History of Central Park, New York

By Sarah Waxman

New York's Central Park is the first urban landscaped park in the United States. Originally conceived in the salons of wealthy New Yorkers in the early 1850's, the park project spanned more than a decade and cost the city ten million dollars. The purpose was to refute the European view that Americans lacked a sense of civic duty and appreciation for cultural refinement and instead possessed an unhealthy and individualistic materialism that precluded interest in the common good. The bruised egos of New York high society envisioned a sweeping pastoral landscape, among which the wealthy could parade in their carriages, socialize, and "be seen," and in which the poor could benefit from clean air and uplifting recreation without lifting the bottle.

The Creation of "a Central Park"

After years of debate over the location, the park's construction finally began in 1857, based on the winner of a park design contest, the "Greensward Plan," of Frederick Law Olmsted, the park superintendent, and Calvert Vaux, an architect. Using the power of eminent domain, the city acquired 840 acres located in the center of Manhattan, spanning two and a half miles from 59th Street to 106th Street (in 1863 the park was extended north to 110th Street) and half a mile from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue. In the process, a population of about 1,600 people who had been living in the rocky, swampy terrain--some as legitimate renters and others as squatters--were evicted; included in this sweep were a convent and school, bone-boiling plants, and the residents of Seneca Village, an African-American settlement of about 270 people which boasted a school and three churches. The members of AME Zion, Seneca Village's most prominent church, were scattered throughout the city, their community destroyed. Though the city did compensate the landowners with an average of $700 per lot of land, many residents estimated this far below the value of their property, which, despite the (until then) undesirable topography, contained their homes, their history, and their livelihoods.

The Vision

Chosen by the city and the park planners because its terrain was unsuitable for commercial building, the site for the new park offered rocky vistas, swamps which would be converted into lakes, and the old city reservoir. These varied elements would be refined, enhanced, diminished, and eradicated to create a park in the style of European public grounds, with an uncorrupted countryside appearance. To this end, Olmsted and Vaux's plan included four transverse roads to carry crosstown traffic below the park level. Architectural structures were to be kept to a minimum--only four buildings existed in the original plans for the park--and the design and building material of the bridges were chosen to assure that they were integrated as naturally as possible into their surrounding landscapes.

Building Central Park

Thousands of Irish, German, and New England-area laborers toiled ten-hour days under the direction of architect-in-chief and head foreman Olmsted for between a dollar and a dollar fifty per day. In the winter of 1858, the park's first area was opened to the public; December of that same year saw New Yorkers skating on the twenty-acre lake south of the Ramble. The final stages of the park's construction began in 1863, with the landscaping and building of the newly acquired area from 106th to 110th Streets. Due to budget constraints and the tight financial control that Andrew Green, the new comptroller, exercised, the area was less laboriously and meticulously designed, giving it a more untamed appearance.

The Park of the Wealthy

In the first decade of the park's completion, it became clear for whom it was built. Located too far uptown to be within walking distance for the city's working class population, the park was a distant oasis to them. Trainfare represented a greater expenditure than most of the workers could afford, and in the 1860s the park remained the playground of the wealthy; the afternoons saw the park's paths crowded with the luxurious carriages that were the status symbol of the day. Women socialized there in the afternoons and on weekends their husbands would join them for concerts or carriage rides. Saturday afternoon concerts attracted middle-class audiences as well, but the six-day work week precluded attendance by the working class population of the city. As a result, workers comprised but a fraction of the visitors to the park until the late nineteenth century, when they launched a successful campaign to hold concerts on Sundays as well.

The Park of the People

As the city and the park moved into the twentieth century, the lower reservoir was drained and turned into the Great Lawn. The first playground, complete with jungle gyms and slides, was installed in the park in 1926, despite opposition by conservationists, who argued that the park was intended as a countryside escape for urban dwellers. The playground, used mostly by the children of middle and working class parents, was a great success; by the 1940s, under the direction of parks commissioner Robert Moses, Central Park was home to more than twenty playgrounds. As the park became less and less an elite oasis and escape, and was shaped more and more by the needs of the growing population of New York City, its uses evolved and expanded; by the middle of the century, ball clubs were allowed to play in the park, and the "Please Keep of the Grass" signs which had dotted the lush meadows of the park were a thing of the past.

Central Park Today

In the sixties and seventies the park's maintenance entered a decline; despite its growing use for concerts and rallies, clean-up, planting, and general maintenance fell by the wayside. A 1976 evaluation by Columbia University found many parts of the park in sad disrepair, from the low stone wall which surrounded it to the drainage system that kept the transverses from flooding. During the early 1980s there was a massive attempt to involve New Yorkers in the upkeep of their beloved park, including the "You Gotta Have a Park" campaign and the formation of a private fundraising body, the Central Park Conservancy to fund repairs projects. Today, as the major site of most New Yorkers' recreation, the park hosts millions of visitors yearly engaging in such activities as roller blading, fine dining at the Tavern on the Green, watching free performances of Shakespeare in the Park, and relaxing and sunbathing in Sheep's Meadow.


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