Looking at the Columbus Circle which is in the north-west side of the Central Park, one can feel its grandness. Central park his among the world’s most magnificent man-made landscapes, and it covers 843 acres of land. A city that has an excellent landscape park can be termed as great. With such a vision in mind, Central Park was developed right at the heart of New York. The idea to build Central Park began in the early 1850s, and the park has a history of numerous ups and downs. Many administrators have come and gone, but the park has been effective in standing the test of time thanks to the relentless efforts for its conservancy. This magnificent park hosts over 25 million visitors annually and has steadily gained a position as a National Historic Landmark in the United States. The park has an enormous animal zoo, extensive walking trails, two-skating rinks, a wildlife sanctuary, and numerous other historical landmarks. This is what makes Central park amazing and attractive to people visiting New York. For one to truly get a bigger picture of how this landmark came to be so great, it is important to look at its history. For this reason, this paper examines the history of Central Park from the time it was constructed to the 20th Century, focusing on major events that happened.
The history of Central Park can be traced back to the 1850s. Testimonies, newspaper editorials, and letters to the editor in the 1850s give varying accounts of the founder and origin of the Central Park but all these structures shared one common theme: all the articles attributed the idea of a grand park to an anonymous American gentleman who returned to the country with a vision. According to history, several events happened before the park was actually built. This movement was started by a gentleman named Robert Browne Minturn. Upon returning from a long tour in Europe in 1849, Minturn developed the idea that New York deserved to have a phenomenal park to enable it be recognized among the world’s greatest cities. Debates among the leaders of New York often centered on the need for the city to have an elite park that would be comparable to other big cities in the world. London at the time had the Hyde Park and Paris had the Le Bois de Boulogne. However, New York did not have any parks. For this reason therefore, the city officials decided to allocate the 150 acre land between 75th and 66th and the East River and the Third Avenue for the construction of the park.
In 1851, the state accorded the city the power to take up the piece of land and construct a park that would place New York in the ranks of Paris and London. The city used the tax-payers’ money to construct the park. However, as the idea of the park became more real, a lot of questions started emerging and debates surrounded it. The first debate was regarding the location of the park. It was located on one end of New York, which meant that it would be hard for people from all parts of the city to access it. Secondly, other people felt that the development of the park should be financed by the landowners and not the tax-payer’s money. Third, many were skeptical about the park being able to cater to all the need of local communities. As a result, Nicholas Dean and Henry Shaw decided on a more central location for the park.
They decided on the area between 5th and 8th Avenues because although this area was five times bigger than the previous area, its topography and texture would help to bring the cost of the land down. The idea of placing the park centrally was more appealing and practical though it was a big disappointment to the first proponents of the Jones Wood area. In 1853, the courts decided that Central Park would become the main public park in New York.
The next big task in constructing the Central Park was to obtain the land. About seventeen hundred people were settled in the land initially. These inhabitants comprised of poor African-American and immigrants who did not have a voice to defend their rights. Similarly, the eviction methods used by city officials were cruel and inhumane. For example, the Central Park Police officers raided a dance hall at three in the morning leaving the residents bewildered. The residents however did not rebel in any way and they just left. In 1855, the commission reported that the land would cost about $5 million. This news was shocking to tax-payers who had initially been told that the land would not cost more than $1.5 million. The city officials were determined to develop the park and it took almost four years before the first construction began. By 1857, the city had already settled payments with most land owners and cleared the land for
After acquisition of the land, the commission rolled out competition for the design of the park. It welcomed proposals from expert architects and designers and offered awards for the best proposals. The commission allowed New York residents a chance to design the park for themselves. The designers came up with thirty five designs but most of them had similar problems and similar solutions. The design that won the competition was called the ‘Greensward plan’ submitted by architect Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmsted. The commissioner stated that artistic merits and politics would determine how this grand historic landscape would be developed.
During this era, the park’s authority was in the hands of commissioners belonging to the Republican Party and had close connections with Vaux and Olmsted. In 1858, Olmsted was elected chief-architect and Vaux was his assistant. However, there were many questions about Olmsted’s appointment and Gordon Bennett attributed it to the influence of politics. To counter this argument, the commission began to publicly display the park and after many years of debate, the park was modified from Olmstead’s initial plan and construction finally began.
