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Central Park

Building Central Park

In the following excerpt from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, David Schulyer describes the construction of Manhattan’s Central Park and how – despite the difficulties and cost attached – it was ultimately worth the undertaking. It continues to captivate residents and visitors alike, and serve as a symbol of the City of New York.

The site chosen for Central Park was distant from the built area of the city: the cost of Manhattan real estate precluded buying land for a large park in the densely built lower part of the island, and this would be true in other cities as they acquired land for parks throughout the remainder of the century. Still, the process of assembling land for park purposes was a visionary accomplishment, removing 9,792 standard 25 × 100 foot Manhattan building lots and reserving them for public use. Anticipating continued urban growth, Olmsted and Vaux recognized that within a generation “the town will have enclosed the Central Park.” The land was acquired at the cost of $5,029,000.

However, the park site—a largely treeless, scarred landscape—was anything but park-like. Olmsted described the site as “filthy, squalid and disgusting,” and during his initial tour of the property, he was often knee-deep in mud. Major structures on the site included the Arsenal, near Fifth Avenue; the old, rectangular receiving reservoir of the Croton system; and the convent of the Sisters of Charity, at Mount St. Vincent. The new Croton receiving reservoir was under construction. A small community of African Americans and Irish immigrants, Seneca Village, stood on the park’s west side, near 86th Street. As many as 1,600 people resided within the boundaries of the park. During the fall of 1857, workers demolished or removed 300 dwellings as well as a number of factories to make way for improvements to the park.

Central Park remains one of the best investments New York City has ever made.

Central Park was a massive public works project. As many as 3,800 men were employed at the height of construction. Olmsted calculated that workers used 260 tons of gunpowder to blast rock on the site and handled 4,825,000 cubic yards of stone and earth, “or nearly 10 million ordinary city one-horse cart-loads, which, in single file, would make a procession thirty thousand … miles in length”—that is, extending from New York to San Francisco and back again, five times. During construction, workers used more than 46,000 cubic yards of manure and compost to prepare the ground for planting approximately 270,000 trees and shrubs. The elm trees along the Mall, or Pedestrian Promenade, were dug up in the Bronx and carted to the park for replanting. Workers built miles of drives, walks, and bridle paths, and more than twenty bridges and underpasses, to create a complete separation of ways as well as a number of buildings to serve the visiting public. The cost of construction was enormous. The state legislation establishing the park had authorized spending a maximum of $1.5 million in building the park. By 1859, costs totaled $1,765,000, at which time only part of the lower park had been completed and opened to the public. In 1861, the legislature authorized an additional $2 million for construction, bringing the total amount appropriated for building the park to $4 million. By 1870, Olmsted estimated that constructing Central Park had cost New York City approximately $8.9 million.

Building the park was so expensive because of the rockiness of the site and the transformations Olmsted and Vaux made in reshaping the landscape. Swampy lowlands were excavated to become lakes, and so much rock was carted off the site and soil, brought in, that Olmsted estimated a change in the grade of the park’s 843 acres 4 feet. The result of all that work—blasting, construction, soil preparation, and planting—proved to be a marvel to New Yorkers, who first encountered the finished parts of the lower park in 1859. Horace Greeley, for one, was pleased that the designers had preserved the existing landscape more than he anticipated. As is true of many visitors in the early 21st century, Greeley did not realize the degree to which Central Park is a humanly created landscape, one that, in its meadows, its picturesque areas, and its water, provides a welcome relief from the cityscape beyond its borders.

Perhaps inevitably, the park was drawn into the maelstrom of city politics from its very inception. The Charter of 1857, which created the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, was a patently undemocratic document that attempted to remove control of park construction from the city’s Democratic leaders. Construction was halted by strikes, as a fractious workforce, beset by the deskilling that accompanied industrialization and by competition for jobs from immigrants, resisted Olmsted’s efforts to establish a strong work discipline among employees. Park commissioners of every political affiliation sought patronage appointments on the park’s workforce, which led Olmsted, in the 1870s, to maintain a journal recording his travails at the hands of city politicians. Moreover, opponents of the park’s administration and cost launched several administrative reviews of operations, each of which concluded that the management of Central Park was efficient, even exemplary.

Despite the enormous difficulties and extravagant cost, Olmsted, Vaux, and their associates created, with Central Park, an urban landscape that delighted residents. Shortly after the park opened to the public, skating on the park’s lake and ponds became a favorite pastime, as was carriage driving and strolling on the park’s paths, though Olmsted fought to keep competitive sports, such as baseball, out of the park. Visitors wrote about their enjoyment of the park, publishers issued guides to its landscape, and photographers recorded its scenery and the public’s appreciation of its many features. Central Park remains one of the best investments New York City has ever made. Indeed, it is hard to imagine life in Manhattan without it.

Featured image credit: “Southwest corner of Central Park, looking east, NYC” by Ed Yourdon. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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