Sunday, July 03, 2005

Peer Day Report

If you’ve ever skirted the green, woodsy rectangle in New York, seen an aerial shot of it, or even walked through Central Park, you might well have thought that the city somehow wisely foresaw its future overgrowth of concrete and mercifully left undeveloped an idyllic 800-some acres of land for future leisure enthusiasts. I learned in this peer day that Central Park indeed was the result of some wise foresight—but the park was not simply crafted by nature; rather, Central Park is an extraordinarily large public art project, designed and conceived of in the nineteenth century (mostly) by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

I would have proceeded without knowing about Olmsted if it were not for Lila Staples. Lila, whose focus at Union is Museum Studies, convened the peer day and selected biographical readings about Olmsted (including Rybczynski’s excellent biography, A Clearing in the Dark) as well as more current readings about the park written in the context of the recent Christo Gates exhibit. Lila wanted to look at the park as a work of art or special public experience of leisure. Our purpose was to consider the present state of the park and determine how it continues to fulfill the mission of its creator as well as how the park has adapted to more contemporary public concerns. We evaluated the evidence both by discussion and walking through the park, stopping at various places for discussion (a formal agenda is appended).

In addition, in preparation for the peer day each of the peers present (Lila Staples, Leslie Bedford, Paul Gaffney, and I) wrote reflective narratives about an experience in the park; we shared these narratives during the beginning of our discussion. It is important to explain here that writing the narrative one of the best parts of the peer day for me, since writing about places will be a critical part of my PDE. Connecting place, the park, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Holden Caulfield (who seemed to me to be an obvious connection to literary humor) was a great exercise. I’ve appended the piece I wrote to this evaluation; I think it is a good start, or at least good PDE practice.

This sort of thinking ahead (towards my own PDE) is important, and it was an excellent connection to Central Park’s architect. Reading about Olmsted, I confess, it was hard not to think of the future. Most remarkable about Olmsted was his near-prescient ability to prepare for the future. Olmsted’s biographer, Witold Rybscynski, tells stories of Olmsted knowing exactly what to plant and where. For example, when he was asked to design cemeteries for the Civil War dead, Olmsted “advocated using trees indigenous to each region” since the cemeteries would need to be constructed in various parts of the country (Clearing 22). He offered a plan whereby the trees could grow a certain amount within five years, after which time more trees would be planted and a different look achieved (Clearing 22). Olmsted’s ability to understand the long-term outcomes of his designs was remarkable.

Consider this: around the time that the idea of a park in New York was conceived, around 1830, “urbanization” had already begun to occur, but the city had not yet developed the means of handling the sanitation problems that come with all those people. Olmsted’s biographer, Witold Rybscynski calls New York “dangerously unhealthy” because of its lack of “effective trash removal” (Clearing 32). Not only that, but also he explains that the city was “notorious for the pigs that freely wandered the streets in search of slops” (Clearing 32). By 1932, cholera outbreaks became epidemic, especially in the summer, which is why many people who could afford to do so left the city when the weather was warm (Clearing 32). People who stayed in the city were so upset by the problems with sanitation that riots ensued—and at the time not even a police force existed to assist with halting the mayhem (Clearing 32)! The inception of a park with shady trees and ponds must have seemed idyllic, and incredibly healthy, to the people. So, in July of 1853, the state legislature of New York approved a law that designated the land to be used as a park. Five years later, in 1858, Olmsted and his business partner Calvert Vaux began work on what was originally “treeless, rocky terrain and stagnant swampland,” and what became “the first major public park built in America” (Central Park).

Central Park turned into a place where free concerts and theatre were held; however during the 1960s, it also became a place of crime and ill repair. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the grounds were managed poorly (likely because at this time the city was being managed poorly and was in bankruptcy). According to the Central Park website, the grasses were “trampled,” and statues and benches were covered with graffiti (“Central Park Then & Now”). Finally, a number of advocacy groups formed a Central Park Coalition to raise money for the renovation and restoration of the park. The group, called the Conservancy, was responsible for restoring the park to its original beauty and now maintains the park with 100% private funds—the staff, materials, and equipment are entirely funded by donation rather than taxpayer monies.

The park’s 843 acres originally took 20 years to complete. The 150 acres of water, including the reservoir, three ponds, and a lake, were constructed from drained swampland to which city water pipes were added and water pumped in. The park has more than 26,000 trees, as well as 270 species of migratory birds. Every year the park has more than “25 million human visitors who can walk through its 250 acres of lawns and 136 acres of woodlands (Central Park 150th Anniversary Map & Guide). Visitors can enjoy the park all day and into the evening, but they have to leave by 1:00 a.m., when the park closes (I must confess, though, that we were confounded by how that rule could ever be enforced).

Modern-day attractions in the park are many, including a number of sculptures from Balto the sled dog (at East 67th) to Alice in Wonderland (at East 75th). Also, there’s a Carousel at mid-park on 65th and the zoo at East 63rd-65th. Brochures suggest bicycle rentals, horse-drawn carriage rides, boat or gondola rentals, tennis courts, and skating rinks. All these activities are important because they fit in nicely with Olmsted’s populist vision of what the park should be, with one possible exception. Olmsted was opposed to placing statues of any kind in the park because he thought that that kind of art was inaccessible to the masses, so he might have protested the current statues. However, we decided that he wouldn’t contest the ones we saw since they were small and they weren’t the off-putting “guy-on-a-horse” variety, but rather they were appealing, particularly to children. The idea of the park was for recreation. Rybscynski says in that regard “Olmsted was a purist” since he “considered skating and boating integral parts of the park experience” (“Olmsted vs. Christo”). So he would probably have approved of most of what exists in the park today.

The existence of a two-and-a-half mile-long rectangle park, which might be considered by someone like Donald Trump as essentially unrealized real estate profit in the most expensive city for real estate in the U.S. is an extraordinary luxury, in my view a great kindness to the people. Maintaining Olmsted’s park paradise is a great gift to people at a time when most leisure activities are costly and involve electronic accessories, or the “right” clothes. Visiting Central Park is a rare and welcome instance when we feel the relevance of nineteenth century ideals, a reminder of what Olmsted said he hoped for his work on his parks:
Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think…that a time is to come when…men will say, “See! this our fathers did for us” (qtd. in Clearing 364).

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