It took a lot of pain and massive efforts to develop that over 800 acres of land and the development went on until 1866. The peak of the construction was between 1859 and 1860 and the project became among the biggest sources of employment for New York residents. The Park’s commission hired an annual average of four thousand constructors, with over six hundred employees working during a single day. The construction of the Park’s drainage system started in 1858 and involved the most important stages of the construction. By December of that year, the workers had constructed over twenty miles of drainage pipes in the southern section of the park. The workers also accomplished a huge task of filling up the 20 acre lake south in time for residents to play winter skating. On one Sunday of December 1958, the park was opened up launching the start of skating games. Over three hundred skaters visited the park and are said to be the first people to have used the park.
The construction of the park was moving rapidly, but the budget was increasing day by day. By 1959 July, the park’s expenditure had already gone over the expected budget of $1.5 million by half a million dollars. The Board at this time estimated that it would require an additional $1.6 million to successfully complete the landscaping. This estimation brought that total expenditure on the park to $3.6 million, but this did not sit well with the commissioners so they started an investigation. They laid all the blame on Olmstead for the over expenditure and he was removed from office in 1861. Andrew Green was then appointed the comptroller of the park. The end of 1863 saw the completion of the construction up to the 102 street and the commission purchased an additional 65 acres of land bringing the total size to 863 acres. Finally, in 1866 following $5 million and intense and hard labor, the park finally had driving paths, hills, bridges, scenic vistas, lakes and lawns.
The park’s gatekeepers kept a recorded of the number of visitors to the park and by 1860; the park had received over seven million New York visitors. Four million of them arrived on horses and carriages while other came on foot. The number of visitors to the park was rapidly increasing and therefore the board removed the idea of counting them. One of the most significant attractions of the park was the grand open fields where the opening of popular games such as baseball and cricket. The commission however prohibited the use of these fields for regular playing of the sports and they were only used during opening ceremonies. The commission also prohibited using the park for holding music concerts on weekends. No rental boats or music were allowed in the park on Sundays. This move was discouraging and not appealing to families of working parents who only had the day to spend time with their families.
The 1870s saw major changes in the politics of the park and a beginning of its decline. In April 1870, the park’s commissioners adjourned the final meetings and expressed deep concern and apprehension over the park’s future. The reason for this apprehension was the Tweed Charter through which the park’s control was to get transferred and the restoration of the home rule to the park. This decision would therefore mean that commissioners of the park would be appointed by the mayor. The decisions was highly debated and led to a decade long period of conflicts as well as the park’s deterioration. This period also saw fewer restrictions on the park and the rules became more lenient. The rules became more lenient because of the growing number of visitors to the park so it became hard to continue imposing them. Boat rentals and pony and goat rides were finally allowed to happen on Sundays.
Interestingly, the Central Part zoo was not a part of the original Greensward design. Later reshuffles and additions in the plan resulted to the construction of the zoo. There was however a lot of debates regarding the zoo allocation. Olmstead opposed the idea of the zoo becoming that park’s main body and therefore drew up a design to put one up in Manhattan Square which is now the historic site of the American Museum of Natural History. The legislation however did not agree with Olmstead’s proposal and decided to include the zoo as the main area of the park. The zoo housed pets of children that had dead or the ones who were gifted.
The zoo did not become so popular up until the 1870 when the commission of the park decided to purchase animals instead of adapting the ones that were abandoned or left. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was opened in 1880 just opposite the Manhattan Square. There arose a lot of issues regarding the park and as a result of poor maintenance, the park began to deteriorate. The drainage system of the park became a great concern for uptown developers. By 1890, most of the lakes and streams in the park became stagnant with litter and dirty water. These issues resulted to filling of the 77th Street Lake’s bottom with concrete and asphalt.
By the beginning of 1880, the four roads that traversed the park had deteriorated so much that all the town traffic virtually passed through it. At this time, the City of New York was experiencing rapid growth and industrial revolution had direct impacts on the park. An American automobile club started a petition that required cars to be parked in the park. In the early 20th Century, hordes of motor vehicles were driven across the park with fumes and oil being left behind. Three people died in 1906 as a result of a fatal accident that happened in the parks. As a result of the numerous accidents that continued to happen in the park, people started opposing the use of motor vehicles within the area. Similarly, the increase in motor vehicle traffic in the park discouraged many people from visiting.
