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The Business of America

My Backyard

April 2024
5min read

. . . was a lot bigger than yours. Here’s why you should care.

It has been the received wisdom of the suburban age that kids grow up better in the country, where there is access to fresh air, trees, wildlife (although not too much of it, please), and other good things.

Well, I grew up in one of the densest urban environments in the country, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and I certainly never felt deprived of any of these things. The reason is simple enough: I had the greatest backyard imaginable to play in, Central Park. It is 843 acres of fresh air, trees, and wildlife. More than 200 species of birds are to be found there, and many nest, including the world’s most famous red-tailed hawks, Pale Male and his mate, Lola, who live in luxury on a ledge at 927 Fifth Avenue. There are lakes, brooks, and ponds, vast lawns, a bowling green, baseball fields, and a place for sailing model boats (immortalized in E. B. White’s Stuart Little ).

And unlike suburban backyards, Central Park has a splendid formal garden, a zoo, a carousel, and a skating rink. It even has a turreted castle. I adored Central Park as a child, and I love it today. But in between my childhood and the present, the most famous urban park in the country, perhaps the world, went through a very bad patch. By the 1970s it had become dangerous at night, shabby and sad by day.

Its resurrection in the last two decades of the twentieth century is actually an economic story at its heart, a tale of how a change in control and funding gave back to the city and the country one of the supreme artistic creations of nineteenth-century America.

And an artistic creation it is, for Central Park is hardly more natural than the mighty buildings that surround it. In 1850 what is now Central Park was a dismal area of squatter shacks, swamps, tangled woods, and rock outcroppings (the famous Manhattan schist that anchors the city’s skyscrapers). Two men of genius, Calvert Vaux (rhymes with fox ) and Frederick Law Olmsted, took this uncompromising raw material and transformed it into the carefully planned and mostly artificial landscape we see today. Even the park’s tinkling brooks are artificial, fed from the city’s water supply.

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York City began the explosive growth that transformed it from merely the largest city in the country into the metropolis of the Western Hemisphere. The city’s population, which had been 124,000 in 1820, reached 516,000 by 1850 and would be 814,000 in 1860. Development roared north at a rate averaging two blocks a year. (Since Manhattan is about two miles wide, that meant the city was adding an astonishing 10 miles of new street front per year.)

The countryside that had once been a short walk or carriage ride away was quickly receding as the city grew. In the city proper there were only small parks, a block or two each, such as City Hall Park and Washington Square. Andrew Jackson Downing, the first great American landscape architect, dismissed them as “mere grass plots of verdure.” He wanted a vast “People’s Park” that could serve, in his words, as the “lungs of the city,” where the working classes could find respite from the ever-increasingly noisy, crowded, dirty, and unhealthy metropolis.

Many of the city’s merchants and wealthier citizens wanted a large, landscaped park like those that had been springing up in the major European cities beginning in the eighteenth century. This not only would give the rich a place to parade their carriages but would demonstrate to the world that New York was becoming a prosperous and fashionable city of the first rank.

Naturally, this being New York, a political battle soon erupted over just where to site the park. East Side landowners wanted it there; West Side landowners insisted it be on their side of the island. After three years of maneuvering, the state in 1853 sanctioned the use of eminent domain to buy 778 acres in the middle of Manhattan (expanded to 843 a decade later) from its 561 owners for more than five million dollars. One-third of the price was to be raised by assessing adjacent landowners for the increased value of their property, the rest paid by the state.

Maintenance doesn’t have much sex appeal: keeping the benches painted doesn’t get anyone on television.

The state government, firmly in Republican hands, established the Central Park Commission to keep the park and its biggest construction budget out of the hands of the firmly Democratic city government. The members of the commission were mostly wealthy. They invited architects to submit plans, with a top prize of $2,000 (a middle-class annual income at the time). Thirty-three plans came in, and the winners were the English-born Vaux and Olmsted, who had already been appointed superintendent of the park.

The construction project was mammoth by the standards of the day. Blasting away unwanted rock outcroppings and turning swamps into lakes consumed more gunpowder than the Battle of Gettysburg. Almost three million cubic yards of soil were removed or redistributed and 270,000 trees and shrubs planted. Miles of paths and roads were built, along with 36 bridges and arches, no two of them alike and many of them masterpieces.

Even before it officially opened, the park was crowded with visitors who used it for myriad purposes that ranged from people watching to bird watching to ice skating to baseball to dog walking. Many just used it to admire the sheer beauty of the place and its art, such as the Angel of the Waters statue that soars over Bethesda Fountain.

With so many citizens using the park (250,000 on a nice weekend, 25 million over the course of a year), it has always needed a lot of maintenance. But when control was transferred to the city’s Department of Parks (which has its headquarters in the park), politics began to work its insidious way, and Central Park began to get short shrift in allocations from the city budget.

Maintenance does not have much political sex appeal, for the simple reason that keeping the lawns mowed and the benches painted doesn’t get anyone on television or the front page. As the city’s budget woes deepened in the mid-twentieth century, the maintenance was relentlessly cut back, while the “anything goes” attitude of the late 1960s allowed people to behave in ways that would never have been tolerated earlier. One sociologist even argued that vandalism was simply another way of using the park.

The owners of the immensely valuable real estate that surrounds the park became more and more alarmed as what had been their properties’ prime asset began to slide toward being a liability. Several advocacy groups banded together and began to lobby for change in how the park was controlled. In 1980 they founded the Central Park Conservancy and got the administration of Mayor Ed Koch to agree to its taking over control and maintenance of the park, under contract with the city. Meanwhile, the city greatly increased the police presence in the park to rid it of graffiti artists and muggers.

For the most part privately funded by members and contributions from adjoining property owners, the Conservancy was able to greatly increase the park’s budget. Today it provides 85 percent of Central Park’s $23 million budget. It has also raised $300 million for capital projects and an endowment fund of $90 million. In 2004 unpaid volunteers contributed no less than 32,000 man-hours to keeping the park clean and beautiful.

And what a difference 25 years makes. The once-derelict buildings, such as the Dairy (now the visitor center) were restored, as were many of the rustic shelters where people can sit and admire the view. Bethesda Fountain, the very heart of the park, was restored, and the angel once more dips her toe into its falling waters. The Sheep Meadow, 15 acres of greensward, and the Great Lawn are once more healthy, green, and protected from overuse. With three years of effort, the graffiti was scrubbed away and has been kept away ever since.

It is all an object lesson in what can be achieved by thinking creatively about handling public responsibilities. Bureaucrats and politicians are inevitably hedged in both by legal restrictions (they have, for instance, only two funding sources, borrowing and the taxpayer) and by their own divergent self-interests. Placing responsibility for the park with an organization that has no other responsibility and can raise money from people who have a direct self-interest in the park has made Vaux and Olmsted’s masterpiece once more the pride and joy of New Yorkers.

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