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History and Development of New York's Central Park

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Central Park

People skate on the Wollman Ice Rink in Central Park in New York City.

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Central Park in New York City was America's first landscaped public park. Using the power of eminent domain, the New York State legislature initially acquired over 700 acres of the park’s total 843 acres. Surrounded by Manhattan, this land was inhabited by one of the city’s most prominent African American communities and the poorest of nineteenth century’s immigrants. Around 1,600 residents were displaced when the land between 5th and 8th avenues and 59th and 106th streets was deemed unsuitable for private development.

Manhattan Island upon which the park sits is composed of schistose bedrock very near to the surface. The three schistose sequences sit atop marble and gneiss formations, allowing for the island to support the large urban environment of New York City. In Central Park, this geology and the history of glacial activity is cause for the rocky and contoured terrain. The city’s wealthiest aristocrats decided it would be a perfect location for a park.

In 1857, the first Central Park Commission was formed and held a design competition for the new public greenspace. The park superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted and his colleague Calvert Vaux won with their “Greensward Plan.” Keeping only the more prominent of geologic features that interrupted the landscape, Olmsted and Vaux had designed a pastoral topography like that of English romantic gardens.

The first section of Central Park opened to the public in December of 1859 and by 1865 Central Park was receiving over seven million visitors per year. Meanwhile, Olmsted exhaustively debated with city officials over design and construction details. The workers blasted rock with more gunpowder than was used at Gettysburg, moved nearly 3 million cubic yards of soil and planted 270,000 shrubs and trees. A curved reservoir was added to the site and the swamps in the northern end of the park were replaced with lakes. The park was attracting lots of attention but was also drawing upon diminishing financial resources.

Then, around the time Andrew Green was installed as the new comptroller, Olmsted had been forced out of his superintendent position for the first time. Speeding up construction by focusing less on details, Green was able to procure the final piece of land. This northeast section of the park, between 106th and 110th streets was swampy and utilized more for its untamed rugged appeal. Despite the budget constraints, Central Park continued to develop.

In 1871 the Central Park Zoo was opened. Until the construction officially ended in 1973, the park had been utilized mostly by wealthier residents of greater New York who paraded the park’s roads in their carriages. As the forces of industrialization drew people towards the city’s manufacturing economy, lower income families lived closer to the park. Eventually, the park was more democratically operated and the less affluent classes visited more frequently. The new American Century approached quickly, and the nation’s premier park was increasingly popular.

Children were invited with the first playground in 1926. By the 1940s, parks commissioner Robert Moses had introduced more than twenty playgrounds. Ball clubs were then allowed access to park and visitors were allowed on the grass. Yet, due perhaps in part by mass suburbanization experienced after WWII, the park was in its worst state during the late 60s and 70s. In some aspects this was a symbol of New York’s urban decay. Maintenance had fallen by the wayside, leaving the park’s natural systems to overrun the systems and landscaping engineered by the original commission. Public campaigns quickly addressed the issue.

Rallies were held to restore public interest in the park. In the 1980s, as public interest increased, the private Central Park Conservancy increasingly managed the park’s finances and oversight. Nevertheless, public use has always commanded control of the park’s resources, especially with the introduction of large-scale public gatherings such as rock concerts in the 1960s.

Today, New York City’s eight million residents can access the park for concerts, festivals, exercise, sports, chess and checkers and just to escape the bustle of urban life in the city that never sleeps.

Adam Sowder is a fourth-year senior at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is studying Urban Geography with a focus on Planning.

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