The Central Park


The pace of New York was already so hectic it left foreign visitors nerve-wracked. “Nothing and nobody seem to stand still for half a moment in New York,” complained Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley in 1849. The huge omnibuses, she reported, “drive like insane vehicles from morning til night [and] appear not to pause to take up their passengers. ” Private oases in the uproar were few but conspicuous. By 1844 the Fifth Avenue (another example of the now-lost “the” in the grammar of old New York) had become the new center of wealth and fashion as far uptown as Fourteenth Street. Beyond lay a lightly populated anyman’s land, speckled with “pigtowns” of tin-roofed shanties, a few doomed farmsteads, and here and there, little rows of “town” houses waiting for the town to catch up. The undeveloped parts of Manhattan were, in the main, so disagreeable that few wealthy New Yorkers kept pleasure carriages; driving out of town brought no pleasure, a fact that was to have considerable bearing on the future Central Park.


For that future park the poet-turned-editor, William Cullen Bryant, timed his historic first blow for the July 3,1844, issue of the Evening Post, in which he pleaded for the immediate public creation of “an extensive pleasure ground for shade and recreation. ” The July 3 date was no accident. Bryant hoped to catch the “sachems” of the Tammany Society in a moment of civic weakness. It was on July 4 that the sachems, a semi-secret oligarchy that ruled New York in the name of the Democratic party, made their annual public appearance, wherein they pledged their undying devotion to the precepts of Thomas Jefferson and the well-being of the common man. But Bryant’s plea for the common man fell on deaf Tammany ears, which was not surprising even to Bryant. To do as little as possible for the commonality was the abiding principle of Tammany politics. Give the voters an unnecessary inch—clean streets, for example—and they were liable to demand a yard. To the sachems, “an extensive pleasure ground” for the people was not a good idea but a subversive one.

Bryant kept hammering away nonetheless and by 1850 he had gained the ardent support of a crusading young landscape architect named Andrew Jackson Downing, whose journal, The Horticulturalist, enjoyed considerable favor among the liberal spirits in New York’s “upper ten thousand” (the days when the city’s bon ton would restrict itself to the Four Hundred still lay four decades in the future). Downing’s eloquent voice helped considerably, but in 1850, an annus mirabilis in the park’s history, Tammany helped even more—by blundering. Normally the sachems wanted their mayors to be respectable idlers but that year they nominated a Quaker businessman named Fernando Wood, blissfully unaware that Wood harbored ambitions of the most dangerous sort. A genuine political desperado, he hoped to become, first and foremost, the boss of all the little Tammany bosses, a second Aaron Burr, and after that, why, the Presidency itself seemed not beyond reach. Wood took step one to fulfill this secret ambition in the course of the mayoralty campaign: he came out strongly for a great public park on the lines laid down by Bryant and Downing. With that, the park idea became in a flash a major public issue and a warm public hope, so warm that Wood’s successful rival, the Whig candidate Ambrose Kingsland, endorsed the idea with equal vigor and promoted its cause, as mayor, in the Whig-controlled state legislature.

Commercial interests howled in rage. A “People’s Park,” as Downing called it, would become a den of thieves and ruffians; it would slice a chunk off the tax rolls and wantonly waste the taxpayer’s money. Downing could talk all he wanted about providing “a real feeling of the breadth and beauty of green fields.” What the mighty Journal of Commerce saw in Downing’s “green fields” was “a perpetual edict of desolation” visited upon acres and acres of building lots. Downing could say of such a park that it is “republican in its very idea and tendency.” The park’s influential enemies denounced it as a species of monarchical extravagance. The more they raged, however, the more popular the park idea became. The city fathers had lost control of events, thanks to two crusading artists, an ambitious political rascal, and an electorate who knew a good thing when they heard one. And so the primary miracle took place: in 1853 the state legislature authorized the city to purchase a central reservation of land, half a mile wide and nearly two and a half miles long, which carefully respected the still-nonexistent streets of New York’s inviolable grid. It was bounded on the south by the future Fifty-ninth Street, on the north by 106th (extended a few years later to its present 110th Street boundary), on the west by Eighth Avenue, on the east by Fifth. It initially comprised some 760 acres, 143 of which came free of charge since the site included two city reservoirs, a bargain regarded as one of the chief merits of the central location.

Socially, however, there was nothing central about “The Central Park,” as it was known from the first. The site lay far beyond the inhabited city. Fashionable “uptown” at its uppermost limit still lay two miles to the south; the city’s teeming slums lay twice that distance away. As a French visitor remarked, “Nothing is more American than this ambitious name, given at first sight to wild terrain situated beyond the suburbs.”