. Likewise, the Be-Ins and Peace Rallys were seen as disruptive to some because of their volume, message and visceral use of the parks facilities. However, one thing that should be noted is that unlike a polo grounds, a Be-Ins and Peace Rallies did not economically discriminate and are theoretically open for anyone to attend. Ironically, however, it is the hippie legacy within Central Park that has become a permanent fixture in the memorial to John Lennon with Strawberry Fields and the Imagine mosaic.

       The issue of who can use the park, what part of the park they can use and for what purposes is an issue that did not begin or end with the hippies of the 1960s. Important parallels can be drawn to the recent anti-war demonstrations that have taken place within the last two years stemming from the war in Iraq. Similarly, the Iraqi war has been a polarizing factor within society and supporters of the anti-war movement could be seen as decedents of the hippies of the 1960s. Their use of the park for assembly and as a forum for public political expression is one that the activities of the 1960s has fostered. The movements of 40 years ago and today have shown that politics is not something that is discussed strictly behind the closed doors of City Hall. Issues that effect the people should be debated among the people and expressed in public forums. The use of public space, especially high profile public space, helps to strengthen the message that political groups such as anti-war and civil rights movements preach: that it is the people who make up the country and that their freedoms and liberties should be paramount and that their voices deserve to be heard.




"Aerial view of Central Park"


"Hippie in Central Park"

"Large Group of Young People Congregated in Central Park"

"Girl at Hippie Event in New York"

"Crowds of Demonstrators at Vietnam War Protest Rally"

"Man Burns Draft Card at Vietnam Protest"

"Protesters at Anti-War Rally"

"Crowd Gathering in Central Park"

"Youth Carries Balloon, Burns Draft Board"

"Huge Crowd with Arms Linked Walk to Central Park"


"Young Girl Flying Kite in Central Park"

"Crowds Gathered at Vietnam War Protest Rally"

"Yippie Lying with Head in Girl's Lap"





"Bethesda Fountain in Central Park"

"Imagine Mosaic in Central Park"

"Picture of George Harrison in Strawberry Field's "Imagine" Circle"

"Anti-War Demonstration in Central Park"

"Anti-War Demonstration in Central Park"

Elizabeth Migliore
March 31, 2004