Book Notes on Saving Central Park
What follows are my book notes from Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir, by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers (2018). EBR was the very first Central Park Administrator and the founding president of the Central Park Conservancy, which, as the book title indicates, saved Central Park from desolation. All parenthetical page number citations that follow quotes are pages from the 2018 hardback edition of SCP unless otherwise indicated.
I’m publishing these notes primarily for my own research purposes, not least of which is hyperlinking to various sections of them in the future. This means that they aren’t formatted for smooth general consumption, but I hope that anyone who comes across them (1) finds them interesting, or (2) decides to read Saving Central Park (SCP) themselves—it’s a wonderful book with thematic and operational content relevant for governance generally, not just parks.
The notes are organized into several sections listed in the table of contents below; they contain quotes from SCP, references to sources in the book’s bibliography, and other historical or legal material I thought relevant. For example, understanding the origin and arc of Central Park means understanding a much broader context, including the legal relationship between New York City and Albany (the latter of which originally controlled the park).
The Timeline and Eras of Central Park:
- Greensward (1858-1869)
- Tammany (1870-1876)
- Long Progressive Era (1887-1933)
- Robert Moses as Park Commissioner (1934-1960)
- Collapse (1961-1976)
- Conservancy & Golden Age (1976-current)
- Patience, Passion, Persistence: the Font of Civic Vigor
- Central Park is Man-made
- Aesthetic Conceptual Continuum
- Tough Times Come for Us All
- The Park is a Palimpsest
- Central Park is the Product of Long-range Planning
The Timeline and Eras of Central Park
You can find a Central Park Conservancy post providing a brief outline of the park’s history here.
“That Central Park now enjoys a golden age is undeniable. But the perpetuity of golden ages cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, if you were to plot on a graph the fortunes of the park over the years of Its existence, you would see a series of hills and valleys. There is an ascending curve during its Greensward years as the scenic landscape conceived by Olmsted and Vaux matured. By the end of the nineteenth century a declining line represents a lapse in this ideal, as active forms of recreation were imposed on the park’s original naturalistic design. More drastically, the numerous extraneous, often eccentric, proposals at this time would have appropriated most of its open spaces for purposes that would have obliterated all traces of the Greensward plan. Indeed, during these years the continued existence of the park as a park was in question. But, as we have seen, from 1934 until the early 1960s, a dramatic change in its fortunes took place. Certainly Robert Moses never conceived of restoring Olmsted’s vision of Central Park as a scenic rus in urbe,1 but his authoritarian reign as parks commissioner brought it back to its intended recreational mission, albeit one that incurred numerous encroachments that transformed many multi-use scenic acres into sites for single-purpose facilities for sports, games, and children’s play. Then, in the 1960s, following Moses’s retirement, the lapse in park rules, regulations, management policies, and maintenance standards presaged the nosedive in which the fortunes of Central Park reached their nadir. The story of the Conservancy’s reversal of a decline that has been recounted in previous chapters charts a new pinnacle in the imaginary graph we have been plotting. But what about the future?” (269)
Here are my own notes about the the six approximate eras of Central Park:
- 1858-1873: construction of Central Park; from Greensward Plan to the installation of The Angel of the Waters by Emma Stebbins in Bethesda Fountain.
- The city held a public design contest for Central Park, and its eventual designers, Olmsted and Vaux, slid in at the last minute: “Labeled number thirty-three out of thirty-three entries, it was delivered to the park board on April 1, 1858, the last day of the competition. Subsequently judged the winning design, “Greensward” became the official plan for Central Park, entitling its authors to a prize of two thousand dollars.” (58)
- Also: conceiving of the Park as a whole, not many collected particulars (the site lines, the winding paths, the sunken transverse lines, &c, in contrast with Moses)
- Boss Tweed allies A. Oakley Hall won the mayorality (1868) and John T. Hoffman the governorship (1868), and with their allyship passed the 1870 Tweed Ring charter2, or the home-rule charter, which granted significant power to the city to govern itself—this included transferring oversight of Central Park from the state-controlled Central Park Board of Commissioners to a mayor-controlled Department of Public Parks.3
- Tweed and allies used Central Park as a patronage and graft tool—handing out tons of make-work jobs and skimming money off of capital projects. This not only resulted in over-pruning of the park, but put the Parks Department badly in debt, harming its future ability to course correct. During this time Olmsted kept his job as landscape architect with superintendent duties, but he had functionally no autonomy to direct the work or money of the park.4
- Tweed and allies fell dramatically from power in 1871 after their corruption was revealed, and in 1873 the New York State legislature passed a reform charter to try to curb municipal corruption and better balance city power.5
- In 1872, Olmsted and Vaux dissolved their partnership under the above strained conditions.
