Each summer, a thousand people – chosen by lottery – get a chance to sleep in city parks as part of the family camping program run by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
“It’s a break from our concrete city,” said park ranger Sunny Corrao. “You’ll find a little hidden mystery that you didn’t know was here.”
For many, that mystery is the wildlife that peeks out from the chestnut, cypress, and pin oak branches at dusk.
Little brown bats, red-tailed hawks, screech owls, and raccoons are just some of the fauna campers see on night hikes that take them from Belvedere Castle – with its skyline views – through the woodland known as the Ramble.
“We’ve seen the crawdads coming out of the water in the moonlight,” Corrao said. “They’re bright red as the moon shines on them and you forget that you’re in Central Park for a moment.”
Last Friday, that moment came when a parcel of Central Park turned into a little piece of the Catskills as 30 camping enthusiasts and several park rangers pitched a line of green 4-person tents a few hundred feet from Fifth Avenue.
Many in the group were Upper Westsiders and Brooklynites camping for the first time.
“We have the worst tent ever! We have never built a tent before!” said eleven-year-old Shirley Wu as she fumbled with a long, flexible tent pole.
Others were camping veterans. Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Cloutier and her father Paul Shatraw often camp in the Poconos near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania and in Harriman State Park in Rockland County.
They stocked their backpacks with pyjamas, sleeping bags, blow-up sleeping pads, Mad Libs, and a study guide for American Sign Language, which they were learning together for fun.
Shatraw lives in Bloomfield, New Jersey. His daughter lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
“We only see each other on weekends, so this is our only time to do this together,” said Shatraw.
A 24-hour lottery will be held August 10 for camping in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Inwood Hill Park in upper Manhattan, and Wolfe’s Pond Park on Staten Island the night of August 19.
The final nights of the city's Family Camping program this year are August 26 and 27.
However, the National Parks Service also allows camping at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.