HISTORY OF CENTRAL PARK
by Sarah Waxman
Photos by Charles Pearson
New York's Central Park is the first urban landscaped park in the United States. Originally conceived in the salons of wealthy New Yorkers in the early 1850's, the park project spanned more than a decade and cost the city ten million dollars. The purpose was to refute the European view that Americans lacked a sense of civic duty and appreciation for cultural refinement and instead possessed an unhealthy and individualistic materialism that precluded interest in the common good. The bruised egos of New York high society envisioned a sweeping pastoral landscape, among which the wealthy could parade in their carriages, socialize, and "be seen," and in which the poor could benefit from clean air and uplifting recreation without lifting the bottle.
Thousands of Irish, German, and New England-area laborers toiled ten-hour days under the direction of architect-in-chief and head foreman Olmsted for between a dollar and a dollar fifty per day. In the winter of 1858, the park's first area was opened to the public; December of that same year saw New Yorkers skating on the twenty-acre lake south of the Ramble. The final stages of the park's construction began in 1863, with the landscaping and building of the newly acquired area from 106th to 110th Streets. Due to budget constraints and the tight financial control that Andrew Green, the new comptroller, exercised, the area was less laboriously and meticulously designed, giving it a more untamed appearance.
In the first decade of the park's completion, it became clear for whom it was built. Located too far uptown to be within walking distance for the city's working class population, the park was a distant oasis to them. Trainfare represented a greater expenditure than most of the workers could afford, and in the 1860s the park remained the playground of the wealthy; the afternoons saw the park's paths crowded with the luxurious carriages that were the status symbol of the day. Women socialized there in the afternoons and on weekends their husbands would join them for concerts or carriage rides. Saturday afternoon concerts attracted middle-class audiences as well, but the six-day work week precluded attendance by the working class population of the city. As a result, workers comprised but a fraction of the visitors to the park until the late nineteenth century, when they launched a successful campaign to hold concerts on Sundays as well.
As the city and the park moved into the twentieth century, the lower reservoir was drained and turned into the Great Lawn. The first playground, complete with jungle gyms and slides, was installed in the park in 1926, despite opposition by conservationists, who argued that the park was intended as a countryside escape for urban dwellers. The playground, used mostly by the children of middle and working class parents, was a great success; by the 1940s, under the direction of parks commissioner Robert Moses, Central Park was home to more than twenty playgrounds. As the park became less and less an elite oasis and escape, and was shaped more and more by the needs of the growing population of New York City, its uses evolved and expanded; by the middle of the century, ball clubs were allowed to play in the park, and the "Please Keep of the Grass" signs which had dotted the lush meadows of the park were a thing of the past.