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Toronto Star

Meet Real Mayor Of N.Y. Alberto Arroyo Rules Central Park He Has Been Mayor For 68 Years Now

by Joe Fox

November 20, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Toronto Star. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK -- A walk in the Park with Alberto

He walks against the human traffic now instead of leading joggers around the reservoir, but there's no question Alberto Arroyo still reigns as Mayor of Central Park.

The Mayor is 87 years old now, uses a cane and walks with a limp instead of running, but he is as sharp as ever and always ready to talk about himself, his park and his city for anyone willing to stop and say hello.

For those of us who like to visit interesting people when we travel, New York City, of course, is a fertile place to go hunting for colourful characters. And for runners feeding their habit in the middle of the Manhattan jungle, there is no place better than the path around the big pool of water in the middle of Central Park.

For the last 68 years, anyone who takes the time to towel off and talk to Arroyo for a little while leaves with a better appreciation of the simple things in life, staying fit and enjoying people.

The Mayor is more than just the nickname used by regulars and visitors to the reservoir path. No less an august body than the U.S. Senate has sent him a letter with a resolution calling him that. It's posted on the reservoir pump house wall, along with similar declarations from both the New York State House Of Representatives and New York Senate in 1985 naming him "the father of the modern fitness movement" and "a pioneer who helped start the current trend in physical fitness."

Real mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani ceded him his turf long ago.

And to think people laughed at him in 1935 when he started running around the reservoir by himself, in his street shoes, during lunch breaks from his office job nearby at Bethlehem Steel.

Arroyo found himself in New York at age 20 after an adventuresome trip from Aguadilla in western Puerto Rico, where he was born in 1916.

An amateur boxer, he met a German girl on the beach where he ran to keep in shape.

He followed her to Europe but never tracked her down, ending up alone and depressed, living illegally and existing on canned sardines in Barcelona. After avoiding jail only because of the leniency of a judge, he got a job on a cargo ship to New Orleans.

"Two hours after I left I heard on the radio that the civil war broke out in Spain."

He made his way to NYC and used his early training as a stenographer to land a job.

"Everybody in the office used to make fun of me when I began spending my lunch hour running in the park," he recalls with a smile that crinkles his lined, weather-beaten face. "They were smoking and drinking coffee and playing cards, but I wanted to keep in shape because I was a boxer and running is good for boxers' legs."

He kept at it, alone, at first, running six miles a day in his work shoes and boxing trunks, even though his boss said it was undignified for a man to be seen in the park in short pants. Eventually, four other joggers joined him and a trend was born.

By the time Fred Lebow organized the first New York Marathon around Central Park in 1976 (157 started, 55 finished), the Mayor had been running there for four decades, making him both a pioneer and visionary for legions of joggers and runners everywhere, but especially at the reservoir, which is kind of a shrine to what has become a mass-participation activity. Nowadays, the total number of entries is cut off at 30,000 for the New York Marathon, which winds past 2 million spectators in the five boroughs and ends in the park.

When Arroyo retired from his day job more than 30 years ago, the once-lonely reservoir loop was a continuous stream of sweating humanity during lunch hour. Today, joggers can find someone to run with any time of the day, rain or shine or cold weather.

The 1.57 mile (2.53 km.) crushed stone path around the reservoir was built with nearly $100,000 from a fundraising drive in 1993 spearheaded by Arroyo, who has seen it all from his perch on a park bench near the pumphouse.

That includes the many movies that have been made there (remember Dustin Hoffman huffing and puffing his way around the path at the start of Marathon Man?) to the more recent Kissing Jessica Stein, in which Arroyo appears in silhouette on the path in the opening and closing scenes. "I'm in the trailer," he points out.

He has jogged with Bill Clinton and walked with secret smoker Jacqueline Kennedy - the last time, May 13, 1994, was just six days before she died. But he has time for the not-so-rich-and-famous, too, from the Fifth Ave. businessman in the co-ordinated Spandex outfit to the park's homeless denizens, as well as visitors from around the world who make it a point to stop and say hello.

"I am a spiritual man in my own way," he says. "I take joy at just coming here everyday and being in the park and talking to the people. Some think I really am the mayor, complaining to me about litter and other things, but I just laugh and tell them my story if they ask.

"I have lots of people from Canada, from many countries, who stop by when they come to the city. One man from San Francisco stopped coming for about four years, but he came by today to let me know he was fine, but his job changed so he couldn't come to New York as much."

He is proud of his accomplishments and recognition and is more than willing to talk about them. His bust is in the Museum of the City of New York, he points out, and, with equal amazement, that it is his photo on the cover of Gillian Zoe Segal's book New York Characters, "... not McEnroe or Ed Koch."

He wears a large medallion around his neck these days, one of only five minted by the makers of Olympic medals, honouring people for overcoming adversity, such as the only blind person to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and the last person to escape from the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

Arroyo, who lives in a simple room in an apartment-hotel on the Upper West Side, feels fulfilled with his healthy-mind, healthy-body philosophy of life, especially while surrounded by New Yorkers' obsession with money and power as typified by the skyscrapers circling his beloved park.

"I'm only interested in living in harmony with nature and walking for fun.

"I've got it at least as good as Donald Trump," he says with a glance toward Trump's gigantic office tower nearby.

There's no doubt he means it. And there's no doubt he is willing to share his philosophy with visitors who stop by.

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