In 1979, folk-pop icon James Taylor became the first major popular-music figure to draw a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands to a free concert in New York City’s Central Park. On August 7, 1997, country-music giant Garth Brooks became the last. The reason for the abrupt end to six-figure crowds at concerts in the park? It wasn’t a change of policy with regard to allowing such gatherings—but a dramatic shift in how the crowds were counted.
The crowd that turned out to hear Garth Brooks in Central Park on this day in 1997 was truly enormous, filling the park’s North Meadow to capacity and spilling out into seemingly every available patch of grass and asphalt within earshot of the stage where Brooks stood and belted out hits like “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up).” But was the crowd really as large as the astonishing figure of 750,000 that was widely claimed in media coverage of the event? Thanks to an unrelated political controversy that arose seven years later, we now know that it almost certainly wasn’t.
In the summer of 2004, a group opposing the war in Iraq applied for and was denied a permit to stage a protest rally of approximately 75,000 people on Central Park’s Great Lawn, just a few dozen blocks from the site of the Republican National Convention. Concern over damage to the recently renovated lawn was the reason given by the City Parks Department, but a lawsuit alleging political motives was filed against the City of New York, with the enormous size of previous concerts crowds cited in support of the case. After all, James Taylor’s 1979 performance at Sheep Meadow was reported to have drawn 250,000, and Elton John’s appearance on the Great Lawn the following year was estimated at 50,000 more. In 1981, some 400,000 saw Simon and Garfunkel in the park, and 10 years later, an estimated 600,000 saw Paul Simon play solo.
So just how did those ever-escalating crowd estimates come about? In 2008, Doug Blonsky, former Parks Department administrator and then-president of the Central Park Conservancy told The New York Times, “You would get in a room with the 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.”
Thanks to the city’s need to defend itself against the RNC protest lawsuit, Garth Brooks would be the last superstar to benefit from this fuzzy math. In the summer of 2008, the capacity crowd at a heavily promoted free concert by Bon Jovi on the same spot as Brooks’ 1997 show was hand-counted at only 48,538-plus. As New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the Times, “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.”