Central Park Essay

This essay has a total of 1271 words and 6 pages.

Central Park

Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States. Advocates of
creating the park – primarily wealthy merchants and landowners – admired the public
grounds of London and Paris and urged that New York needed a comparable facility to
establish its international reputation. A public park, they argued, would offer their own
families an attractive setting for carriage rides and provide working-class New Yorkers
with a healthy alternative to the saloon. After three years of debate over the park site
and cost, in 1853 the state legislature authorized the City of New York to use the power
of eminent domain to acquire more than 700 acres of land in the center of Manhattan.

An irregular terrain of swamps and bluffs, punctuated by rocky outcroppings, made the land
between Fifth and Eighth avenues and 59th and 106th streets undesirable for private
development. Creating the park, however, required displacing roughly 1,600 poor
residents, including Irish pig farmers and German gardeners, who lived in shanties on the
site. At Eighth Avenue and 82nd Street, Seneca Village had been one of the city’s most
stable African-American settlements, with three churches and a school. The extension of
the boundaries to 110th Street in 1863 brought the park to its current 843 acres.

The question of who should exercise political control of this new kind of public
institution was a point of contention throughout the nineteenth century. In appointing
the first Central Park Commission (1857-1870), the Republican-dominated state legislature
abandoned the principle of “home rule” in order to keep the park out of the hands of
locally-elected (and primarily Democratic) office holders. Under the leadership of Andrew
Green, the commission became the city’s first planning agency and oversaw the laying out
of uptown Manhattan as well as the management of the park. After a new city charter in
1870 restored the park to local control, the mayor appointed park commissioners.

In 1857, the Central Park Commission held the country’s first landscape design contest and
selected the “Greensward Plan,” submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s
superintendent at the time, and Calvert Vaux, an English-born architect and former partner
of the popular landscape gardener, Andrew Jackson Downing. The designers sought to create
a pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition. Open rolling meadows contrasted
with the picturesque effects of the Ramble and the more formal dress grounds of the Mall
(Promenade) and Bethesda Terrace. In order to maintain a feeling of uninterrupted
expanse, Olmsted and Vaux sank four Transverse Roads eight feet below the park’s surface
to carry cross-town traffic. Responding to pressure from local critics, the designers
also revised their plan’s circulation system to separate carriage drives, pedestrian
walks, and equestrian paths. Vaux, assisted by Jacob Wrey Mould, designed more than forty
bridges to eliminate grade crossings between the different routes.

The building of Central Park was one of nineteenth-century New York’s most massive public
works projects. Some 20,000 workers – Yankee engineers, Irish laborers, German gardeners,
and native-born stonecutters – reshaped the site’s topography to create the pastoral
landscape. After blasting out rocky ridges with more gunpowder than was later fired at
the Battle of Gettysburg, workers moved nearly 3 million cubic yards of soil and planted
more than 270,000 trees and shrubs. The city also built the curvilinear reservoir
immediately north of an existing rectangular receiving reservoir. The park first opened
for public use in the winter of 1859 when thousands of New Yorkers skated on lakes
constructed on the site of former swamps.

By 1865, the park received more than seven million visitors a year. The city’s wealthiest
citizens turned out daily for elaborate late-afternoon carriage parades. Indeed, in the
park’s first decade more than half of its visitors arrived in carriages, costly vehicles
that fewer than five percent of the city’s residents could afford to own. Middle-class
New Yorkers also flocked to the park for winter skating and summer concerts on Saturday
afternoons. Stringent rules governing park use – for example, a ban on group picnics –
discouraged many German and Irish New Yorkers from visiting the park in its first decade.
Small tradesmen were not allowed to use their commercial wagons for family drives in the
park, and only schoolboys with a note from their principal could play ball on the meadows.
New Yorkers repeatedly contested these rules, however, and in the last third of the
century the park opened up to more democratic use. In the 1880s, working-class New
Yorkers successfully campaigned for concerts on Sunday, their only day of rest. Park
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