The Central Park


Even in winter the young park gave pleasure to the city. Its frozen lakes instantly revived the lost art of ice skating in New York. When the lakes were first opened to skaters “the variety of skates were few and poor and the varieties of skaters still fewer and poorer,” the park board noted in an annual report. But by the end of the Civil War skating had become the winter pastime of scores of thousands of New Yorkers, a spectacular pastime at night when great calcium flares lit up the lake for as many as 20,000 avid skaters. In his Description of the New York Central Park, published in 1869, Clarence Cook wryly warned the “countryman” not to venture into the park with his laughably outmoded “double gutters.” “Skaters,” said Cook, “are now as much exercised over the shape and material of their instrument as horseback riders are over their saddles, and cricket players over their bats and balls.” When the lake was safe for skating, the park-bound horsecars would break out flags and New Yorkers would spread the good word to each other. When snow lay on the ground, Central Park seemed to galvanize the entire city, although it still lay a long way uptown. As a British journalist noted in 1862, “On a winter bright day when the whole population seemed to be driving out in sleighs to the great skating carnivals at the Central Park, I have seldom seen a brighter or gayer-looking city.”

Every afternoon around four, winter and summer, the young park drew the rich, the famous, the beautiful, and the notorious. The lure was the park’s lovely carriage drives, so smoothly graveled, said a contemporary, that “slippered feet might tread them with ease and pleasure. ” The wealth to buy costly carriages flew into the city on the wings of war, as Strong tartly noted on March 21, 1865. “Fifth Avenue from Forty-ninth Street down was absolutely thronged with costly new equipages on their way to Central Park....It was a broad torrent of vehicular gentility, wherein profits of shoddy and of petroleum were largely represented.”

The late-afternoon carriage parade—an immense procession of spanking new landaus, barouches, and Victorias—quickly became one of the famed sights of the city, the flashiest spectacle in New York’s postwar “flash age. ” Of an afternoon on the East Drive, all the city’s choice specimens put on their varied displays. Among the fourteen thousand carriages passing through each day, there were to be seen the enormously wealthy: August Belmont driving an English break and four; the fusty relics of New York’s colonial aristocracy—a Livingston or a Schermerhorn secluded in an out-of-date brougham drawn by an equally unfashionable fat horse; the upstart buccaneers of post bellum Wall Street—with Jim Fiske flashing his two French opera stars, Irma and Tosteé, in his red and blue carriage; the notorious and the infamous—elegant Josephine Wood, the “society” brothel-keeper, and Madame Restell, the Fifth Avenue abortionist and blackmailer, the most feared and hated woman in the city. So it was to continue decade after glittering decade until horsepower replaced the horse and altered Central Park’s character forever.

Although the strollers thoroughly enjoyed watching the carriage set, few members of the carriage set enjoyed mingling with the footsloggers. It was not until years after the park was completed, for example, that Strong determined that it “reveals its full beauty to pedestrians only. ” Yet public conduct in the early years was exemplary. In 1858 the Herald had offered the common prediction that the new park would swiftly become “a beer garden for the lowest denizens of the city.” A few years later, the Herald cheerfully admitted its mistake. Those who came to the park by streetcars “always behave well.” It was the vehicular gentility that misbehaved. “The more brilliant the display of vehicles and toilettes the more shameful the display of bad manners.” The “lowest denizens” actually gave no trouble. “Even men of reckless disposition and unaccustomed to polite restraints upon selfishness,” Olmsted recalled, fell under the park’s benign influence. In unruly New York this surprising ruliness stemmed from many causes. The most important, quite simply, was that New Yorkers were intensely proud of their raw new park, impressed by its almost daily improvement and by the conscientious zeal of all who worked for it, including Olmsted’s gray-uniformed “park keepers,” whose task it was to remind the transgressor, as one gentleman to another, just what the park rules were.

Yet there was something ominous about the new park’s success, as Clarence Cook shrewdly hinted in 1869. Its visiting throngs were not recreating their minds, they were re-creating the city. They loved the bustle of the Mall and the spectacle of wealth in motion. They loved boating, skating, and driving. In 1868 the park board had to introduce public omnibuses to the carriage drives so that ordinary people, too, could be whisked through the park. Only the seven-mile-per-hour speed limit, strictly enforced, kept the drives from reproducing the tumult of Broadway—deadlocks, collisions, and all.