- In 1874, when Olmsted took a vacation from work on his doctor’s orders, his office was abolished, although he was appointed the Parks Department’s “consulting architect,” which functionally amounted to nothing. He left office in 1876.
- “Now [Frederick Law Olmsted’s] civic weal and integrity counted for nothing, and he was out of office by 1876. Embittered, Olmsted left New York and in 1883 took up residence in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he established a private practice.” (86)
Long Progressive Era (1887-1933)
- During the late nineteenth century and Progressive Era, the park went from sylvan retreat to more of a playground, with more play facilities, music concerts, and memorials popping up everywhere. (1913 Maine Monument in SW corner, Daniel Webster in 1876, Christopher Columbus in 1892, etc). There were also many proposals for turning the park into other things, like a 1904 suggestion to turn it into building lots, and WWI-era plans for airfields, fire stations, and burial grounds for war horses. This era also came with more funding and very tenuous maintenance.
- “…the 1913 annual report lamented that ‘the damage done during one season through vandalism is almost incredible. Trees planted in the spring are torn up by the roots, or the branches and even the trunk broken off before summer; shrubs newly set out are pulled to pieces to furnish switches for play. Bronze railings, decorative tablets, or fittings of any character are pried from fences, monuments or walks, apparently to be sold.’” (89)
Robert Moses as Park Commissioner (1934-1960)
- Although Moses radically transformed the park, he also maintained and funded it well.
- From the 1934 Parks Department Annual Report: “…The work of rehabilitating these worn-out parks will be entirely wasted unless they are properly manned and operated with intelligence.” (95)
- “Moses fostered the growing trend toward active recreation by converting many parts of Central Park’s multiuse landscape into playgrounds and other single-purpose recreation facilities, including three sets of ball fields with several diamonds each and two ice-skating rinks…” (97)
- Moses’ “whirlwind year of 1934” included rebuilding the zoo, adding twenty fence-encircled playgrounds, and more. (99)
- In the 1950s, Moses combined private philanthropic dollars with federal and state money to vastly improve the park. This included buildings for concessionaires, playgrounds, bathrooms, and statues all over the park dedicated to children’s books (like the Alice in Wonderland statue). (107-110).
- Resistance: in 1955 he sought to fence in the Ramble to keep out gay men who cruised there, but he kicked up the ire of the Ramble birdwatchers, who pared back his plans.
- In 1956, Moses wanted to add eighty parking spaces to the Tavern on the Green parking lot, razing a playground in the process. He was defeated by a group of west-side mothers who vociferously opposed his plans, and later that year the Times ran “Moses Yields to Mothers After Litigation.” (112-115)
- Moses left as the city headed into many different changes—the historic preservation era (Central Park became a National Historic Landmark in 1964, and a city scenic landmark in 1974)
- Situated within large outflows from NYC (it lost about a million people from 1950 to 1980), a falling tax base, city municipal treasury crisis, and an era of general cultural tumult with many large, uncontrolled public events in Central Park.
- Administrative collapse with a negative feedback loop. Employees become demoralized at lower pay and more work, and leave, making the situation worse for remaining workers, etc.
- See my thread here for before and after pictures of Central Park from the 70s to now.
