By Alan R. Cohen
The largest body of water in Manhattan is located in the middle of Central Park and is associated with quite a few stories. The 106-acre, 38-foot-deep, billion-gallon-capacity Reservoir, now officially named for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was built between 1858 and 1862 to receive fresh water from the Croton Aqueduct system. The Reservoir is no longer used for its original purpose. But the surrounding 1.58-mile cinder running tracking is very much in use. (Run counter-clockwise, please!) What began as a complex engineering feat to meet a basic need for the growing city—water—is now a place to view the skyline or to jog and maybe see a celebrity doing the same. The Reservoir is also a place where unlikely friendships can develop, a place of exploration, devotion, and challenge. One man, Alberto Arroyo, was part of many such stories in his seventy-plus years at the Reservoir.
Alberto Arroyo was a native of Puerto Rico who lived in a single-room-occupancy hotel on the west side of Manhattan. He claimed to be the first person to run around the Reservoir, in 1937. Before that, he ran on the nearby bridle path, until a policeman supposedly told him he was disturbing the horses.
Arroyo had tried boxing in Puerto Rico, but in New York City he worked as a clerk for Bethlehem Steel in Lower Manhattan. An early fitness enthusiast, he ran in Battery Park during his lunch hour. Arroyo participated in the first New York City Marathon in 1970. During his retirement years, supported by Social Security and a small pension, he ate one meal a day, took a vow of poverty so that whatever savings he had could be donated to others, and ran ten laps around the Reservoir track daily.
Arroyo was a fixture at the track, especially at the South Gate House, where he would coach aspiring marathoners and give foot massages. As he aged and became unable to run, he would walk around the track using a cane—but in the opposite direction of the runners so he could face them and encourage them. After a stroke, Arroyo needed to use a wheelchair. Volunteers would push him around the track so that he could perform his duties as the unofficial “Mayor of Central Park.”
Being a fixture at the Reservoir, Arroyo naturally met Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. A devoted preservationist, Onassis worked as a book editor, lived on Fifth Avenue at 85th Street, and frequently ran on the Reservoir track. Although she often tried to disguise her appearance with large sunglasses and casual clothing, her identity was no secret to the regular runners. She would run occasionally with Arroyo. One of his proudest moments was when the former First Lady told him, “Please call me Jackie.” Just days before succumbing to cancer, Onassis made a special trip to the Reservoir to thank Arroyo for his get-well card.
Photos of Alberto Arroyo running around the track, including one with him and Jackie running together, show the familiar skyline and the track separated from the Reservoir by an eight-foot-tall cyclone fence. This rusty, peeling barrier was erected in the 1940s and replaced an even taller cyclone fence topped with barbed wire that was put up in the 1920s. The fences were meant to protect the water from contamination, to keep folks from venturing into the Reservoir for an unauthorized swim, and to discourage suicide attempts (there have been several over the years). Before these high cyclone fences, the Reservoir was surrounded by a wrought-iron barrier about four feet high; it was attractive but unable to deter people from entering the water.
Around 1990, Arroyo noticed two joggers who came alone to the Reservoir. The man and the woman struck up a friendship, fell in love, and married. Besides each other, the couple had some other loves: the Reservoir, and scuba diving. The pair offered to use their scuba skills to clean the litter-filled Reservoir and, after persevering through layers of bureaucracy, ultimately received permission. Over many months, George and Catherine Parry removed, among other things, dead animals, countless soda and whiskey bottles, knives, even a baby stroller (thankfully, no baby). Their most important find was a rusted segment of the original wrought-iron fence. It became the model for the current fence, replacing the rusty old one. The woman, Catherine King Parry, for many years was manager of Central Park’s Chess and Checkers House, one of the visitor centers.
The Reservoir is located between 86th and 96th Streets. It was named in memory of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994, the year she died. Alberto Arroyo died in 2010 at age 94. The South Gate House (on the east side of the Reservoir at 86th Street), has photos and proclamation letters in his honor, a shrine of sorts to a man who loved this place.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required; please register at least 24 hours before the tour. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half -- Jane's Walk
Jane's Walk is an international event in which people share their favorite area of a city with neighbors and visitors in a walking conversation. We have chosen the lesser known but amazing northern half of Central Park for a Jane's Walk this year. Take in the city skyline from the track surrounding the Reservoir. Discover the tranquil Pool. Go for a hike in the North Woods. Learn about Early American military fortifications. End at one of New York's best-kept secrets, Conservatory Garden, which will be ablaze with spring blooms.
Alan and Laurie lead this 2-hour walk on Saturday, May 5, at 11 AM. Registration is not required. Meet at Central Park West between 90th and 91st Streets, opposite the El Dorado apartment building. All Jane's Walks are FREE!
Parks of the East 90s
What is a park? A park in this concrete and steel city may be different from one elsewhere. On this walk, you'll see different types of parks in two adjacent Upper East Side neighborhoods---Yorkville and Carnegie Hill. See how these parks vary to serve local residents.
Join Laurie to explore parks of the Upper East Side on Saturday, May 12, at 11 AM. Please email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org) to register and to learn the meeting location.
Fort Tryon Park
The high ground in Upper Manhattan that appealed to the new American army for a defensive fort later attracted millionaires who wanted to build castles on the Hudson. We'll walk from the site of Fort Washington to Fort Tryon Park, exploring vestiges of a Gilded Age estate. We'll take in the Heather Garden and the park's extraordinary Hudson River views. You'll hear about a fearless woman who was a good shot with a cannon, a self-indulgent tycoon, and a generous Rockefeller. We'll end at the Cloisters Museum, which you may want to visit on your own.
Alan leads this 90-minute tour on Sunday, May 20, at 11 AM. To make a reservation and to learn the meeting location, email him at email@example.com.
Green Spaces and Great Places on 42nd Street
Walking from Bryant Park all the way to the East River, you'll discover parks among famous Midtown buildings. Learn why so many "pocket parks" occupy prime Manhattan real estate. Make a brief visit to several iconic buildings, including the public library, Grand Central, and the Chrysler Building. End by discovering Tudor City, the first residential skyscraper complex in the nation, which offers both green spaces and interesting architecture.
Laurie gives this tour at the start of Memorial Day weekend, on Friday, May 25, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.