by Deborah Harley
One of the statements I constantly hear in regard to New York City is “How in the world did New York build a park like Central Park in the middle of some of the most valuable real estate in the world?” That is an easily answered question once you know the history.
When the Dutch first came to the island called Manahatta in 1624, it was a lush, hilly environment with 55 different ecological systems. It had streams, salt marches, oak forests, red maple forests, sandy beaches, and abundant wildlife, including an oyster-filled estuary at its southern tip. However, all that began to change once the Dutch West India Company set up shop on the island.
By the mid-1800s, New York City was an overcrowded, cramped, and unsanitary place to live, and the population was growing quickly. At the turn of the 19th century, New York had 60,000 people. In 1840, it had 312,000, and by 1850 over 500,000. Most of the population lived below 14th Street, and they were very poor. Disease, malnutrition, and unsanitary conditions were widespread, and the water was contaminated.
In the early 1840s, despite all the desperate needs that the city was facing, prominent individuals began to call for the building of a large public park. This might seem an improbable idea, but there were several compelling reasons for building a park. One was to make New York into a world-class city, an overriding ambition during the 19th century. Another reason was to make the city livable. It was becoming increasingly apparent that without additional green space the city would soon become completely unlivable. Finally, a park would improve public health. Sanitary conditions were so bad in New York that people were dying by the thousands. A park would give urbanites a place to escape and to breathe fresh air.
In 1851, a formal proposal was made for a park.In 1853, after much debate, the state allocated funds to purchase the land between Fifth and Eighth Avenues and 59th and 106 Streets. Officials selected this area because they expected the city eventually to grow around it, thus making it “central” to the future city. In addition, most considered the land unsuitable for any other purpose, therefore making it cheap to purchase. The city also already owned a portion of the land as part of the Croton Reservoir System.
By 1857, New York had funding and land, but no design. That is when a young architect named Calvert Vaux suggested a design contest. After the state-appointed park commissioners approved the idea, Vaux asked Fredrick Law Olmsted to join him in submitting a design for the competition.
Calvert Vaux was an English architect who came to the U.S. in 1850 to join the landscape firm of Andrew Jackson Downing. Many historians consider Downing to be America’s first landscape architect. He was also the publisher of the influential The Horticulturist magazine. Vaux joined Downing in his Newburgh, NY business, along the beautiful Hudson River, 60 miles north of NYC. He became Downing’s protégé, his business partner, and a very close friend.
Unfortunately, the partnership came to a tragic end only two years later. Downing, still in his 30s, died in a steamboat accident on the Hudson. Vaux remained in Newburgh only a few more years before moving to NYC to further his career.
Olmsted and Vaux had met through Downing; Olmsted had written for Downing’s magazine. By 1857, Olmsted was superintendent of the future park and supervising its clearing. Olmsted had developed an intense interest in landscapes starting at a young age. In his late 20s, he had spent time touring the grand parks and estates of Europe and had marveled at the artistry in their design.
Olmsted and Vaux made good partners. They had complementary skills and, more importantly, they shared a similar vision for the park. That is, it would emphasize nature – but not just copy nature; it would idealize it. The park would be a work of art. They called their plan Greensward, which literally means a vast lawn dotted with shade trees, and they won the contest.
There was one other major influence for building the park. That was Romanticism, and Olmsted and Vaux were Romantics. Romanticism was an important philosophical and artistic movement that began in Europe during the 18th century and was most influential in America until the end of the Civil War. Romanticism was a reaction against the rationalism of the 18th century and the social upheavals caused by the Industrial Revolution. It spurred a longing for a simpler time when people -- the Romantics felt -- were closer to God, nature, and each other. A time we call the Middle Ages.
Romantics were emotional, spiritual, and idealistic, and they had a special connection with nature. They believed that nature would bestow benefits to people if they spent time in it. They believed it was therapeutic and that it had the ability to improve humanity. In short, Olmsted and Vaux believed that people would become better simply by spending time in their park.
This might sound terribly idealistic to you, but if you have any doubts, just google it. You will find a ton of studies confirming that spending time in nature will not only make you healthier, but also nicer. However, if you don’t believe science, believe your eyes. Just look around as you walk through Central Park. People are smiling; they are relaxed. The blood pressure is down; the spirits are up. People are happy. And that is not by accident. That is by design.
By Laurie Lewis
For more than a hundred years, crowds have been gathering in Times Square to usher in the new year. I wrote about how this tradition began in the December 2015 newsletter Tours and Tales of New York. In case you missed that issue or forgot the story, you can read it here. (In fact, you’ll find all back issues of the newsletter in the Newsletter Archive section of this website.)
This year, the revelers had to contend with added security measures and sub-zero feel-like temperatures. It was the second coldest New Year’s Eve in Times Square, with the temperature dropping into the single digits as the ball dropped. But the bitter cold and biting wind did not keep the hardy from partying hearty. Watching them on television from the comfort of my living room—which was cool but nowhere near as chilly as it was outside—I recalled the one and only time I ventured out to watch the ball drop in person. I wrote about that in my ebook My New York Stories. No point in reinventing the wheel. What follows in blue is an excerpt from that book.
I never had a strong desire to go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, although it was on my maybe-someday list. But my niece and nephew and his girlfriend at the time wanted to take part in the festivities. They weren’t New Yorkers and a little young to venture out on their own, so I went with them.
Once you arrive to see the ball drop, you can’t leave. Oh, you might be able to leave if you could work your way through the crowds, but you can’t return to your spot. My nephew’s biggest concern, and mine, was not being able to go to the bathroom for hours. The girls were more worried about the bitterly cold temperature. I suggested we get there around 10 PM to minimize the discomfort.
After we ate dinner, being careful to limit our fluids, we donned multiple layers on every part of our bodies. The subway was jammed, but no worse than rush hour. We got off at 42nd Street on the east side and followed the crowds. And followed the crowds. And followed the crowds.
The herd of revelers in front of us had gone only as far west as Sixth Avenue. Around 48th Street, I suggested we break away and head two blocks west to where the ball-watchers gather. We tried, unsuccessfully. Police at every intersection sent us north, following the crowds. We followed the crowds. And followed the crowds. And followed the crowds.
At 59th Street, the crowds finally turned west, and we dutifully followed. It was a short walk. In front of us was a sea of people no longer able to move because of the sea of people in front of them. Several Jumbotron screens towered above.
We were nowhere near 42nd Street, where the ball drops, or Broadway, where the early revelers gather. We were more than a mile from the action. At least we weren’t alone. We were squashed among all the other unknowing fools who had left home late to avoid bladder accidents and frostbite.
The mood wasn’t exactly festive. Instead of blowing noisemakers, the 59th Street gang were bemoaning their fate, stuck far from where they thought they’d be and freezing their tails off. Then the mood suddenly changed. The countdown had begun. The numbers rang out in unison, culminating in a shout: Happy New Year!
As the kissing began, the shouting quieted down, and I heard another sound. I turned my eyes from the Jumbotron to the dark space directly north. Fireworks over Central Park!
Knowing what her answer would be, I asked my niece, “What’s the best place in New York?”
“Central Park,” she said. “Why?”
“Turn around. You’re standing right next to the park, and you’ve got a great view of the fireworks before the Midnight Run.”
Who cares about a ball drop in Times Square when you can watch fireworks over Central Park instead?
Actually, fireworks are an old way to usher in the new year. Read my article in the December 2015 newsletter, and you’ll discover that fireworks, not a ball drop, were central to the first celebrations in Times Square. You’ll also learn why the pyrotechnics there stopped.