April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
In the dead center of the long, rectangular island of Manhattan—New York to most people—sits a long rectangle of parkland known appropriately enough as Central Park. On a quiet Saturday morning in springtime, when the automobiles are banned from its drives, it seems wonderfully at odds with the surrounding city. It pits rolling meadows against the city’s sharp angles, green life against brick and black asphalt, winding paths against the unbending streets of New York’s remorseless grid, into which it has been squeezed as if in a vise. On such a favorable morning Central Park resembles nothing so much as a small, defenseless principality surrounded by a predatory empire, hostile to its spirit, covetous of its green fields, yet miraculously surviving nonetheless—a sort of municipal Liechtenstein.
The Central Park, as it used to be called, has survived now for some 120-odd years and nobody knows quite why. In the least poetical of cities it marks the unexpected triumph of poetry over practicality and of a certain vague yet pervasive sentiment over the hard calculations of interest and profit. As Henry James rightly noted in 1907, Central Park has a “remarkable little history,” although it is known to exceedingly few. Most New Yorkers are quite unaware that the park even has any history to speak of. A long time ago, says the native New Yorker, the city fathers set aside a lovely swatch of primeval meadow and forest, laid in some paths and roads, and then more or less washed their hands of it. Such is the prevailing New York view of the matter. In consequence the native New Yorker feels little gratitude toward the city fathers, which only proves that true political understanding can shine through gross historical error. Central Park is most decidedly not a piece of primeval Manhattan. It is man-made throughout, every copse, glade, pond, and meadow. On the other hand the city fathers had precious little to do with its making and would have strangled it at birth had they dared. In this they were being true to the traditions of the city, a city which actually had decreed by law that poetry and sentiment would have to get along on their own and not be a charge on the taxpayers.
The law in question had been enacted in 1811 when the city fathers decided that the future development of Manhattan would proceed along straight lines and right angles and that the future metropolis would become in due course an unbroken succession of rectangular blocks. About the compelling merits of their grid plan the city fathers were forthright and confident. They had dispensed with “circles, ovals and stars,” they reported, for the “plain and simple” reason that “right angled houses are the most cheap to build.” They had left “few vacant spaces” for posterity, they noted, because New York’s posterity would never need them. Those “large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan” rendered public spaces wholly unnecessary to the health of the citizenry—the felicity of the citizenry counting, of course, for nothing. Besides, the city fathers noted, “the price of land” in Manhattan was “uncommonly great,” while salubrious sea breezes were uncommonly cheap. The 1811 grid plan did allow for a large parade ground for New York’s militia, but as soon as the expanding city got within a mile of it, the city parceled it off to real estate speculators. That the city fathers ever provided any public space for the citizens of New York is the first and fundamental miracle in the little history of Central Park.
It was a poet-turned-newspaper editor who first took public note of the squalid fate in store for a city that was relentlessly marching northward—“uptown” in New York parlance—without a single park to compare with the royal parks of London. This was in 1844, or four years before famine in Ireland and political reaction in Germany were to bring to New York the greatest influx of foreigners it was any city’s fate to cope with. The population, nonetheless, was an ample 370,000 and the city already bore most of its characteristic earmarks. It was cramped, noisy, and incorrigibly filthy. In the richest town in America the chief instruments of garbage disposal were unofficial scavengers, human and porcine. On the side streets, wrote a Scottish visitor, “the scene of confused debris was of a kind not to be easily forgotten—ashes, vegetable refuse, old hats without crowns, worn-out shoes, and other household wreck, lay scattered about as a field of agreeable inquiry for a number of long-legged and industrious pigs.”
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.”
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.