Conservancy & Golden Age (1976-current)
- The Central Park Conservancy was formally inaugurated in 1980, but I put the explicit beginning of its lineage in 1976, with the publication of “32 Ways Your Time and Money Can Rescue Central Park”, in New York magazine (resulted in $25,000 in one week), and its follow-up piece about two months after.
- Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan (1985)
- Throughout the Conservancy era, people accuse it of being elitist, and want its power lessened over the park. Per EBR: “That the rich had adopted the park’s revival as a popular cause, however, was to my way of thinking a good thing.” (248)
- Zone gardening (49 zones), a radically superior plan for park management.
- Golden Age:
- By 1995, the Conservancy had spent $100M of private money on the park. By 2018 that number was $1B.
- The Conservancy funds more than two-thirds of the park’s ~$67M operating budget, its maintenance and repairs, its $212M endowment, and more.
Patience, Passion, Persistence: the font of civic vigor
Private citizens can accomplish great things for their homes, but they need to possess a durable personal constitution, in addition to a longer-range vision. Throughout SCP, EBR outlines the character traits needed to both pursue that goal over time, and withstand the frustrations that accompany government work.
“This book’s implied message therefore is that Central Park’s current beauty, safety, and cleanliness depend on unflagging good stewardship and the role of citizen-led partnership with government in achieving this goal.” (xiii) “…[EBR had] a quixotic mission to develop a means whereby the citizens of New York could take the initiative in overseeing what city government was then incapable of doing: saving Central Park.” (xvi)
“Although it can’t really be boiled down into a simplistic how-to formula, when asked how [the Central Park Conservancy] can be emulated elsewhere, I frequently tick off the following imperatives: (1) a vision, (2) a management and restoration plan6, (3) a good relationship with government officials and community organizations, (4) a strong board with the capacity to provide financial support, (5) advisory committees to help chart the course of future organizational development, and (6) the proverbial three Ps: patience, passion, and persistence. I will sometimes summarize as follows: “There has to be a Pollyannaish leader who is something of a ‘zealous nut’ in the first place, you must never take no for an answer, and you must accommodate, or simply endure, the opposition of your opponents.” (271)
I particularly like this last line: “…you must accommodate, or simply endure, the opposition of your opponents.” It is a call to be stronger from someone who did it already.
Central Park is Man-made
When many people look at Central Park, they sort of assume it was created with a mere act of negation—by the city government saying “just don’t build here, and we’ll add a few park fixtures.” This is a concrete instance of the more abstract phenomenon: people see a finished product or accomplishment, and assume it was pretty much always like that, ignoring the titanic process of creation that birthed it. Central Park is not just a work of art, it is a wonder of human ingenuity. Its existence is never guaranteed, and like any finely-tuned, complex system (and Central Park is a literal ecosystem), it only persists in its wonderful form because there are incredibly competent people at the helm at all times.
“It is hard to envision the amount of sheer backbreaking labor that went into what [observers] saw at the outset of the construction of Central Park, and few today realize that it is almost entirely a man-made creation. Think about it: sculpting the park’s surface by moving hundreds of tons of rocks and earth, enriching poor soil with sufficient organic matter, procuring and installing the myriad plants necessary to revegetate it [more than five million]. Consider the channeling of artificial streams spilling over piled rocks to create waterfalls that flow into naturalistic ponds and lakes. Behold rolling meadows of green turf, beds of shrubs, carved stone arches, and cast-iron bridges. Observe how the Belvedere, the Dairy, and several rustic gazebos appear as integral elements within the general landscape rather than as a miscellany of structures superimposed upon it.
