New York circa 1979 had blown past decline and gone straight into fall. Though the fiscal crisis had crushed it financially, the city’s general collapse had been a group effort that left New Yorkers in a filthy, dangerous—though, admittedly, often exuberant—state of nature completely divorced from nature itself.

In the parks, the anything-goes mindset of the 1960s had meant millions of visitors with no sense of responsibility. A few years later, when the money ran out, all the dead, dusty acres they’d left behind made the city’s decay seem inevitable and unstoppable.

But the new parks commissioner under Ed Koch (New York mayor from 1978 to 1989), Gordon Davis, didn’t agree. To foster a new attitude toward public space, the tall former Lindsay aide from an august Black family focused on renovating the most visible park in the system: Central Park.

Seeds of Change

On a walk across the Sheep Meadow with New York governor Hugh Carey in the summer of 1978, Davis and the soon-to-be-named Central Park administrator, Elizabeth Barlow, got inspired. Back in the 19th century, a flock of sheep had grazed there, but now it was just stomped dirt. What if the city grew grass there again?

Carey agreed to cover most of the cost, making the real obstacle a practical one: how to keep people off long enough to let it grow. They’d need a fence, but they’d also need to ask New Yorkers to do something they are generally very bad at: respecting the rules, for the good of everyone.

To start the whole thing off, James Taylor, nearby denizen of Central Park West, agreed to hold a free “Save the Sheep Meadow” concert on July 31. After the final notes of “Fire and Rain,” the 250,000 people assembled were asked to pick up their garbage, The New York Times noting with surprise that “many did so.”

They’d need to ask New Yorkers to do something they are generally very bad at: respecting the rules.

The five-foot chain-link fence went up and miraculously stayed up though the winter as the sprinkler system was put in, then sod. That spring, the first green tips popped … and, three weeks later, turned brown. Jaded New Yorkers rolled their eyes. But Davis was undeterred—“It’s like having a brand-new baby,” he said—and by the end of summer the grass finally grew in for good.

“A little over a year ago,” wrote the author Carter Wiseman in October, “these fifteen acres were a dust bowl, a mean symbol of the city’s apparent inability to maintain anything healthy or beautiful.” Now visitors to the Sheep Meadow seemed “almost worshipful; strange expressions of puzzled delight come over their faces … ”

A few months later, the Central Park Conservancy was formed, plans were set in motion to renovate the Central Park Zoo and Bryant Park, and Davis became, according to New York, “the darling of the city’s media” for showing that ruin didn’t have to be the natural state of New York.

In time the idea of commonsense limits would be weaponized, but in those early days, taking responsibility for shared space was a revolutionary concept, and a simple field of fresh grass could show, said Davis, that “you can do something remarkable” for a city.

Thomas Dyja’s New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation is out now from Simon & Schuster