By Deborah Harley
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were more than just the designers of Central Park. They were the first urbanists—city planners who sought to build and improve cities in ways that would enhance the lives of the inhabitants. Many of their ideas were decades ahead of their time. One of those ideas was a Manhattan-Brooklyn greenway.
After formalizing their business partnership in 1865, when Central Park was still being built according to their plan, Olmsted and Vaux started offering design and engineering services for “the laying-out of Towns, Villages, Parks, Cemeteries, and Gardens.” In 1866, they submitted their initial plan for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which was a separate city from Manhattan at the time. The plan offered a farsighted vision for the park. Olmsted and Vaux foresaw Brooklyn as being an integral part of a great metropolis, along with Manhattan, and proposed a system of parks and scenic grounds connecting the two cities.
The idea caught the imagination of James Stranahan, an official of the City of Brooklyn. He encouraged Olmsted and Vaux to expand their vision to include the streets leading to the parks. The outcome of Stranahan’s suggestion was a plan for a greenway that would extend from the Palisades along the Hudson River in Northern Manhattan all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island.
In formulating their plan, Olmsted and Vaux recognized that the expense of upgrading existing streets would be prohibitive. But the greenway was a viable option in the undeveloped sections of both cities. The visionary planners assumed latitude to modify the New York street grid and proposed a new kind of street for their greenway, which they called a “parkway.” It would be part local street, part thoroughfare, part greenspace.
Olmsted and Vaux proposed four Brooklyn parkways. One would stretch from Prospect Park south to Coney Island. A second would connect Prospect Park to Fort Hamilton and lead to a proposed promenade overlooking the Narrows, a strait separating Brooklyn and Staten Island. The third parkway would run east to the Ridgewood Reservoir, near the border of Brooklyn and Queens. The final parkway headed north to Ravenswood, Queens, just across from Roosevelt Island, which would allow for easy access into Manhattan by ferry or bridge. Only two of the proposed parkways were built: Ocean Parkway, extending to Coney Island as originally intended, and Eastern Parkway, which headed east but terminated far short of its proposed destination at the Ridgewood Reservoir.
The four parkways proposed by Olmsted and Vaux. All originated at Prospect Park. Completed parkways are indicated by solid yellow lines, proposed but unbuilt parkways by broken yellow lines.
Completed in 1876, most of Ocean Parkway’s 5.5 miles still reflect the original character of the Olmsted and Vaux plan. That is, except for its beginning at Prospect Park, which city planner Robert Moses disrupted for the Prospect Expressway. Today, Ocean Parkway consists of a wide, six-lane avenue plus turning lanes and two residential service roads with adjoining pedestrian walkways. The greenway, located on both sides of the avenue, includes a shady pedestrian walking path and a bike lane. The bike lane was added in 1894 and was the country’s first.
Ocean Parkway, c. 1926.
Although the visionary greenway of Olmsted and Vaux was never completed, many communities and states adopted their idea of the parkway, with modifications. And the greenway? Well, Olmsted implemented that idea in Boston with the creation of the Emerald Necklace.
Are you looking for the perfect gift for somebody who enjoys walking tours? Consider a private or custom tour from Take a Walk New York. For possible itineraries, see our website or email us at email@example.com.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Alan (917-363-4292) or Laurie (917-306-2868).
Fort Tryon Park
The high ground in Upper Manhattan that appealed to the new American army for a defensive fort later attracted millionaires who wanted to build castles on the Hudson. We’ll walk from the site of Fort Washington to Fort Tryon Park, exploring vestiges of a Gilded Age estate. We’ll take in the Heather Garden and the park’s extraordinary Hudson River views. You’ll hear about a fearless woman who was a good shot with a cannon, a self-indulgent tycoon, and a very generous Rockefeller. We’ll end at the Cloisters museum, which you may want to visit on your own.
Alan leads this 90-minute tour on Wednesday, December 4, at 11 AM. To make a reservation and to learn the meeting location, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city’s most surprising landscapes. Take a hike in the woods, and you’ll feel as though you’ve left the city. Discover New York’s own Secret Garden. If history rather than nature is your thing, fear not. You’ll learn about the role this area played in early American wars.
Join Alan on Wednesday, December 11, at 11 AM to explore the northern part of Central Park. To reserve a spot and to learn where to meet, email him at email@example.com.
Greenwich Village: In the Footsteps of Writers
Many writers and other creative people have called Greenwich Village home. On this tour, you’ll meander through charming Village streets and peek into hidden cul-de-sacs as you learn where some famous writers—including Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Edward Albee—lived. Maybe the Village aura will spark your own creativity!
Laurie gives this tour on Saturday, December 21, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mansions of Fifth Avenue
You can still find magnificent mansions built about a hundred years ago on the Upper East Side. These freestanding and rowhouse mansions are interspersed among luxury apartment buildings—mansions in the sky. Hear about these palatial homes and the people who lived in them—New York City’s own rich and famous.
Laurie offers this tour on Friday, December 27, at 1 PM. To reserve a place on the tour and to learn the meeting location, email the guide at email@example.com.
Green Spaces and Great Places on 42nd Street
Walking from Bryant Park all the way to the East River, you’ll discover parks among famous Midtown buildings. Learn why so many “pocket parks” occupy prime Manhattan real estate. Make a brief visit to great places, including the public library, Grand Central, and the Chrysler Building. End by discovering Tudor City, a residential skyscraper complex, which offers both green spaces and interesting architecture.
Laurie leads this walk on Monday, December 30, at 1 PM. To make a reservation and to learn the exact meeting place, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.