- Historic Sites
The Central Park
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
If the park was not yet central, neither did it remotely resemble a park. On the advice of the city fathers the state legislature had allotted New Yorkers an area of peculiarly grim desolation, “a succession of stone quarries interspersed with pestiferous swamps,” reported the engineer who surveyed it for the city. Its soil was so thin and poor, a writer was to recall in 1869, that “even mosses and lichen” refused to grow on its high ground. The swamps, created by five muck-filled streams, gave off an unbearable stench and raised a crop of poison ivy so thick it laid a surveyor low for a month. There was scarcely a tree worth saving for a park.
Ill-favored by nature, the future park was equally ill-used by man. It had a population of some five thousand desperate squatters—a few Indians among them—who lived in hovels, caves, and trenches. Most were scavengers who survived by hauling the city’s garbage back to the park site in dogcarts, the refuse providing food, bones for boiling, and swill for a number of pig-fattening establishments. The squatters’ chief companions in misery were tens of thousands of half-wild dogs as well as an occasional missionary sent up from the city churches in hopes of reclaiming their souls, or at the very least of regularizing their marriages.
Sensing, perhaps, that the public’s warm hopes had cooled, Tammany leaders decided that even this disheartening terrain was too generous a gift to the citizenry. Regaining control of the city government, Tammany’s minions on the city’s council began proposing schemes for chopping down the park. One obstacle was already out of the way: a steamboat explosion on the Hudson River had snuffed out the life of young Downing, the park’s most redoubtable champion. In 1854 one committee, bent on truncation, recommended that Seventy-second Street be the future park’s lower limit. Equally bent on narrowing, it also recommended that 800 feet be lopped off lengthwise. Strongly supported by all whose “eye,” as Bryant angrily wrote, is “accustomed to look upon the dollar as the only attractive object in this world,” Tammany decided in 1855 that the future park was ready for the death blow. On March 15 the board of aldermen lumped together both committee recommendations and passed a resolution favoring lengthwise lopping and transverse truncation, which would have reduced the park to a bit of public ground bordering two reservoirs, in other words, to a nullity.
But the mayor that year was the ever-untrustworthy Wood, reluctantly nominated by Tammany in 1854 to fend off the Nativist party, and it was Mayor Wood who saved Central Park with a thunderous veto of the aldermanic attempt to “deprive the teeming millions yet to inhabit and toil upon this island of one place not given up to Mammon.” For that act of demagoguery—the last virtuous act in Wood’s political career—Tammany never forgave him. Nor did its fuglemen appropriate any funds to create a park out of the exurban wasteland which, as of February 5, 1856, the city officially owned, and which a year later it had done virtually nothing about. Poetry had a foot in the door but the park seemed doomed to die slowly of inertia and inanition in the hostile environment of the city.
Unbeknownst to anyone, however, the quixotic hero of the park’s history—the man who was to create it and whose hovering spirit protects it still—was about to enter the story. He was thirty-five years old in 1857, a sometime farmer, a failed publisher, and an amateur journalist whose description of the slave states, published in The New York Times , recently had won him high praise, although not in Tammany circles. His name was Frederick Law Olmsted and, as he often said with bitter irony, he was not a “practical” man.
In the greater history of the American republic, Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency is rightly accounted a political miracle. In the little history of Central Park, Olmsted’s rise was equally remarkable, and the same general force lay behind both. An insurgent political party had been born, a party that embodied, if only for a few glorious years, much that was fresh and vital in the public life of the country. In the 1856 elections the onrushing Republicans won control of the New York State legislature. In April of 1857 they took control of Central Park from the city government and vested it in a nonpartisan “Board of Commissioners of the Central Park.” The Republicans appointed the commissioners and by New York City standards—that of the future “Boss” Tweed’s Street Commission, for example—they chose remarkably well, which is to say, they chose men who honestly wanted to create a worthy park.