The Real Story Behind New York City’s Central Park

New York Central Park“How do New Yorkers get away from all that noise?” my husband remarked. Even from the observation deck of the Empire State Building—over a hundred stories above Manhattan—we could still hear the honking of horns, the screeching of brakes and the expletives of angry drivers who were all impatient to get to their destinations in less than a New York minute. Since I had visited the Big Apple before, I had a ready answer for him – Central Park.

One almost feels compelled to refer to this sprawling patch of greenery in capital letters and with a sense of awe that such a serene place could co-exist in the frenetic midst of a concrete jungle. Even for those who have never set foot in the Big Apple, Central Park is an easily recognizable landmark. Its rolling meadows have provided the photogenic backdrop to scores of popular films and television sitcoms.

This July marks the park’s 150th birthday. To celebrate, the park has planned a year-long celebration, including dozens of special events and programs.

How the park came to be, however, could almost be a movie plot itself.

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“Urban squeeze” was already a reality for most New Yorkers as early as 1850. With a city population that had just reached its first half million, the upper-crust began to recognize that rubbing elbows was no longer just a charming, figurative phrase. Nor were they blessed with any shaded venues in which to escape the midsummer heat, enjoy a Sunday picnic, or simply stroll aimlessly without having to worry about being set upon by wolves or vagrants. The idea of giving Manhattan’s burgeoning cityscape a public park evolved so that the city could  symbolically affirm  its municipal success.

The only obstacle was the nearly 1,600 residents who already called the topographically dismal acreage home.

By the middle of the 19th century, New York City had surpassed Paris in population and was vigorously closing in on London, largely because of immigrants who sought prosperity on American shores, and the Southern slaves who sought freedom in the north.

Yet for all of the sparkling emergence as a world-class metropolis and financial center, the city lacked what Europeans had smugly prided themselves on for years: Botanical gardens, tranquil ponds and carriage paths through pastoral grounds. In contrast, the only place where Manhattan’s elite could socialize outdoors and enjoy an undisturbed weekend promenade was at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Lunching on marble tombstones and circumventing all those hearses, however, quickly grew tedious, and pressure was bought to bear to defend the view that New Yorkers could love the great outdoors just as much as the next person. Stepping up to champion the cause of an expansive greenbelt for leisure purposes was William Cullen Bryant, editor of The Evening Post.

In an unprecedented display of solidarity, the opposing political parties on the planning commission both rallied with enthusiasm to Bryant’s proposal and proceeded to allocate over $5 million to gobble up the undeveloped stretch of land before anyone else could build something on it.

What neither Bryant nor Andrew Jackson Downing, the country’s first landscape architect, hadn’t factored into the mix, however, was that the real estate they’d just purchased had already been built on and was, in fact, currently inhabited by lower-class denizens who simply couldn’t afford to live—or rather, survive—anywhere else. Irish pig farmers, Indians, German gardeners and almost 300 blacks who had established a settlement called Seneca Village were informed that they needed to pack up and move on. The compensation of up to $700 per lot did little to assuage the owners’ anger and loss of community, especially in light of the land’s perceived investment value by the city planning commission.

The New York legislature authorized the purchase of the land in 1853, and official groundbreaking began in the late 1850’s, marking the initiation of the country’s first landscaped public park.

The “Greensward Plan,” as it was named, was the result of a design contest that attracted 33 anonymous entries and was won by park superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux. Olmsted himself was quick to declare the bold new undertaking as “a democratic development of the highest significance,” skillfully sidestepping the fact that not only had the wealth of the merchant class successfully ousted those on the lower rungs in order to accomplish it, but that it would also spare no expense or tactical device to keep them out of the grounds as long as possible once the park was finished.

The sheer size of today’s Central Park—comprising 6 percent of Manhattan itself—belies its origins of being an entirely man-made creation. When first proposed, the 2.5 mile stretch of terrain between 59th and 106th had already been labeled unsuitable for residential or commercial construction. Concurrently, its unkempt “wildness” posed a unique set of challenges for Olmsted and Vaux; the existing vegetation, stagnant marshes, and rocky outcroppings were an eyesore that needed to be dealt with before anything even remotely resembling landscaping could commence.