Olmsted gained the first step toward his hero’s role in September, 1857, when the new board appointed him superintendent of the park’s work force, chiefly on the recommendation of the aged Washington Irving. He took the next step several weeks later when an English architect named Calvert Vaux, Downing’s former partner, persuaded him to enter the board’s public competition for the best park design—first prize, $2,000. For Olmsted the winter of 1857–58 was to epitomize the primary dilemma of the future Central Park. By day, as superintendent, he found himself struggling with New York practicality in one of its most characteristic forms. His workers owed their jobs to Tammany chieftains and, since they were expected to perform political chores for their patrons, they had not the slightest intention of wielding a shovel. “It was as if we were all engaged in playing a practical joke,” recalled Olmsted, who was now spending every spare moment with Vaux trying to sketch out a park that would prove the antithesis of New York practicality.
Such was Olmsted’s leading idea, his fundamental principle, the key to his design, and the source of twenty years of anguish and frustration. Over the years he was to state the principle again and again—to the Central Park board, to hostile politicians, to cynical editors, to innumerable projectors of schemes for improving his park with museums, cemeteries, and race tracks. The object of the park, Olmstead insisted, was to be all that the metropolis was not. It was to provide New Yorkers with “the most agreeable contrast to the confinement, bustle and monotonous street-division of the city.” It was to offer them relief “from the cramped, confused and controlling circumstances of the town.” It was to provide, for all who could not afford a country vacation, freedom from “the incessant emphasis of artificial objects.”
Such a park was to be no more practical than a poem or a painting. Its “main object and justification,” wrote Olmsted, “is simply to produce a certain influence on the minds of people...to be produced by means of scenes, through observation of which the mind may be more or less lifted out of moods and habits into which it is, under the ordinary conditions of life in the city, likely to fall.” How to produce that “certain influence” was something Olmsted understood with the clarity of genius.
New York was oppressively constricting. Olmsted’s park would feature “slightly undulating meadow,” pastoral stretches of greensward that would elate hemmed-in New Yorkers with “a sense of enlarged freedom.” New York’s grid made the city scene depressingly predictable. In Olmsted’s park nothing would be predictable. Everywhere the park would offer “uncertainty” and a “sense of mystery,” the constant suggestion of surprises to come—the tempting glimpse of soft lawn beyond a rugged rock outcrop, of dense woodland beyond a meadow’s vague border. It would have little glades that the visitor would come upon by accident and which he would be hard put to find again. The park’s artificial lake would have sharp bays and inlets to lend drama to its shore line and uncertainty as to its size.
Envisioning the endless rows of buildings that would one day surround Central Park, he wanted the city utterly blotted out of sight. Tall trees bordering the park would do this. He wanted the city blotted out of mind as well. Every building within the park would be made as small and as inconspicuous as possible. Olmsted wanted to banish even New York’s grid from the minds of New Yorkers. The one rectilinear element in the park design, a long promenade or mall, Olmsted and Vaux set down at an angle to the future grid, so that promenaders in a half-dozen steps would lose their city bearings altogether and with them, perhaps, their city selves.
The commissioners had stipulated that four commercial roads must traverse the park’s width. To nullify that menace, Olmsted and Vaux decided to sink them below the level of the footpaths and carriage drives, which would pass over the roads by bridges blending so gently with the park that visitors scarcely would notice the four commercial incisions. The two designers went further: they envisioned the footpaths crossing under the drives and the bridle path under the footpaths. By keeping every form of locomotion independent and self-contained, Olmsted hoped, he said, to relieve the park’s visitors of “anxiety.” Such relief was a matter of the utmost urgency to Olmsted. Irritation and fretfulness, the normal state of New Yorkers on the streets, were absolutely fatal to his fundamental principle: “to recreate the mind from urban oppression through the eye.”
