On September 19, 1981, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel got up in front of 500,000 people in New York City and played a show. That in itself sounds perhaps not terribly unusual, but bear in mind that they put on the concert in Central Park. Even that might not strike you as notable these days, but the early eighties found major American cities on the ropes. Their public spaces had reached an especially advanced state of deterioration, and commentators often singled out New York as a dreary bellwether of just this sort of aggressive urban decay. Looking back, to name just one example, we think of subway cars covered, every exposed surface both interior and exterior, with a palimpsest of graffiti. But Manhattan's Central Park had only fared a shade better, and the city found itself lacking the three million dollars needed to repair and maintain the now-beloved vast green space. Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis recruited the Queens-raised and New York-rooted Simon and Garfunkel to perform the free benefit show that would become the album and movie The Concert in Central Park, dedicating the revenue from merchandising and licensing to renovation.
You can watch the ninety-minute concert film above. Originally broadcast on HBO, it comes directed by New York native Michael Lindsey-Hogg, director of many clips for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (not to mention the son of Orson Welles). Simon and Garfunkel's performance, which runs two songs and twelve minutes longer than The Concert in Central Park the album, includes much of what you'd expect — "Mrs. Robinson," "Scarborough Fair," "Still Crazy After All These Years," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "The Sounds of Silence" — and a bit of what you wouldn't. It also offers a look back to a time when nobody quite knew whether New York City would get out of its slump, a time when Simon's lyric about "Central Park, where they say you should not wander after dark" made more sense. Despite false starts since, it now seems safe to say that the recovery has happened. By the same token, the concert itself, despite its success, proved a false start for an expected long-term Simon and Garfunkel reunion. But they would come together again to tour in the early 2000s, and rumors of possible future live shows continue to swirl.
via Mental Floss