Thus, using more gunpowder than would later be seen at the entire Battle of Gettysburg, the acreage’s less desirable features were explosively obliterated, clearing the way for the delivery of over half a million cubic feet of topsoil from New Jersey to sustain the 1400 species of new trees and shrubbery that had been specially ordered for planting. One whimsically has to wonder if they ever snickered in Trenton about “having all the dirt on Manhattan.”

For an average daily wage of $1.25, nearly 20,000 immigrant laborers put in 10-hour days to turn the formerly ugly terrain into a thing of beauty. Absent the efficiency of modern machinery, of course, everything that was brought in or taken out was by manpower or horsepower, including the creation and construction of four lakes and 36 bridges where none had existed before.

The project was not without its share of critics, particularly those who accurately  prophesied that it would quickly exceed the original city budget. Early conservationists also kept a wary eye on the park’s ambitious progress, emphasizing the strict need to keep its appearance as natural and unspoiled by civilization as possible.

To appease these demands, Olmsted and Vaux incorporated four sunken roads for crosstown traffic, which was the predecessor of the American freeway system. A labyrinth of separate pedestrian and equestrian trails preserved the imagery of a winding woodland path.

In the winter of 1858, the first portion of the new park was opened to the public –the wealthy, carriage-riding public, that is. Situated uptown and much too distant for the working class to walk or to hire transportation, the physical setting was conveniently prohibitive without having to put up signs which would have suggested discrimination. Even the city’s encouragement of Saturday afternoon concerts and light theatricals was artfully scheduled to preclude that portion of the population who worked six days a week and only had Sundays off for church or leisure.

Those who were intrepid enough to actually make the long hike and meet for a communal picnic with their peers were subjected to the indignity of being informed that certain ethnicities (primarily the Irish and Germans) could not assemble in large groups in the interests of discouraging potential rebellion. Schoolboys who sought to engage in sports on the open pastures were required to produce written letters of permission from their principal. Advertising was frowned upon as well, a rule which directly impacted local tradesmen whose only means of transport for family outings were commercial wagons emblazoned with pictures of their stores’ wares for sale.

The continued expansion of the park was further beset by interference from the infamous Tammany Hall, prompting both Olmsted and Vaux to take turns resigning, so great was their vexation that the political machine of New York was literally mowing down their creative vision as it widened the social divide. The fact that Vaux’ Ladies Refreshment Salon” at East 66th would segue into a casino and private party house for the mayor’s office galloped boldly astray from the original intentions to keep the grounds pristine.

Not until 1870 did the park come under local control, concurrently opening the door to facilities and activities which catered more toward the city’s middle and lower classes. Among these were goat rides, a small zoo, bicycle paths, lawn tennis, and a colorful carousel, which was powered up until 1916 by a team of blind mules who were housed underneath its broad base. Statuary and fountains began to come into vogue, too, attesting to the view that art and nature were not only inseparable in the grand scheme of things but should be accessible to the general public.

With the passage of time, the importance of going to Central Park just to be seen by the “right” people was replaced by the desire of New York’s modern population to get away from it all and, hopefully, not see or be seen by anyone. The respite of tall trees, green meadows, serene lakes and meandering footpaths has evolved into a welcome escape from cement sidewalks, steel skyscrapers, and the shoulder-to-shoulder hubbub of urban humanity.

The advent of movies caused Central Park itself to shift into a far greater celebrity role than any of those who had ever visited its grounds. As one of the most photographed American backdrops in film history, its timeless beauty and versatility have given it its own star quality: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Crocodile Dundee II, Fatal Attraction, Ghostbusters, Love Story, Moscow on the Hudson and Tootsie are only the tip of one enormous cinematic iceberg.

Last but not least is the matter of Central Park’s daily upkeep.  The next time you look out your window and find yourself grousing at how much yard work will consume your weekend, consider this sobering contrast: Central Park contains 250 acres of lawn which need to be kept trim, 58 miles worth of paths that have to be maintained and over 26,000 trees which shed leaves every autumn.


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