It is astonishing to learn that the building of Central Park was in large part completed within only fifteen years. Remember, too, that its construction was accomplished by horsepower and human brawn in the days before the advent of modern fuel-powered earth-moving power and construction machinery. The revitalization of Central Park’s management and the restoration of the spirit if not letter of its original design required an understanding of this stupendous accomplishment and close study of the park’s original Greensward plan. Even as this analysis was under way, it was necessary to take steps to make visible the Conservancy’s commitment to succeed.” (75)
Aesthetic Conceptual Continuum
Pretty → Picturesque → Sublime, as a frame to use in landscape architecture in the case of Central Park
I thought this trio of concepts, as presented in the book (along with their historical derivations) was especially useful. According to its original design, Central Park was supposed to be Picturesque, although it has changed as time has gone on. Modern skyscrapers towering over it from the south transform the experience of certain parts of the park from an “Olmstedian Picturesque” to a “Romantic Sublime.” (60)
“The Picturesque can be considered as an intermediate category between the Beautiful and the Sublime, as distinguished in Edmund Burke’s famous 1757 aesthetic treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, in which he dissected and defined the specific characteristics of each—in the case of beauty, such qualities as smallness, delicacy, and smoothness, in contrast to the vastness and magnificence of the infinite of the Sublime, as found in the powerful frisson-inducing grandeur of such elements as majestic mountains or crashing surf. In terms of aesthetic theory this word “Picturesque” with a capital P should not be confused with lowercase “picturesque,” denoting a landscape or artifact that is merely eye-catching.” (54, footnote)
Tough Times Come for Us All
We often put our heroes on pedestals without acknowledging their own personal struggles and grinding reality. This not only doesn’t do them justice, it prevents us from gaining proper operational knowledge from their examples. The resistance and frustration that our heroes faced is vital context for both their accomplishments and their failures. Both Frederick Law Olmsted, the original co-designer and superintendent of Central Park, and EBR faced hard times in their quest to make the park great.
Said Olmsted after the corruption of the Tweed administration in the 1870s: “the Park is going to the devil and I have grave doubt whether a rural recreation ground in the midst of a city like this was not a mistake.” (85)
From “The Spoils of the Park” by Frederick Law Olmsted (1882), in which FLO heavily criticized the park’s governing board: “This disorganized body has been masquerading before the public, a headless trunk, without policy, without order, without well-defined purpose.”
“Now [Frederick Law Olmsted’s] civic weal and integrity counted for nothing, and he was out of office by 1876. Embittered, Olmsted left New York and in 1883 took up residence in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he established a private practice.” (86)
One example of many struggles that EBR faced as she worked to restore Central Park: In 1982, EBR and landscape architect Bruce Kelly began to prune back some small-caliper black cherry trees to restore the view from Bethesda Terrace to Belvedere Castle (the original Olmsted plan), and kicked up the ire of the New York City chapter of the Audubon Society, which would continue to be a whirlwind of bad press and bad-faith attacks for the whole year. As a lawyer for the NY chapter of the Audubon Society said in a 1982 New York Times interview, “Cutting of Central Park Trees Angers Birders”: “That plan is ‘Mein Kampf.’” (142-143)
EBR also face innumerable daily setbacks, especially in the early days of the Conservancy, where her organization’s work would be immediately undone. From Chapter Eight, “Learning Curve”:
“Probably the most glaring symptom of the park’s neglect in 1980 was the estimated fifty thousand square feet of graffiti covering every conceivable hard surface…Its removal would be an enormous task. We therefore had to learn what technology might prove effective and raise funds in order to hire and train a crew for this purpose.” (124-125)
One of EBR’s private journal entries from Saturday, May 19, 1979: “The enterprising concessionaire we have selected to open what he has named the Ice Cream Café beside the Model Boat Basin has found a chemical solvent to remove graffiti, something I had noticed yesterday evening when I took my favorite stroll home from the office and stopped to watch the water gather in the last daylight. It was a gratifying surprise to see that the small building at the south end of the pond, a dollhouse-like Robert Moses whimsy, was no longer covered with ‘Ziggy’ and ‘Crunch’ tags. Impressed with this counteroffensive on vandalism, I suggested to [the Parks Department’s head of maintenance and operations in Central Park] that we stop by and take a look, thinking that maybe the Parks Department could put in a purchase order for this miracle product that we could use elsewhere. Alas! Overnight every surface of the little building—the brick walls on the sides and back, and the newly painted, green, roll-down door over the counter (paint color selected by me and paint purchased by the Conservancy)—was emblazoned with graffiti. Yes, ‘emblazoned’ is the right word, ‘Blazer’ being the most prominent culprit. Who the hell is he? How could he have done it for heaven’s sake at night and in the rain?” (125)
The Park is a Palimpsest
“Palimpsest” isn’t a common word in modern English, but EBR uses it to describe Central Park, and I think it’s apt.7 It also reveals her wonderful view, evident throughout SCP, of historic preservation. Nothing can be frozen in amber, and even changes we don’t like can be folded into a broader aesthetic and functional context well—especially if people like them.
