Central Park: New York’s Backyard

Places: Central Park

Frederick Law Olmstead observed that the park he designed had a “harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city.” Although Olmsted was never truly interested in democratization of the landscape, there is something to be said for Central Park as a place where all of New York comes together in a weird sort of harmony.

From Summerstage to Shakespeare in the Park to ice skating in Wollman Rink, Central Park is a place with free (or low cost), high-quality events that bring people from all over the city (and beyond) together. On any given Sunday, the park’s Sheep Meadow (home to a flock of pure bred sheep from 1864 until 1934) is full of people from all over sunbathing, reading, picnicking, and enjoying the city’s “backyard.”

Plan of the Central Park, City of New York, 1860.D.T. Valentine and George Hayward, Plan of the Central Park, City of New York, 1860.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The history of Central Park is a history of city planning, and of conflicts between democratic ideas of serving the many over elitist notions of catering to the city’s wealthy. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar covers the social history of the park thoroughly and is highly recommended for those really interested in the history of Central Park (which is seriously a fascinating study of mid-19th century social classicism).

In the mid-19th century, New York’s population nearly quadrupled, thanks to increased immigration and the opening of the Erie Canal (1825), among other things. The idea of building a public greenspace in New York came about during this time as a way of improving public health (especially for those “unfortunate” classes that Olmstead so liked to reference) and creating a place where New York’s wealthy (feeling a little “squeezed” by the immigrants and working classes) could spend a picturesque and peaceful afternoon.

A design competition was held in 1857 to find a “landscape architect” (though this term was just coming into use in America) to design a central park between 59th and 106th Streets (in 1863, the park was extended to 110th Street). Frederick Law Olmstead (who was, by the way, already Central Park’s superintendent) and Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan won the competition, and Olmstead was appointed Chief Architect of Central Park.

The Greensward Plan was, above all, aesthetically-minded – artistic beauty was important to Olmstead and Vaux, who saw themselves more as landscape artists than as landscape architects. Convenience and practicality was not high on Olmstead’s priority list. Although not about Central Park, Erik Larson’s wonderful novel Devil in the White City, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (for which Olmstead also served as landscape architect), offers fascinating insight into Olmstead’s character.

Central Park, the Lake.Currier & Ives, Central Park, the Lake, 1862.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Central Park as it is today did not simply appear in nature. In fact, construction of the park was a huge ordeal. To achieve Olmstead’s vision, surfaces needed to be raised and lowered (over 500,000 cubic feet of soil was removed), drainage added, waterways dug, foliage planted (to the tune of 270,000 trees), and architectural elements built (including 36 bridges and arches).

By 1859, the park was open. By 1865, more than 7 million people per year were coming to enjoy Central Park, though in those early days many of them were the city’s wealthiest residents (rules such as a ban on group picnics discouraged many working-class immigrants). By the end of the 19th century, working-class New Yorkers were visiting Central Park more – thanks to new and more democratic attractions such as the Carousel and the Zoo.

[Girl feeding camel at zoo in Central Park.]William Davis Hassler, Girl feeding camel at zoo in Central Park, 1917.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Many of today’s quintessential Central Park attractions were built in the 1930s by New York’s infamous urban planner (known for his use of eminent domain and other classist/racist policies) Robert Moses. Under Mayor LaGuardia’s direction, Moses responded to the increased presence of immigrants in the neighborhoods surrounding the park and the city-wide call to build more places for active recreation for working classes. Moses built 20 playgrounds, athletic fields, permanent baseball fields, etc. and he even renovated the Zoo. A few decades later, other architects followed suit and added Wollman Rink, the boathouses, the Chess and Checkers house, and a few other recreational areas.

A visit to Central Park today is best when you pack a picnic to enjoy on the Great Lawn or another one of the park’s many great picnic spots. You can get your picnic supplies in Columbus Circle (the Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center is an easy place) before you head into the park by the southwest corner – just note that many of Central Park’s lawns (like the Sheep’s Meadow) don’t allow picnic blankets. After a picnic, wander around the park. Bethesda Fountain at the 72nd Street traverse is definitely worth a visit. If you’re feeling nautical, rent a boat at the Loeb Boathouse just west of Bethesda Terrace. (I haven’t done the boat thing yet but I can’t wait to!) If you’re not tired out by now, a visit to the Zoo is fun (the Delacorte Music Clock, near the Children’s Zoo, was a childhood favorite of mine – it plays every half hour from 8am-5pm), you could go catch-and-release fishing at Harlem Meer, or go bird-watching and enjoy a quiet moment at The Pool on the west side of the park. One of the best things to do in Central Park is just to wander aimlessly – allowing yourself to stumble upon the carefully-placed natural elements in the way that Olmstead and Vaux would have wanted you to.

From the park,

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