Fortunately, in 1920, Nathan Straus who was senator at the time placed a ban on the use of automobiles within the park. Urbanization in New York City was putting more and more pressure on the park because residents were not just entertained by the beautiful landscape. The visitors to the park wanted to get some form of entertainment and play. To meet this growing demand and to maintain the park’s sustainability, the administration of the park organized meetings with the people as well as politicians and they reached a decision to incorporate different activities to bring improvements. In a bid to improve the condition and the needs of the people, the administration built the Heckscher Playground in 1926.
In 1926, Jimmy Walker was appointed mayor of the city and he started planning the expansion of the park. He first allocated $10 million to develop the system of the park and further allocated $30 million to build play spaces in areas that were crowded. However, because of poor administration and management, the mayor never saw the completion of the project. The mayor also allocated $1 million for the park’s rehabilitation and these efforts brought the Central Back to its former or even better glory. For Moses, park was just a playground. He therefore ensures that the walls of the zoo were rebuilt and reinforced, and ensured that the open fields resembled grand college football pitches. This move turned the Central park from being a natural landscape to a commercial landscape. In 1934, there was only one playground, but by 1937, the park had twenty-two playgrounds.
In 1970, America experienced the greatest economic depression and this crisis impacted negatively on the park. The department’s budget dropped by 60% and the number of workers in the park greatly went down. This crisis left the Central Park in extreme decline and deterioration. The workers could only clean the park once in a week and poor maintenance saw the open fields turn in to dust fields. In a serious effort to revamp and conserve the Central Park, the commission formed the Central Park Conservancy. The goal of this group was to help to physically restore the park back to its former glory and implement improvements geared towards its security and maintenance. The commission appointed a new administrator to serve as the CEO of the park and the conservancy. The park’s renovations were expected to cost about $150 million and ten to fifteen years of rebuilding.
These renovations and conservancy initiatives saw the park get back to its intended form and to date it stands to be a great historic landscape. The park has a cool breeze coming from the ambience of the trees and the park is surrounded by skyscrapers that look like they are guarding it. Without a doubt, the Central Park has had its shares of good and bad times but despite all this, it has managed to stand the test of time and be among the world’s greatest man-made landscapes.
Chow, Kathryn. “Park Politics: Political Influences on Frederick Law Olmsted & the Creation of Central Park.” (2016).
Gobster, Paul H. “Visions of nature: conflict and compatibility in urban park restoration.” Landscape and urban planning 56, no. 1-2 (2013): 35-51.
Martensen, Robert. “Landscape designers, doctors, and the making of healthy urban spaces in 19th century America.” Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-being Through Urban Landscapes (2009): 26-37.
Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow. Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir. Knopf, 2018.
Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The park and the people: a history of Central Park. Cornell University Press, 2016.
Spencer, Lloyd. “Allegory in the world of the commodity: the importance of Central Park.” New German Critique 34 (2014): 59-77.
Taylor, Dorceta E. “Central Park as a model for social control: urban parks, social class and leisure behavior in nineteenth-century America.” Journal of leisure research 31, no. 4 (2015): 420-477.
Thompson, Catharine Ward. “Urban open space in the 21st century.” Landscape and urban planning 60, no. 2 (2012): 59-72.
 Rosenzweig, Roy, and Elizabeth Blackmar. The park and the people: a history of Central Park. Cornell University Press, 2016.
 Ibid 33
 Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow. Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir. Knopf, 2018.
 Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow. Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir. Knopf, 2018.
 Chow, Kathryn. “Park Politics: Political Influences on Frederick Law Olmsted & the Creation of Central Park.” (2016)
 Spencer, Lloyd. “Allegory in the world of the commodity: the importance of Central Park.” New German Critique 34 (2014): 59-77.
 Ibid 62
 Gobster, Paul H. “Visions of nature: conflict and compatibility in urban park restoration.” Landscape and urban planning 56, no. 1-2 (2013): 35-51.
 Taylor, Dorceta E. “Central Park as a model for social control: urban parks, social class and leisure behavior in nineteenth-century America.” Journal of leisure research 31, no. 4 (2015): 420-477
 Ibid 31
 Thompson, Catharine Ward. “Urban open space in the 21st century.” Landscape and urban planning 60, no. 2 (2012): 59-72
 Thompson, Catharine Ward. “Urban open space in the 21st century.” Landscape and urban planning 60, no. 2 (2012): 72