“Strong as was my admiration of Olmsted and Vaux’s original Greensward plan, I realized that historic landscape preservation does not mean reproducing in faithful detail designs of the past. Central Park’s restoration was and remains an exercise in honoring the principles and spirit of the original plan while melding into its footprint as harmoniously as possible those elements that have altered it but should not be removed because they still serve the desires and needs of contemporary users.
Thus, in moving forward, it was important for the Conservancy to take into account the fact that the park is layered landscape whose current appearance reflects the ethos of different periods as well as the random acts of history that gave it its contemporary form.” (80)
Central Park is the product of long-range planning
The park is a product of long-range planning and vision at the New York city and state level. In 1851, the New York State government passed a bill authorizing New York City to study various plans for a large urban park. In 1852 the committee that studied the question returned the “Report Relative to Laying Out a New Park in the Upper Part of the City.” In addition to being wonderfully, refreshingly (from a modern standpoint) proud of New York, its language is remarkably forward thinking, and keeps the future residents of the city in mind as much as the present. Here are some select quotes:
- “The city of New York is now, and probably will ever be, the metropolis of America; it is already one of the first cities of the world in point of population, wealth, commercial importance and beauty…This island city, steadily increasing at a ration of ten per cent per annum in population, must soon be closely inhabited throughout its entire extent.” (1461-1462)
- “It has ever been considered, in all large cities, an important duty for those entrusted with authority, to provide for the health of present and future citizens, and their recreation, by setting apart for public grounds, even at considerable expense…” (1462)
- “When a city proposes to itself an improvement of this kind, involving a very considerable expense, it is important that the ground secured should be sufficiently spacious for the purpose, not only of the present generation, but of a very numerous posterity.” (1464)
- “Central Park would probably be one of the largest city parks in the world, but not too large for the use of a city destined, in all human probability, to equal, and perhaps to exceed in population every other.” (1465) This is the part quoted in Saving Central Park
- “The special benefit [of Central Park to surrounding property values]…would be sensible to property around the Central Park for a great distance in all directions, and owners of property would probably come forward themselves and cheerfully subscribe a large portion of the purchase money and not feel it…” (1463)
- “The city limits embrace the entire island of New York; its population will undoubtedly before many years cover the whole extent of its surface. In providing a park, the convenience of those who will live here, after ourselves, must be considered.” (1469)
- “…Central Park, which has already some beautiful trees, can be furnished, by transplanting, with all the desirable additional trees, except those which should be raised from nursery saplings, which will attain, in from 8 to 12 years, a very vigorous growth, sufficient to give as much shade, where shade is desirable…” (1477)
- “…it is within the power of our citizens within a very few years to possess, at a comparatively trifling expense, a public park of considerable extent, sufficient for the possible requirements of the present and future population of a rapidly growing city…” (1487)
- “Indeed, your Committee confidently claim that it is within our power to combine the peculiar features and excellencies of each of these magnificent works [all the great parks of Europe and America] in our own park, and even to excel them all…” (1488)
rus in urbe: (n) an illusion of countryside created by a building or garden within a city. ↩
On the Tweed Charter of 1870, from Gibson’s Legal Research Guide (4th Ed), p. 442 (emphasis added):
In 1870, William Marcy “Boss” Tweed took advantage of Democratic control of the legislature to successfully engineer the passage of a new charter. Reported to have cost Tweed millions in bribes, it was designed to restore city control over its own government. The state commissions controlling parks, police, and public health were eliminated and the New York County Board of Supervisors was abolished. In a move with major historical implications, a Board of Apportionment was established with the power to estimate and apportion funds for each department of the city government. Its members were the mayor, comptroller, commissioner of public works, and the president of the parks department.
