How ice skating helped put Fifth Ave. on the map

The Empire City Skating Rink
The Empire City Skating Rink

Before Central Park opened, fashionable New Yorkers huddled around Washington Square and Madison Square. At the time, upper Fifth Avenue was rural and remote. But in the 1860s, “the neighborhood tipped from sylvan to stylish” thanks to a new fad – ice skating, according to Curbed.

New York’s best families were lured north by ice-skating rinks that featured costume balls, fireworks, music, spacious restaurants, and selective membership.

Two ponds located across the street from one another at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, where the Plaza Hotel and Apple Store now stand, and another at 46th and Fifth, now a Guess store, where favorites, according to Curbed.

One of the first parts of Central Park to open to the public was the skating pond, now called the lake, in the winter of 1858-1859. Downtown ponds that had once been used for skating, like the Collect Pond, had long been built over, and Central Park became all the rage.

When the ice was deemed thick enough to skate, a red ball by the bell tower just south of the reservoir was raised. “The ball is up” became the code for a skating day.

“The city railroad cars would have deceived any stranger to the city,” the Herald reported about a freezing cold day in 1860, “and made him believe the Japanese had returned to New York, for at the end of each vehicle was a flag, with a flaming red ball on a white ground.” [Curbed] Christopher Cameron

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