June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History Of Central Park

9 min read

The history of Central Park is older than the Civil War and the Statue of Liberty, and only a little bit younger than the American Revolution. In 1850, 74 years after the American Revolution, upper- and middle-class New York residents appealed to New York State for a large, landscaped space. 

View of Central Park overlooking the bay.

There were two reasons. First, it would be a mark of culture such as the much older European societies sported. Second, it would relieve the rapidly increasing urbanization of New York City. Between 1800 and 1850, the population increased from 60,000 to 590,000, and the occupied land increased from 1.5 square miles to 9.1 square miles. As the first and former capital of the United States, New York developed rapidly.

Buying land, displacing residents

In 1853, the state legislature cleared the City of New York to buy land through eminent domain. The principle of eminent domain is that all land belongs to the State. This allowed the City to buy 750 acres of occupied and unoccupied land between 5th Avenue and 8th Avenue, and 59th and 106th Streets. 

Most of the land grappled with large rocky areas, making it hard to build residences or buildings on them. However, there were still full-fledged residences there, like Seneca Village.

Shanty communities 

In Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s book, The Park and its People, they describe some of the shanty communities on the land that would become Central Park. One community was referred to as Pigtown, a three-fourths Irish group of pig farmers. Other Irish and German animal-owning residents lived in small clusters on the land. Contrary to a general view of these communities as squatters, some of them even owned the land they lived on. 

However, it was only in 1997 that Seneca Village, one of the largest and most established villages displaced at the time, was recognized by the Park and public.

Seneca Village

New York abolished slavery in 1827. Discrimination had a much longer tenure. Seneca Village was a community of around 225 primarily African-American residents. It was far away from the urban areas, and might have felt like a refuge. The community was full-fledged. It had three churches, two burial sites, and even a school. 

Of the 50 households, more than half owned their land and paid taxes. Of only 100 African-American men eligible to vote in New York at the time of Seneca Village’s destruction, 10 were in the village. The houses themselves were not shanties but two-story buildings. We only know this because of the Central Park Conservancy, which opened the history to the public in 1997 and allowed an archaeological dig of the site in 2011. 

All in all, around 1,600 residents were displaced when the City bought the future site of Central Park.  They were compensated, but the displacement was unhappy and sometimes violent. By 1857, the land had successfully been cleared.

Designing the Park: The Greensward Plan

To manage the development of Central Park, a majority-Republican state legislature chose to create the first Central Park Commission (1857-1870). In this way, they kept the mostly Democratic City officials out of Central Park management.

One of the first actions of the Central Park Commission was to hold the nation’s first-ever landscape design contest. The winning design was called the “Greensward Plan.” It had been created by Frederick Law Olmsted, the park superintendent, and Calvert Vaux. Vaux was English-born, and a former architect and landscaping partner of Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing had begun to lay out the grounds for the Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian before his untimely death in 1952. 

The historic and cultural inspiration for the Greensward Plan was a classic English pastoral landscape. The landscape garden in England was characterized by walls of trees enclosing a lawn or open glade. The more developed form were the hunting parks, which had both small groves of trees and open areas for riding. It is probably where the pastoral landscape of the Greensward Plan derived its design.

A work of landscape art

Olmsted and Vaux had two goals for their design. First, they saw it as an area where different social classes could find enjoyment in the different activities they could access. Equestrians could ride, wanderers could use the footpaths, and groups could use the wide-open spaces. Second, it was to be a restful place, a visual break from the urban grid that was New York City. 

But the debate continued long past the selection of the Greensward Plan. Newspapers, other contestants, and park commissioners continued to discuss and modify the plan. They proposed more walkways off the main carriage path, more horse-riding trails, and so forth. 

Commissioner Robert Dillon and park financier August Belmont took to the press to present their ideas. In response, Olmsted and Vaux created more walking and riding paths winding through the Park, and used 30 ornamental bridges to let the routes pass smoothly through one another. In this way they added the suggestions to the Plan, but maintained the landscaped beauty of the design. 

The first part of the Park, the Lake, opened in 1858. The rest of the park took 15 years to create, and cost $14 million. In 1870, the management of the Central Park Commission left the State and went to the City.

Music and Central Park

As early as 1859, free concerts were held at a temporary bandstand. The music generally came from popular plays, such as La Traviata. In 1860, concerts at the Mall drew 5,000 spectators. In 1862, a Music Pavilion was built of wood and cast iron for the performances.

Central Park, Manhattan, New York City

In 1923, Elkan Naumburg gifted the Naumburg Bandshell to Central Park, and it replaced the Music Pavilion with the Concert Ground. The Music Pavilion itself was taken down. To prevent the same thing happening to the Bandshell, the Coalition to Save the Central Park Naumburg Bandshell filed a lawsuit against the Central Park Conservancy in 1992, and won it in 1993. The Bandshell can still be seen today. 

