If one perceives a baby, New York City was a young adult in the late 1700’s. The challenges confronting the city were great. Poor and wealthy people were attracted to New York and the infrastructure needed vast improvements to help the city grow greater. As a growth period, the 1800’s (and lessons learned) shaped much of what we call New York City now. Central Park was one of those formidable challenges.
The 1800’s marked a major boom in New York City’s urban planning. With a rising population, NY drained the Collect Pond and nearby wetlands for housing expansion. NY dug its first water reservoir bringing water from the Croton River into the city. Railroads were constructed. Parks were designed for friendly use by residents. Central Park was built. 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.
Don’t take the natural reality of Central Park for granted. It is a construct of reality. When it comes to Central Park, nothing is real. Central Park is an illusion of reality built and revised over more than a century. All the birds, squirrels, and other animals adapted to its being there.
New York had to confront issues that taxed technology and talent to its maximum. One of the key points was working on a water supply to control disease and fires. In perceiving dark past realities, Central Park was an ambitious and luxurious undertaking. With a rising level of New Yorkers, Central Park was a necessity. When talking about New York lifestyle, the Central Park is a shared reality, though seen from different eyes and minds.
Everyone has a different perspective on reality. Many tourists and young residents of New York accept that Central Park land was always here. It wasn’t. Manhattan was full of rocky hills, lakes, streams, and wetlands throughout every area. The neatly organized lakes and the Harlem Meer of Central Park were created from wild lands and by shifting ancient waterways. The Harlem Meer, as it appears, wasn’t there at all. The Harlem Meer wasn’t even part of the original Central Park plan. It was McGowan’s Pass and had a wide stream fed by the rivers. It was a battleground in the Revolutionary and 1812 wars. The pass was named for Andrew McGowan, owner of a popular tavern that sat alongside those lands until 1917.
The land that makes up Central Park wasn’t a park at all. It was an impoverished shanty area of pig farmers. There was a water reservoir different from the existing Jacqueline Kennedy reservoir. There was even an early African-American village nearby and in the park. There was even a convent within the lands that were to be the park. All were eventually displaced.
The origins of Central Park were complex. Most parks at the time were locked, gated, private parks – similar to Gramercy Park near 23rd Street. Beginning in 1849, a small group of civic-minded New York visionaries began to stir interests for the creation of a grand, artfully sculptured uptown park, modeled after the opulent public parks of Europe for the public use of an expanding Manhattan population.
As most New Yorkers, at the time, lived around 14th Street and below, Battery Park was originally considered for expansion. By the mid-1800’s, uptown areas were being occupied by country homes, asylums, and dance halls. Property owners favored development of an uptown park because they assumed it would encourage people to move uptown and so their property values would increase.
In the early 19th century, most of New York commerce took place below 14th Street and public spaces were being taken away for building neighborhoods. The draining of wetlands led to the creation of the 5-Points, a neighborhood that would develop a very seedy reputation. People would travel upwards in search of more country. The few existing open spaces were wild knolls and cemeteries. Several parcels of land were being considered. One was the Jones’s Wood farm on the upper east side. The farm was 132 acres. The city planners were realizing that the population was expanding and moving upwards. New York legislature settled upon a 700-acre area from 59th to 106th Streets for the creation of the park at a total price of 5 million dollars. It would be Frederic Olmstead and Calvert Vaux task to reshape and design the land as an urban oasis, based on large European parks they had seen, known as the Greensward Plan. The complete park was completed in 1857. The expanded area to 110 was finished in 1873. Welcome to Central Park.
The areas that became Central Park were populated by what many people called scum, squatters, and poor people. In 1853, the city legislature passed a bill authorizing that all the land between 59th and 106th Streets, from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue, be taken by right of eminent domain so that a park could be built. Residents and property owners were ordered to vacate the park area by August 1, 1856.
It was a fairly wild concept. Among all the natural wilderness in Manhattan, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmstead were given the task of designing a park for the expanding New York City. Central Park was the first explicitly made park in the United States.
Central Park had to be built. As construction commenced, over 13,500 cubic yards of topsoil was removed to New Jersey. Four million trees, plants and shrubs were planted, and stones protruding out of the ground were moved, stacked and altered depending on Olmsted’s vision on how they should shape and anchor the park. Thousands of workers carried out this work to create a completely artificial landscape, artificial being the key word. Many of those stones were moved to the streets and avenues surrounding the park, particularly parts of 5th Avenue.
