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Friday, September 30, 2016

Central Park, New York City

Imagine, a romantic moment for two, alone, in a city of 8.5-million.
During the past few months I've been highlighting the ten best urban parks in the world. New York City's Central Park has been rated number three, though I'm not sure precisely who it is who does the rating. Whether city park "experts" or the real experts, the thirty-five-million each year who use the park, who am I to argue with such a high rating? I'm not one of the thirty-five-million...yet. I plan to remedy that next year as my wife and I go "gallivanting" (an American colloquialism for exploring) around the northeastern landscape of our country. And of course, no city park in this country is better for gallivanting than the 843 acres of greenery smack in the middle of Manhattan. With all its lakes and streams, hills and ravines, lawns and rocky cliffs, not to mention its zoo and its famed Metropolitan Museum of Art (located on Fifth Avenue, about the mid-point in along the highly elongated length of the park), I may be gallivanting for quite some time.
A vintage 1855 map of Manhattan. The area destined to become
Central Park is indicated in green, even though the street grids
crisscross it just as they do the largely unoccupied farm land nearby.
As late as 1850, there was no Central Park and the land that it would one day occupy was already very much occupied by free blacks and Irish immigrants who had purchased plots there to raised livestock. For nearly fifty years, they had built shack-like "shanties," churches, and cemeteries, making up several small communities in the area. Before the construction of the park could begin, the land had to be cleared of its inhabitants. Undoubtedly, part of the impetus to do so involved the removal of what was known as shanty towns and their inhabitants, consisting of free African-Americans and English/Irish immigrants, most of whom were middle-class (by 19th-century standards). Most of these shanty towns were small villages, such as Harsenville, the Piggery District (with its slaughterhouses), or Seneca Village. Approximately 1,600 residents were evicted under the laws of eminent domain during the year 1857 alone. All this didn't come cheap. New York taxpayers ponied up some $5-million for just the land (an outrageous amount at the time).
At times, one has to ask oneself, what's this city doing out
here in the countryside like this? The question arises as to whether
the park is imposing on the city or vice versa.  
in 1853 the New York legislature settled upon a 700-acre tract between Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue from 59th to 106th Streets for the creation of a Park. (More land was added on the north end of the park later.) Other than two city reservoirs (located where the "Great Lawn" is now) the land ranged from ideal to virtually impossible for urban development (then or now). However, with its wide-open spaces (pastures), woodlands, five streams, and rugged terrain it would make an exemplary city park. Frederick Law Olmsted began working with a Frenchman named Calvert Vaux exploring Vaux's ideas for a central park around 1857; and in April, 1858, the two submitted what's come to be called the Greensward Plan, one of 33 submissions considered by the non-existant park's board of commissioners. (They split a prize of $2,000 for their efforts.) The Olmsted-Vaux plan was notable in that it combined formal and naturalistic settings with architectural flourishes like Bethesda Terrace and some thirty-six ornate bridges (each one different) that circulated traffic around and through the park.

A look at the park some ten years before it was completed.
Actual construction of the park began around 1860. And, though slowed by the Civil War, it was largely completed by 1873 thanks to the availability of steam powered construction equipment. Still, a massive numbers of unskilled laborers wielding shovels were also required. During this period, more than 18,500 cubic yards of topsoil had to be transported to the park from New Jersey, because the original soil was neither fertile enough nor sufficiently substantial to sustain the various trees, shrubs, and plants called for by Olmsted and Vaux. By the same token, more than 10 million cartloads of material had to be transported out of the park before it was officially completed in 1873. More than four million trees, shrubs, and flowers were transplanted to the park. In the days before dynamite, more gunpowder was used to clear the area than was used during the entire Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.

Regardless of the season, Central Park is alive with things
to do and places to see. No scene is more iconic that this
gracefully arched stone bridge opposite Eighth Avenue's
famous Dakota complex.
Today Central Park plays an indispensable part in the normal lives of New Yorkers by giving them a place with a great number of ways and means to escape from the sounds and chaos all around them into the open spaces, leaving behind the endless clamor and mayhem of the surrounding city. The arrangement of Central Park, as envisaged by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, focuses on the lakes, theatres, ice rinks, tennis courts, baseball fields, various play territories, and distinctive business settings. Besides the zoo and the Met, especially on weekends, when automobiles are not allowed into the park, the place is a welcome respite of peace in an otherwise hurried and harried city. The park, is the most visited urban stop in the entire United States--also the most photographed.

Central Park NYC, 1901, Maurice Prendergast
Central Park was no sooner completed than it quickly slipped into decline. One of the main reasons for this was the lack of interest from the Tammany Hall political machine, the dominant political force in the city at the time. Also, by the turn of the 20th-century, the park faced several new challenges. Cars, with their noise and pollution were becoming commonplace. Until 1934, sheep grazed on the Sheep Meadow whereupon they were moved to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and then to a farm just outside the city in the Catskill Mountains. It was feared they would be slaughtered by impoverished Depression-Era New Yorkers who would turn them into lunch. No longer were parks used only for long walks and idyllic picnics. As the 20th-century evolved, so did ball fields for sports and similar recreation.

The Great Lawn, once a Depression Era shanty town.
In the early 1930s, city planner, Robert Moses, was given the task of cleaning up Central Park. Moses, soon became one of the most powerful men in New York as he belatedly dragged the city (often kicking and screaming) into the 20th-century. He took over what was essentially a leftover relic from a bygone era. In less than a year, Moses managed to clean up Central Park. Lawns and flowers were replanted, dead trees and bushes were replaced, walls were sandblasted, and bridges repaired. Moses removed the "Hoover Valley" shantytown, transforming the 30 acre site to create the Great Lawn. Major redesigning and construction was carried out for the purpose of creating an idyllic landscape combined with Moses' vision of a park to be used for recreational purposes with the building of 19 new playgrounds, 12 ball fields, and several handball courts.

Thousands of New York City painters have, for more than a
century, been drawn to the beauty and convenience of Central Park.
Central Park's size and cultural position is similar to London's Hyde Park and Munich's Englischer Garten, and has served as a model for many urban parks around the world, including San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Tokyo's Ueno Park, and Vancouver's Stanley Park. Over the years the park has had its ups and downs reflecting the periods of financial turmoil afflicting the city of New York in general. Yet, as of 2007 the park conservancy had invested approximately $450 million in restoration and management. Today Central Park has an annual operating budget of about $37-million, which would seem dirt cheap for a park whose real estate value, as of December, 2005, was estimated by an accounting firm to be more than $528-billion. That was eleven years ago. I wonder what it would be now?

With a view like this, who could get
any work done?


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