The Central Park

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By 1912 Olmsted’s rural retreat lay shattered. By 1934, when Robert Moses became the all-powerful commissioner of parks, there was little left of the Olmsted ideal except the commissioner’s determination to flout it. He was to do so for twenty-six years. Olmsted had fought desperately to prevent the park from becoming a “collocation of miscellaneous entertainments.” To Moses, as The New Yorker cheerfully reported in 1941, “the Park is primarily a playground, and he is willing to admit into it any sort of enterprise that will give pleasure to a sufficient number of people.” He erected fenced-in baseball diamonds on the expansive North Meadow, which today is no longer a meadow. He blighted the lovely pond with an ugly artificial skating rink, a “prisonlike enclosure” Lewis Mumford called it in 1951. Olmsted wanted all park buildings to be small, inconspicuous, and rustic. Moses made his buildings of common tenement red brick, little chunks of urban blight. In the cause of cheap maintenance, he turned gravel walks into mean city pavements and rimmed lovely ponds with concrete embankments. Motorists were especially privileged. For their sake Moses bulldozed turf into asphalt parking lots, smashed access roads through Olmsted’s glades, straightened the drives so that cars could go faster. Since the park was already a parkway, it might as well be an efficient one.

It was all wonderfully practical and perfectly in tune with the hostile spirit of the city. Under the new policy, the park became so much free land to be shared out among special interests, a perfect reflection of the politics of New York. The habit of favoring a few at the expense of all became so ingrained that in 1955 only a severe public protest prevented the park authorities from turning the priceless Ramble into a fenced-in amusement park for the elderly. Yet it was not to be the last word, for the Olmsted ideal would not die in his park. It would live because Olmsted’s poetry proved incomparably more practical than anything the “practical hounds” had visited upon his creation. Far more than any particular amusement, New Yorkers still needed “a sense of enlarged freedom” in an uncluttered pastoral landscape. They still needed relief “from the incessant emphasis of artificial objects” and from the “monotonous street divisions of the city.”

In 1966 a reforming mayor stunned New York by banning automobiles from Central Park on the weekends, the park’s first triumph over the city since the defeat of the speedway in 1892. That was only a beginning, but a crucial one, for it gave renewed life to the Olmsted ideal. Strolling in a car-free park—it seemed almost miraculous at the time—New Yorkers began to remember what it was that “makes the park the park.” Today a vigorous and skillful effort has begun to restore the ravaged landscape of Olmsted’s blighted work of art. It will never become what Olmsted envisioned; perhaps that was an impossible dream from the start. Noble and quixotic, Olmsted had assigned to Central Park, in Henry James’s words, “a singular and beautiful but almost crushing mission”—to be all that the city was not—and the city proved too powerful for his park. But Olmsted’s great creation is a paradox. It is only because its mission is so singular, so beautiful, and so gallant that New Yorkers took it to their hearts, and that is why the little principality still survives in the center of the Empire City.