The beginning of Central Park Zoo

In a way, Central Park Zoo was one of the first features of the Park. As early as the 1860s, white swans and a black bear could be seen at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street. In 1864, the Central Park Menagerie was founded as more exotic animals were donated. In 1934, at the same time as the first restoration of Central Park, the Menagerie was upgraded to Central Park Zoo. However, it was not properly managed until the second restoration wave of Central Park in 1980. The Wildlife Conservation Society and New York City took over management and upkeep of the Central Park Zoo, until today.

The creation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1870, on 5th Avenue between 80th and 84th Streets, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was built. It was originally designed as a “museum and library of art,” primarily educational. In 2015, more than just a repository and archive, the Met declared a further purpose, which was firstly to conserve art and secondly, to connect people to the ideas and culture behind different works of art. 

The Bethesda Fountain and American architecture

The Bethesda Terrace and its famous fountain, the Angel of the Waters, was part of the original Greensward Plan. Olmsted and Vaux wanted to have a piece of original American architecture featured in Central Park. In 1858, Jacob Wrey Mould designed the Bethesda Terrace. The original sculpture in the centerpiece, Angel of the Waters, was commissioned in 1864.

Emma Stebbins was an American sculptor who went to Rome for training in her art. Most famously, she became a lover of actress Charlotte Cushman, also American-born. She was also the first female to receive a major commission for a cultural landmark sculpture. This made her a trailblazer in more ways than one. 

The arrival of playgrounds 

In 1860, the population of New York State’s urban areas had grown to 1,068,000, and the urban land area had grown 10 more square miles. Around 388,000 were foreign-born. Over the next 60 years, the Irish Potato Famine, the German Revolutions, the Communist Revolution in Russia, the Italian unification, and the destruction of World War I in Poland would send many immigrants to New York. Until 1920, almost half of the New York City population were foreign-born. The scale only began to tip in favor of New York residents in 1930.

This influx of residents and the population increase led to growth in another demographic: schoolchildren. Between 1920 and 1930, the number of children enrolled in just the public elementary and secondary schools grew from 1,719,841 to 2,141,479. They made up roughly one-third of New York City’s total population. 

Heckscher Playground

Although Central Park had been designed with play areas in the Greensward Plan, access to free play in the Park was still extremely limited for over 50 years. But in 1926, German philanthropist August Heckscher financed the first fully equipped playground in Central Park. It is now known as the Heckscher Playground. The initiative was controversial at first, as it interrupted the landscaping. Eventually, a total of 19 playgrounds were set up near the perimeter. 

Founding the Central Park Conservancy

Hundreds of acres of what is in effect a large and complex garden needs regular maintenance. Many layers of pipe had been laid throughout the park, and there were multiple waterways and fountains. The many walking and riding trails also required maintenance. By the early 1990s, despite the building of the first playground, Central Park declined rapidly.

In 1934, the Mayor of New York, Fiorello la Guardia, gave the Parks Commissioner federal funding to restore Central Park. This was when the majority of the 19 playgrounds were built, and other ball fields and courts were added to encourage activities and upkeep. However, Central Park declined again in 1960 when the Parks Commissioner retired. There was no regular budget or body who would maintain the grounds.

Over the next 19 years, Central Park declined at an alarming rate. Grassy areas turned into dustbowls, pavements cracked and chipped, riding and walking paths were grown over and uncleaned. However, as in the creation of the Park, the city residents stepped in. In 1979, the non-profit Central Park Task Force director was named Central Park Administrator. In 1980, the Task Force and other small advocacies converged in a partly federal-funded, partly privately-funded Central Park Conservancy. 

Until today, the Central Park Conservancy raises funds and pays for the maintenance of the entire park. By investing in studies by landscaping and park maintenance majors, the Conservancy learned how to divide the Park into zones. The zone keepers walk and maintain their areas, and let the Conservancy know if there is any issue bigger than they can respond to. 

Recent history of Central Park

The Central Park Five

Netflix’s recent 4-part documentary, When They See Us, brought back to public memory the story of the Central Park Jogger case in 1989. The five young men who were convicted of sexual assault against jogger Trisha Meili were called the Central Park Five. The documentary traces the story from the assault and conviction in 1989, to the confession of the real perpetrator of the crime in 2002. 

The documentary highlighted issues of racial discrimination in the 80s and 90s, as the 14- to 16-year-old Central Park Five were black and Hispanic. Without material evidence, and only the confessions of the young men after 7-hour interrogations, all five were still convicted of sexual assault. By the time the real perpetrator came forward, they had nearly served their full sentences. 

The Women’s Rights Pioneers monument

2020 is the 100th year anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. The monument was provided for by various fundraisers, Girl Scouts, businesses, and private initiatives.

Meredith Bergmann, the sculptor, described the achievement as breaking the “bronze ceiling.” She was referring the distinct lack of monuments of “real women” of history, as opposed to those of “real men.” The sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton depicts three women who never lived to see the 19th Amendment passed, but they are some of the strongest defenders of women’s rights to suffrage. 

It is particularly historical for Central Park, as it is both the first statue of women and the first statue to depict an African American. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was one of the famous women who gave her remarks at the event. 

The initiative took 7 years, but was completed in time for an unveiling on August 26, Women’s Equality Day. 

Other resources

Follow us for more updates!