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The People’s Park – the History of Central Park
Of the great many foresights that New York’s planners have had, few if any have been as successful as Central Park. As the first urban landscaped park in the United States, the idea for Central Park was dreamed up by wealthy New Yorkers, who wanted the city to be seen as culturally on par with the great European cities of London and Paris.
Many saw New York as a city fixated on wealth and materialism over culture, and the park was created as a means to break that view. They saw the park as a place where both the wealthy could be noticed and as a refuge for the poor to spend their leisure time.
In 1853, the city used eminent domain to acquire 700 acres of land at a cost of $5 million for the park at the center of Manhattan. It is thought that another main reason for the creation of the park was to raise the land values for the surrounding buildings. This land was mostly filled with swamps, rocky outcroppings, and irregular terrain, and was not very suitable for development. The park was a way to improve this land – so like nearly everything in New York, profit was likely one of the main motives for its creation.
Approximately 1,600 poor residents were evicted, including Irish immigrants and German gardeners living in shanties, as well as destroying Seneca Village, which had been one of the main black settlements in New York City – including 264 residents, three churches, two schools, and three cemeteries.
In 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux beat out 32 competitors for the right to design the park. The contest asked for a parade ground, fountain, skating area, a lookout tower, and a location for concerts, and Olmsted and Vaux came through with Sheep Meadow, Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, the Lake, and Belvedere Tower. Vaux designed 36 bridges of different design, from granite to the cast-iron Bow Bridge.
Olmsted and Vaux saw the park as a place for the rich and poor to be in proximity and saw that as a way for the poor to become more cultured, and so they developed the series of bridges and arches so the rich could ride over in carriages while the poor walked below.
The main pathway through the park was named The Mall and was lined with American elm trees leading to Bethesda Terrace and the Lake. The iconic Sheep Meadow, where New Yorker’s now sunbathe and play frisbee was once populated by sheep. Olmsted wanted them for aesthetic purposes, the gray and white offsetting themselves against the green grass. The sheep were stored at Tavern on the Green.
Olmsted had visited several parks through various trips to Europe in 1850 and stated that the park was “of great importance as the first real park made in this country – a democratic development of the highest significance.” Their plan was called the “Greensward Plan” and the original map lives in the Central Park armory.
“[Central Park] is the most important work of American art of the 19th century,” Sara Cedar Miller said. Everywhere you look, it feels like you are staring at a painting, and it is shocking to realize that you actually are. Central Park is a real life painting with every vista planned and created. The park was designed to be a microcosm of New York itself. The southern end was grand, awe-inspiring, and formal, while the north end and Ramble were designed to feel like you were walking in the hills and woods, reminding park-goers of the Catskills and Adirondacks north of the city.
20,000 workers reshaped the land’s topography. Rocks were blasted out with gunpowder and workers moved 3 million cubic yards of soil and planted more than 270,000 trees and shrubs.
The park opened for public use in the winter of 1859, and thousands of New Yorkers skated on lakes constructed over former swamps. The park was visited by more than seven million people a year by 1865, made up particularly of the wealthy and middle class.
During the first decade, more than half of visitors arrived in carriages, which were owned by fewer than 5 percent of the cities residents. Bans on group picnics discouraged immigrants from visiting the park in the first decade, and school boys could not play ball on the meadows without notes from their principal. Concerts were held on Saturdays and not Sundays so the six-day-a-week workers could not attend. However, these rules were repeatedly flouted and the park was eventually opened up to broader use, including Sunday concerts.
Over time, more facilities were built in Central Park, including the Carousel, the Zoo, a playground, and the Great Lawn. In addition, Robert Moses was put in charge of the park in 1934, and over 26 years introduced many facilities, including 20 playgrounds, realigning the drives for automobiles, athletic fields, Wollman Skating Rink, Lasker Rink and Pool, new boathouses, and the Chess and Checkers House.
In the ’60s, rock concerts and be-ins were encouraged, making Central Park a symbol of urban revival and counterculture. However, budget cuts in the 70s caused a long-term decline in maintenance. Central Park during this time became a very dangerous place, particularly after dark, and this kept many people from visiting.
By 1980, the Central Park Conservancy, a private fundraising group, took charge of restoring the park, and by 1990 this organization contributed more than half the park’s budget. Since then, the park has consistently gotten safer, now down to fewer than one hundred crimes per year, down from approximately 1,000 in the early 80s.
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