There were many debates on costs and more debates on available lands and acquisitions. The designers really had formidable tasks to give the park a theme and a welcoming plan.
The original land, between Fifth and Eighth avenues and 59th and 106th streets consisted of hilly terrain with irregular swamps, creeks, and bluffs were undesirable. The territory was wild and its residents were very poor. The work of art that is known as Central Park 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 first 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 extension added the old, strategic Fort Clinton that was active in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
It really was not Central Park that obliterated Seneca Village. It was replaced by two large reservoir pools as part of the Croton Reservoir project in 1842, at the approximate area now used by the Great Lawn. By the time Central Park was bought and designed, most of the village was already misplaced. In a growing city, bringing water to New York was essential. 1842 was the first reservoir.
Fort Clinton was deserted by 1818 and became a wasted federal area. The land, from 106 to 110 Streets were sold to the Central Park project. Olmstead completed financial negotiations for additional parkland between 106th and 110th Streets that included a large swamp amidst wetlands. These 65 acres constitute today’s Harlem Meer landscape, which reflect Olmsted and Vaux’s plan to retain the northern end’s rugged topography.
A 1940s reconstruction by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses changed the existing soft grassy shoreline to a concrete and fenced edge. As part of Moses’ plan, the commissioner had a long, one-story boathouse constructed in 1947. It was less popular than the area by 72nd street and fell into disrepair by the 1980’s.
In 1993, the Meer’s shoreline was returned to Olmsted’s original vision, with a miniature sandy beach added. The boathouse was never restored.
A key component of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s award-winning 1858 vision was keeping pedestrians, horses and (especially) vehicles out of each others’ way. A series of bridges and archways were constructed that allowed passage over and under to allow safe passage. The original plan was for 36 bridges, each unique, some made of rock, cast-iron, or wood. Furthermore, the immense park, the designers felt, would disrupt needs for commercial traffic between the both sides of the park. In keeping with their original intent, they did not want crosstown traffic interrupting the park experience. Ingeniously, they came up with transverse roads across 65th, 79th, 86th and 97th streets, running beneath the park surface.
The Bethesda Terrace and Fountain on 72nd Street was the only original sculpture in the plan. It is perhaps the most frequented and photographed area of Central Park. Central Park’s other sculptures were added later.
Despite the original plan of not putting gates around Central Park, a lesser known but extremely grand part of the park is the Conservatory Garden. The Garden’s main entrance is through the Vanderbilt Gate, on Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets. This magnificent iron gate, made in Paris in 1894, originally stood before the Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street. It has a 12-foot high jet fountain on the western end of the lawn, backed by tiered hedges and stairs that lead up to a wisteria pergola. An elevated walkway has medallions inscribed with the names of the original 13 states. This is a particularly tranquil part of the park, designated a quiet zone, that is closed at night. Originally designed as a bird sanctuary, the Conservatory Garden was redesigned around the early 1900’s as a garden.
Belvedere Castle was built in 1869 and appears much like a fairy tale building for royalty. The original structure had no windows. That changed in 1919 when it became a Weather Observatory. When they talk about Central Park temperatures, the information is sourc3ed from here. Belvedere Castle was originally built as a focal point that everyone can see in the park. Note that the original Croton reservoir (now the Great Lawn) used rock that resembled the castle but the two structures were never connected. When the reservoir was dismantled in the early 1900’s, water was redistributed to create Turtle Pond, near the Great Lawn.
Of course Central Park, like many works of art, had returned to a wasteland. After the Depression of 1929, poor people lived in the area surrounding what was once the Croton Reservoir. In the 1930’s, especially with the forthcoming New York World’s Fair in 1939, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Robert Moses to clean up Central Park. In a single year, Moses managed to clean up Central Park and other parks in New York City. Lawns and flowers were replanted, dead trees and bushes were replaced, walls were sandblasted, and bridges repaired. Part of that repair included the development of the Great Lawn.
Indeed, nature will return and regress Central Park to what it might have been. The Central Park Conservancy raises money to preserve and maintain Central Park. Many volunteer regularly to help keep the park looking pristine and polished.
Central Park seems like a natural idyllic setting. Among the creators, the development of Central Park meant displacing thousands of people that once called the area their home. The designers reshaped nature to create a grand public park that anyone could enjoy. When constructing realities, there is a plasticity to Central Park that few art forms can replicate. Whether it was made or whether it is real, many will agree that Central Park is one of the grandest natural escapes from New York City life within New York City and it is free to all. It’s all a dream made true.