That last phrase provides the final clue to Olmsted’s grand design. To him Central Park was to be, above all else, a noble landscape composition, a work of art to be relished “through the eye.” That and that alone, not boating, or skating or riding or ball playing, was what “makes the Park the Park.” In a city of business and bustle, of frantic activity and impatient haste, Olmsted offered the alien joys of quiet contemplation. The precarious nature of his conception is readily apparent. His park was to be a gauntlet laid down to the city, a tacit rebuke to its ugliness and misgovernment, a challenge to its habits and to its unquiet spirit. Inevitably the city would turn around and challenge the park. That, however, still lay in the future. In the meantime, the park’s history offered up its last major miracle. In April, 1858, the “Greensward” plan, as Olmsted and Vaux called their design, was awarded first prize over thirty-two other competitors. Superintendent Olmsted was named the park’s architect-in-chief; Vaux was made his principal assistant. They were now to “proceed forthwith” to execute their plan on the wasteland.
Like sculptors working on a vast block of marble, Olmsted and Vaux set about transforming virtually every inch of the site. To turn murky streams into four ornamental lakes, they designed an intricate system of underground pipes to collect the streams’ water—some sixty-two miles of conduits in all. To turn jagged ground into “undulating meadow” they blasted away at Manhattan bedrock; some 20,800 barrels of dynamite would be consumed in the task. To make the soil fit for green life they brought in half a million cubic yards of topsoil. To make the future park verdant they planted, by the end of 1862, some 166,000 trees and shrubs. The once recalcitrant work force labored with surprising zeal; progress was swift.
On June 11, 1859, that faithful diarist of New York life, George Templeton Strong, noted that the new park, though promising, was still “in most ragged condition: long lines of incomplete macadamization, ‘lakes’ without water, mounds of compost, piles of blasted stone...groves of slender young transplanted maples and locusts, undecided between life and death.” Paying a second visit on September 2, Strong was delighted with the summer’s progress. “The ragged desert of out-blasted rock, cat briars, and stone heaps begins to blossom like the rose. Many beautiful oases of path and garden culture have sprung up, with neat paths, fine greensward, and hopeful young trees.” By the following spring Olmsted’s design was beginning to take shape. “The Park below the reservoir begins to look intelligible,” Strong noted in his diary on May 28,1860. “Many points are already beautiful....” It even made him sad to think that the hopeful new park would not achieve its full beauty until “the trees are grown and I’m dead and forgotten.”
Eager to gain popular approval, the park board opened up to the public every part of the park as soon as it was completed. In June, 1859, the Ramble, a wonderful man-made woodland, received the first strollers on its intricate paths. In November of that year the first three and one-half miles of gravel drives welcomed the carriages of New York’s “upper tendom.” In the spring of 1861 the great promenade or Mall was completed. In April boat service on the lake was installed.
Despite the board’s politesse, the park’s enemies continued to snarl and plot mischief. The city leaders, recalled Olmsted, used “every device of what in city politics passes for statesmanship” to persuade the voters that the board was up to some “knavish scheme” of graft and corruption. Hostile newspapers reported as fact the accusations of disgruntled ex-employees and disappointed placemen. The “practical hounds,” as Olmsted called them, bayed at the board for appointing two “ignorant, incompetent pretenders.” It took a state senate investigation to clear the park’s directors and designers of all the false charges laid against them. Critics of a more artistic sort dogged Olmsted as well. Missing the whole point of Olmsted’s conception, they indignantly complained that Vaux’s little bridges lacked dignity and grandeur. Olmsted was hard put to explain that one day when the shrubbery grew thick he hoped they would be nearly invisible. Even during the park’s happy first years, the high-strung Olmsted felt frustrated most of the time.
They were halcyon days nonetheless. In a city so starved of outdoor amenities, the park offered heady nourishment even in its raw and unfinished state. In 1862 the gatekeepers clocked in some 2,000,000 visitors entering on foot and more than 700,000 entering by carriage. The broad, tree-lined pedestrian Mall was an instant success. Free of traffic and noise, it soon was regarded as one of the few public places in New York where unmarried couples could stroll unchaperoned, a sort of semiofficial lovers’ lane. With the lake as its terminus and free concerts on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Mall quickly became the center of the park’s busy life. It even brought Herman Melville out of seclusion; he was often seen walking there with his little granddaughter.
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.
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.
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.