- Historic Sites
The Central Park
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
More ominous still, to Olmsted, was that so many “intelligent citizens” seemed to care so little for his governing principle: that the park was to be a rural landscape as free of the city as possible. They saw no reason why it should not be speckled with edifying buildings and fairground amusements. In 1872 Olmsted listed a few such proposals for the park: a memorial cemetery for the “distinguished dead of the city,” a “grand people’s cathedral in which all sects might unite in a common litany,” an exhibition hall to display the “goods for sale in the city,” a street railway running the length of the park, a place for horse racing and steeplechase riding. What made the park so tempting for all the would-be builders in its history—for promoters of swimming pools, circuses, academies, opera houses, radio towers, airfields, and armories—was the irresistible lure of a bargain. The price of New York land was still “uncommonly great,” while the price of the park’s green fields was uncommonly cheap, as cheap as the salubrious sea breezes that once made green fields so plainly unnecessary. The spirit of New York is amazingly persistent.
As long as the park board loyally beat down all such proposals, time lay on Olmsted’s side, time for the landscape to ripen, time for it to exert its “influence” on the moods and habits of the people. Such was Olmsted’s faith, and it was by no means entirely misplaced. That Central Park remains even today something more than what Olmsted called “a desultory collocation of miscellaneous entertainments” is proof of that, for in May, 1870, Olmsted’s park and Olmsted’s principles lost their official defenders with the abolition of the board of commissioners. Under the whip of Boss Tweed, the state legislature returned control of Central Park to the mayor of New York, which meant for all practical purposes the Tammany machine. For nearly one hundred years Central Park was to be in the hands of men more or less hostile to the spirit that created it.
The Tweed Ring fell apart too quickly to inflict fatal damage but it revealed clearly enough the Tammany view of Central Park. There was to be no interference from “landscape architects.” Olmsted, studiously ignored and insulted, angrily resigned his post, returning only after the Tweed gang fell. Nothing really changed after that fall. In 1878 Tammany drove Olmsted out of his beloved park forever and reduced Vaux to a distinguished menial. To Tammany the purpose of the park was to fuel the machine. Its work force became petty spoilsmen, the dregs of its ward-heeler brigades. Their salaries consumed what little was spent on maintaining the park, which slowly began to rot from neglect. When horticultural experts warned that the park’s trees were doomed unless the soil was enriched, Tammany’s parks department paid a small fortune to a well-connected rascal who provided the park with 10,000 cubic yards of cellar dirt more impoverished than the soil he was paid to enrich. To spare equally well-connected builders the trouble of carting their dirt long distances, one park administrator allowed them to dump it in the park, thereby filling up a picturesque ravine.
To the machine Olmsted’s park was a political enemy. It inspired hope and idealism, and Tammany battened on cynicism and despair. The “Hall” treated the park accordingly. A succession of park superintendents spitefully hacked away at the shrubs that hid Olmsted’s buildings, smashed open his secluded glades, “cleaned up” woodland by lopping off all the lower branches of trees. They invited the city to invade the park. One Tammany superintendent chopped down the tree screen in the northwest border of the park so that visitors could see the Ninth Avenue Elevated line. Above all, Tammany wanted to build—a great zoo on the North Meadow, a mighty World’s Fair. But here the machine found itself checked. Too many people protested. They liked Central Park as it was, for in the last years of the nineteenth century it was lovelier than ever before. In March, 1892, Tammany met with a particularly stunning defeat. Eager to oblige the sporting set, the party of the common man got the state legislature to authorize construction of a mileand-a-half-long “speedway” for private trotting races. From every quarter of the city there was an extraordinary outburst of fury. “A dangerous temper developed among workmen,” recalled Samuel Parsons, a disciple of Vaux’s and the last of the “Greensward dynasty. ” Tammany beat a hasty retreat. Five weeks after passing the speedway law, the state legislature was forced to repeal it.
Tammany was now determined to teach the meddlesome electorate a lesson. If they persisted in cherishing Central Park they would get a park that nobody could cherish. The city gave up all pretense of maintaining the landscape or of curbing public unruliness. It virtually invited the vandals and the miscreants to come and do their worst. When the wealthy began exchanging their landaus for Daimlers, Tammany paved the carriage drives and turned them into parkways for motorists.