On Aug. 7, 1997, country-music superstar Garth Brooks held a free concert in Central Park, known as “Garthstock,” as part of his 1996-1998 world tour. The show was a hit, featuring special guests Billy Joel and Don McLean, and was streamed live on HBO. The massive crowd filled the park’s North Meadow to capacity, holding a record number of 750,000 total concert-goers. However, Garth’s show became the last six-figure crowd to attend a concert in Central Park because, after that, city officials started to count crowds more accurately. Twenty years later, we know now that Garth’s concert most likely drew nowhere near that staggering number of fans, despite what authorities first reported.
The history of counting crowds at Central Park began with James Taylor’s concert in Sheep Meadow in the summer of 1979, which drew 250,000 people, according to city officials. Then, the following year, 300,000 people attended Elton John’s Great Lawn performance. In 1981, Simon and Garfunkel’s concert drew 400,000 people, as authorities reported. Ten years later, officials said Paul Simon drew 600,000 to his concert. By Brooks’ 1997 show, that number climbed to an enormous 750,000 concert goers at Central Park.
The city ran into some trouble in 2004 after a group opposing the Iraq war was denied a permit to stage a rally of 75,000 protesters on the park’s Great Lawn, just blocks from the Republican National Convention. The City Parks Department denied the permit because of fears that such a large number of people would damage the recently renovated lawn. The group sued the city, arguing officials had previously permitted concerts with much larger crowds. The anti-war group claimed they were denied because of their political views. The city settled the lawsuit by paying $50,000 to the groups and hired a panel of experts to advise the commissioner on the use of the Great Lawn.
In the summer of 2008, Bon Jovi played the Great Lawn for a crowd made up of a mere 48,538 people, counted by workers with clickers at the lawn’s various entrances. How did nearly one million concert-goers fit securely into the same space where 50,000 Bon Jovi fans could barely fit? City officials admitted they actually could not. The Central Park Commissioner at the time, Adrian Benepe, told the New York Times in 2008: “You look out at the sea of people from the stage, and your mind tells you, ‘That’s what hundreds of thousands of people looks like.’ Now we know it’s 48,500.”
The escalating size-crowd calculations started happening to make every event seem more successful than the last. Doug Blonsky, the president of the Central Park Conservancy, told the Times: “You would get in a room with a producer, with a police official, and a person from parks, and someone would say, ‘What does it look like to you?’ The producer would say, ‘I need it to be higher than the last one.’ That’s the kind of science that went into it.”
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