The office of the mayor was strengthened by being given the power to appoint the heads of ten new executive departments. It now took a three-fourths vote by the council to override a mayoral veto. The Charter of 1870 and its 1871 amendments also provided for a Board of Aldermen consisting of fifteen members elected at large, with assistant aldermen elected from each assembly district. ↩
This gave Democrats both the state and city governments. In this era, the city was ruled by Democrats, and the state by Republicans. ↩
From “Committee of Seventy”: In the summer of 1871, proofs were furnished that enormous frauds had been perpetrated by the existing officials upon the New York City treasury, raising the city debt in 2½ years from $50,000,000 to $113,000,000. One of the chief instruments of peculation was the court house, large sums appropriated for its construction finding their way into the pockets of the “ring.” The amount ostensibly expended in its erection exceeded $12,000,000.
People were immediately aroused, and assembled in mass meeting in the Cooper Union on September 4, 1871, when a committee of 70 members was appointed, to take the necessary measures to ascertain the true state of the treasury, to recover any abstracted moneys, and to secure good government and honest officers. In the November 1871 city election, the candidates favored by the people accused in the frauds were defeated by large majorities. The accused were subsequently prosecuted. Some of them were convicted and sentenced, while others fled the country. Several of the judges were impeached and resigned, or were removed from office. ↩
On the Reform Charter of 1873, from Gibson’s Legal Research Guide (4th Ed), p. 443 (emphasis added):
After Tweed fell from power, a new charter was enacted by the legislature. In a reaction to the Tweed scandals and corruption charges against former Mayor A. Oakey Hall (1868-72), mayoral appointments were made subject to the approval of the Board of Aldermen. The “Reform Charter” also abolished the Board of Assistant Aldermen, leaving the Board of Aldermen as the only body making up the Common Council. The total number of aldermen was increased to twenty-one, with only six elected at large.
The Board of Apportionment was renamed the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The board gained the power to set a tax rate and to issue stocks and bonds. Its membership now included the mayor, the comptroller, the President of the Board of Aldermen and the President of the Department of Taxes and Assessment.
Subsequent amendments continued the practice of changing the size of the Board of Aldermen. In 1874, the number was set at twenty-two, with sixteen elected from aldermanic districts, and six elected at large. In 1884, the charter was altered again, making the president of the Board of Aldermen an at-large elective office. Finally, in 1888, the number of aldermen was increased to twenty-five, each chosen from one of the city’s assembly districts, with only the president elected at-large. ↩
Elizabeth Barlow Rogers wrote Central Park’s original plan, Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan, in 1985. It has since become a model for many inside and outside of government. One of its particularly brilliant points was extensively outlining the many individual projects that had to be completed, and placing them within the much larger aesthetic context to which they’d be contributing (the park’s original “Greensward” plan).
The 1985 document was presaged in many ways by a 1976 article (June 14, p. 32-39) in New York magazine that EBR wrote called “32 Ways Your Time and Money Can Rescue Central Park.” It was a priced donation catalog, and it allowed people to see exactly what they could contribute toward. In a follow-up piece about two months later, EBR outlines the stunning success of the original article, which brought in about $25,000 in one week. ↩
From Wikipedia: In textual studies, a palimpsest (/ˈpælɪmpsɛst/) is a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused for another document. Parchment was made of lamb, calf, or kid skin and was expensive and not readily available, so, in the interest of economy, a page was often re-used by scraping off the previous writing. In colloquial usage, the term palimpsest is also used in architecture, archaeology and geomorphology to denote an object made or worked upon for one purpose and later reused for another; for example, a monumental brass the reverse blank side of which has been re-engraved. ↩