- Historic Sites
The Central Park
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
In the dead center of the long, rectangular island of Manhattan—New York to most people—sits a long rectangle of parkland known appropriately enough as Central Park. On a quiet Saturday morning in springtime, when the automobiles are banned from its drives, it seems wonderfully at odds with the surrounding city. It pits rolling meadows against the city’s sharp angles, green life against brick and black asphalt, winding paths against the unbending streets of New York’s remorseless grid, into which it has been squeezed as if in a vise. On such a favorable morning Central Park resembles nothing so much as a small, defenseless principality surrounded by a predatory empire, hostile to its spirit, covetous of its green fields, yet miraculously surviving nonetheless—a sort of municipal Liechtenstein.
The Central Park, as it used to be called, has survived now for some 120-odd years and nobody knows quite why. In the least poetical of cities it marks the unexpected triumph of poetry over practicality and of a certain vague yet pervasive sentiment over the hard calculations of interest and profit. As Henry James rightly noted in 1907, Central Park has a “remarkable little history,” although it is known to exceedingly few. Most New Yorkers are quite unaware that the park even has any history to speak of. A long time ago, says the native New Yorker, the city fathers set aside a lovely swatch of primeval meadow and forest, laid in some paths and roads, and then more or less washed their hands of it. Such is the prevailing New York view of the matter. In consequence the native New Yorker feels little gratitude toward the city fathers, which only proves that true political understanding can shine through gross historical error. Central Park is most decidedly not a piece of primeval Manhattan. It is man-made throughout, every copse, glade, pond, and meadow. On the other hand the city fathers had precious little to do with its making and would have strangled it at birth had they dared. In this they were being true to the traditions of the city, a city which actually had decreed by law that poetry and sentiment would have to get along on their own and not be a charge on the taxpayers.
The law in question had been enacted in 1811 when the city fathers decided that the future development of Manhattan would proceed along straight lines and right angles and that the future metropolis would become in due course an unbroken succession of rectangular blocks. About the compelling merits of their grid plan the city fathers were forthright and confident. They had dispensed with “circles, ovals and stars,” they reported, for the “plain and simple” reason that “right angled houses are the most cheap to build.” They had left “few vacant spaces” for posterity, they noted, because New York’s posterity would never need them. Those “large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan” rendered public spaces wholly unnecessary to the health of the citizenry—the felicity of the citizenry counting, of course, for nothing. Besides, the city fathers noted, “the price of land” in Manhattan was “uncommonly great,” while salubrious sea breezes were uncommonly cheap. The 1811 grid plan did allow for a large parade ground for New York’s militia, but as soon as the expanding city got within a mile of it, the city parceled it off to real estate speculators. That the city fathers ever provided any public space for the citizens of New York is the first and fundamental miracle in the little history of Central Park.
It was a poet-turned-newspaper editor who first took public note of the squalid fate in store for a city that was relentlessly marching northward—“uptown” in New York parlance—without a single park to compare with the royal parks of London. This was in 1844, or four years before famine in Ireland and political reaction in Germany were to bring to New York the greatest influx of foreigners it was any city’s fate to cope with. The population, nonetheless, was an ample 370,000 and the city already bore most of its characteristic earmarks. It was cramped, noisy, and incorrigibly filthy. In the richest town in America the chief instruments of garbage disposal were unofficial scavengers, human and porcine. On the side streets, wrote a Scottish visitor, “the scene of confused debris was of a kind not to be easily forgotten—ashes, vegetable refuse, old hats without crowns, worn-out shoes, and other household wreck, lay scattered about as a field of agreeable inquiry for a number of long-legged and industrious pigs.”