Central Park exudes quietude amidst chaos of the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York. Planned during the mid-19th century as a recreational space for New Yorkers who burnt the midnight oil and lived in overpopulated dwellings, Central Park is valued today as a serene haven one can visit to do away with the stresses of urban life — a place where millions of residents and tourists come to experience the marvelousness of one of America’s greatest masterpieces
WORDS: SEJAL MATHUR
THE American Planning Association (APA) named Central Park as one of the Great Public Spaces in America in 2008. A classic model of public space that set a benchmark for park design throughout the US, Central Park stands as the most referred and revered of urban parks worldwide.
The park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Calvert Vaux, submitted their winning entry – the Greensward Plan – to a design competition in 1858. It talked of innovative design approaches including that of sunken transverse roads with a lifelike landscape incorporating grading and plantings to evade the physical and visual disruption of traffic.
Apart from the native woodland on the northwest and notable rock outcrops, the huge 843-acre park was manmade, shaped from an ordinary site. By establishing a complex grading and underground drainage system, swamps were beautified to naturalistic lakes.
PLANNED AS A RUSTIC PARK
Soil was drawn in from New Jersey and molded into meadows while plants were sown and grown to form lush woodland and wild gardens. Initially, the park was designed to be rustic so it could replicate the countryside, but it constituted a few conventional design elements — the Mall, which was intended to attract visitors to the core of the park, and Bethesda Terrace at the terminus of the Mall, planned for as a palace for the people.
Between 1934 and 1960 when Robert Moses, the ‘master builder’ of New York, was the Park’s commissioner, amenities for recreation were focused more than the aesthetics. Informal sports fields were redesigned into baseball diamonds and greens for lawn sports. It was also during this time that the Central Park Zoo and the Conservatory Garden were built.
Moreover, playgrounds, ice-skating rinks, a swimming pool, and concession buildings were either reconstructed or
newly made. The commissioner also supervised creation of the Great Lawn by ordering the filling of the old reservoir.
‘The Father of Central Park,’ as Andrew Haswell Green, a New York City planner was known, served on the commission to create Central Park. He was quoted in a New York Times article in the 1893 edition saying, “Central Park did not happen. It was created, and by years of hard work along distinct lines.”
WAVES OF FALL AND RISE
The park’s history talks of how it witnessed phases of relapse and renewal. The 1920s were the epoch that experienced worn carriage drives because of increased automobile traffic, muddy paths, dead trees and shrubs, neglected bridges and defacement through littering and vandalism.
The 1960s and ’70s marked another period of deterioration which ignited public engagement in a quest to retrieve the essence of the park. The absence of effective management coupled with financial inadequacy, in line with adverse effects of unregulated sports use and events of a scale unprecedented in the history of the park had altogether contributed to an alarming situation by the late 1970s.
The luxuriant lawns had been reduced to mere dustbowls, the paths and architecture were simply deteriorating; benches and light fixtures were damaged, graffiti spoke of vandalism, clogged catch basins resulted in regular flooding that only furthered the degradation of landscapes.
Central Park Community Fund and Central Park Task Force along with many of the civic groups united to battle the decline; they helped gather resources for park related projects and promoted stewardship by means of education, youth programmes, and volunteer initiatives.
Their support gave birth to the Central Park Conservancy, a private non-profit body that functioned to reinstate the condition of park in association with the citizens and took
over the responsibility for its management ever since 1980.
The park’s regulars and vigilant supporters who value their retreat in the concrete jungle of Manhattan have helped in its revival. The fundraising campaign efforts at Central Park were aimed at breaking the cycle of decline-and-restore that marked the park’s history before the 1980s.
Why every city must have a Central Park?
Without the burden of buying a ticket, one can leisurely spend time with friends and relatives on a plaid blanket in one of the fields of the Park. One can get drinks and food to enjoy a picnic whilst basking in the sunshine peeping from the trees above.
While lying on the green grass, one can look around the maples and dogwoods encircling the field to see the rectangle of large buildings, famously called “twice as high as the Great Wall of China” by the park’s designer 150 years ago.
One can also hear the music of the violins and cellos of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra contrary to the humdrum sounds of sirens and bus exhaust. For many of the residents, wherein Central Park is doubles as a shared backyard where they feel at ease, sleep, read, unwind, play sports, and even barbecue. It acts as sheltered escape to de-stress from the pressures of daily life.
The Park was not included in the original plan for Manhattan Island, but for the persistence of surveyor John Randel Jr, who eventually included the current Central Park to give an impetus to real estate.
Central Park is not considered to have been just built; it is considered a continuous development that unfolded in chronology from being a grid design of 1811 to now being considered a standard weave among city fabrics – this is how the Park has had its own share of ups and downs.
President of the Central Park Conservancy, Douglas Blonsky recollected how just a few years back, it had declined to the point where it was impossible to revive it.
The collective efforts of a citizen-government partnership forged 28 years prior then came to its rescue and breathed life back into the most cherished of New York’s landmarks, rendering it yet again the most beautiful and indeed the best-managed urban park in whole of the US. Well, that weaves the much unheard-of story of the most heard-of park in the world.
• If one were to calculate the value of Central Park, considering the average land value in Manhattan of about $1,000/sqft and imagining it were subdivided into small building lots, the total area of the park would come to about 35 million sqft, making it worth a whopping $35 billion
• As per one estimate, Central Park would cost the same as the entire state of Alaska – buying the park cost New York State legislature $7.4 million; Alaska, was bought by the US from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million
• Talking a walk all way along the Park would take around two hours at a normal pace