IT IS springtime in New York, and spring happens mostly in the parks. There are cherry blossoms, suddenly, and purple tulips. Cooped-up kids are back on their bikes. There’s the haze of barbecue smoke and the smell of mulch and the sounds of birdsong and drums. It happened overnight, and it will pass just as quickly, because spring is an elusive and barely perceptible season. It will be summer soon.

Summer in the parks. That’s the subject of a series of long-lost photographs from 1978. The eight photographers who took them were normally on staff at the New York Times, but that summer the New York press corps was on strike. The photographers finagled a commission from the New York City Parks Commissioner to document the city’s parks. Nothing came of the photos: they went missing. Then they were found, about six months ago, by a conservancy official in two cardboard boxes. Some were published in the New York Times, and some are now on view in a gallery in Central Park. The show is delightful and unexpectedly challenging: it’s a reminder of the troubles and joys of public space and the tangled politics of city parks.

“Parks are the outward visible symbol of democracy,” said Robert Moses, the “master builder” of New York in the 20th century and one-time parks commissioner. Moses meant, perhaps, that parks are truly open spaces that know nothing of race, class or gender divisions. But parks, like democracy, have always failed to live up to that ideal. A black community called Seneca Village was razed in 1855 to make way for Central Park. Some evictions turned violent.

Parks have long been battlegrounds for urban conflicts. In 1989, a woman was brutally assaulted and raped while jogging in Central Park; five teenagers, one Hispanic and four black, were coerced into confessing and wrongly imprisoned. Tied up in this infamous incident and its aftermath was a question: to whom does public space really belong? This plays out constantly on a smaller scale; people are proprietary about their parks. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, tensions flared when some neighbourhood residents wanted to replace the park’s basketball courts with tennis courts. They were hoping to attract a different crowd. Recently it came to light that a group of Tribeca residents commandeered a public dog park. They didn’t like how certain dogs and their owners behaved, so they put a lock on the space and charged membership fees. City officials didn’t notice for nearly 10 years. 

The lost photos from 1978 were taken, in part, because New York’s parks were falling apart. It was a time of general national unease: cars queuing endlessly for petrol, rising crime, labour disputes. The city was in a financial shambles. One of the photographers, D. Gorton, remembers that the newly-appointed parks commissioner “wanted us to show what the hell was wrong with the parks” to help him secure donations. Back then, swimming pools were running dry. In one arresting photo, a boy perches atop an abandoned diving platform in a swimsuit. Below him, the pool is filled in a shallow layer not with water but with rubbish (pictured, above). In another, a cola can floats in a pool of slime in Central Park (below). The photo “Beer Bottle Still Life” is a Cézanne of urban decay.

By and large, though, most of the photos feel like celebrations of open spaces and their promises. People are dancing, two men are oil-painting, someone in a beanie is playing the cello, a man is roasting a whole pig, an elderly woman is wading in a fountain barefoot. There’s a young couple in love. Maybe it was a summer fling or maybe they lived happily ever after, but they’re frozen in time, arms intertwined, on top of a hill, the city skyline shimmering behind them. 

These photos seem to say: meanwhile, in the parks, life goes on. In one sense, this “meanwhile” can feel like an attempt to erase the fractured history of the city’s parks. It would be possible to look at the photos without looking hard enough, and feel only nostalgia. The photos are complicated, though. Some of the best ones are ambivalent, neither portraits of decay nor depictions of utopia. In one photo, two children play on a rusty, abandoned car. It’s worrisome—have they had their tetanus jabs?—and yet the boy is smiling curiously, clutching a book behind his back. Who knows what game the kids have invented with scrap metal. In another, a barefoot woman talks to a motor cop. Her bike rests against his; they look familiar. But her expression is distressed, hard to read. Looking at the pictures closely, the “meanwhile” doesn’t seem like a turn away from complexity, but toward it. The show is telling so many stories at once, slivers of stories that intersect and diverge, about a place at a particular time. These 65 photos are drawn from nearly 3,000 that were rediscovered. There are so many fragments.

Meanwhile, a girl licks popsicle juice from her arm and pigeons land on the shoulder of an older woman. Meanwhile, there was a newspaper strike and seven photographers exploring the parks, taking pictures that would be lost and found. Meanwhile, it’s spring in the parks and soon it will be summer again.