The Park and the People

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Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. Pp. xi, 623. $18.98 (Paper): ISBN 978-0801497513



New York City’s Central Park not only represents one of America’s most influential landscaped parks, but it also serves as an iconic symbol of romance, destiny, and nature (1-2, 537 n. 1). Nonetheless, most scholarship tended to isolate Central Park from its urban setting, not to mention the city’s people. Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar thus offered “a different perspective in the park’s history – one that puts people at the center and relates the park to the city” (3). By focusing on the city and people who created, cultivated, and cherished Central Park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar argued that the park illustrated the democratic possibilities that existed in an unequal, class-driven capitalist society.

Elite New Yorkers like Robert Minturn saw a large, landscaped public park as a means of facilitating civic pride, stability, and cultivation. As Rosenzweig and Blackmar showed, Central Park “emerged out of a complex mix of motivations – to make money, to display the city’s cultivation, to lift up the poor, to refine the rich, to advance the commercial interests, to retard commercial development, to improve public health, to curry political favor, to provide jobs” (18, 23). Park supporters, for instance, maintained that a public park offered avenues of self-improvement that transcended class lines. While a park civilized the working class through wholesome exercise and “innocent and cheap pleasures,” affluent New Yorkers gained continued cultivation through the “rural embellishments” of greenhouses and botanical gardens (24-8).

Although elite New Yorkers created the need for a public park, they had to gain the support of other New Yorkers to turn their idea into a reality. Rosenzweig and Blackmar noted that “[t]he association of a new park with the ‘public’ meant that a much broader cross section of New Yorkers would ultimately claim their rights to this new cultural institution than the relatively narrow groups of wealth (and often self-interested) New Yorkers who actually carried the proposal for a park through the political process” (38-9). Issues over park funding ultimately determined the park’s location. As uptown elites like State Senator James Beekman called for general taxation for the proposed Jones Wood park, they met with opposition from downtown merchants, resulting in a political and legal battle that eventually centralized the park’s location (37, 39-40, 42-5, 52-3).

The democratic character of Central Park further emerged through the park’s design. According to Rosenzweig and Blackmar, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux’s winning “Greensward” plan used a natural aesthetic to “provide a refreshing antidote to the city’s competitive pressures and dreary buildings…” (131). Olmstead and Vaux’s plan contained elite elements of individual reflection and promenading. However, as Rosenzweig and Blackmar showed, the designers used their plan to promote the park’s democratic possibilities. Olmstead and Vaux sought to “translate Democratic ideas into Trees & Dirt,” as Central Park would enable people from distinct socio-economic backgrounds to congregate and enjoy nature’s artistic beauty (133-4, 136).

In use, the people realized Central Park’s democratic potential. Rosenzweig and Blackmar noted that the park demonstrated the power of elite New York in the 1860s, as the park’s order and propriety represented a stark counterpoint to the city’s disorder and corruption (257). However, by the start of the twentieth century, Central Park became increasingly inclusive. The creation of the Central Park Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History not only illustrated the park’s socially broadening public, but also the growing strength of ordinary parkgoers. Moreover, African Americans, rejected in New York and New Jersey resorts, found limited acceptance in Central Park at a time of growing Jim Crow and de facto segregation (338, 340-1, 349). The park’s growing democratic realization led Rosenzweig and Blackmar to conclude that “[t]he greatness of Central Park has more to do with these democratic possibilities than with the artful arrangement of trees, shrubs, bridges, paths, and lawns” (530).


Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

In a sweeping history of Central Park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar present an organizational flaw by only devoting sixty-one pages to the park’s history from 1941 to 1991. They informed their readers that their “book focuses particularly on the park’s first half century” because the definitional questions surrounding a public park “were raised most sharply in the nineteenth century” (7). However, given the fine detail of the book’s first five sections, the last section has the appearance of a cursory appendix. Rosenzweig and Blackmar thus miss an opportunity to deeply explore the shifting definition of a public park during a period that contained the rights revolution of the 1960s and the subsequent conservative response. They could have improved the quality of their work by providing balance between the time periods, namely removing some of the details surrounding Olmstead’s disagreements with Andrew Haswell Green in exchange for more post-1941 detail. Nonetheless, the organizational flaw represents a minor setback in an otherwise superb and significant study.

Rosenzweig and Blackmar however thrive when they explore often overlooked aspects of Central Park’s past, namely the “pre-parkites” that occupied the land prior to the park’s development. Using land records, census records, and church records, Rosenzweig and Blackmar effectively show the stability of vibrant African American and Irish communities like Seneca Village and “Pigtown.” They argue that the “pre-parkites” did not represent the wretched populations as described by individuals like John Punnett Peters. Instead, the stability of Seneca Village and “Pigtown” facilitated the “pre-parkites” connection to the land, which grew stronger through the establishment of churches and schools. Churches like the AME Zion Church and schools like Colored School No. 3 represented local institutions that deepened the population’s connection to the land (62, 67, 70-1, 73-5).

In the process, Rosenzweig and Blackmar subtly connect Central Park’s history to larger questions confronting the nineteenth century city. Seneca Village and “Pigtown” illustrated the affect urbanization had on local neighborhoods as Central Park “would constitute one of the largest…parks in the world; and one which alone would be worthy of the future greatness of this city” (49). Furthermore, Rosenzweig and Blackmar connect Central Park’s development to New York’s changing political climate, highlighting state-city relations as newly empowered state Republicans curbed Democratic power by removing the park from city control. In essence, the greatest strength of Rosenzweig and Blackmar’s study provides a unifying theme that not only connects Central Park to issues of nineteenth century urbanization, but also the history of New York City.

Alan S. Brody, Fall, 2011

The Park and the People unpacks the stories of the peoples who envisioned, constructed, utilized, and ultimately claimed this New York landmark as their own. As a contested space, “the ‘public’ of a public park has a cultural and spatial as well as a political and property based dimension." (6) All of these aspects are well detailed and painstakingly researched, making this book useful to historians of all interests. Arguably, it is the social history of municipal planning told by the people who were the actors, some with agency and some without, however, all sharing in a landmark environment with multiple meanings. Many of the nineteenth century social issues are present in this story, and the first half of this work is devoted to the intersection of society and built environment and the various players, including the various municipalities and individuals who sparred over control of the park. These debates amplified issues of class and race and foreshadowed issues that would plague New York and cities for generations. Having a landscaped environment in the middle of the city also spoke to Victorian sensibilities and Rosenzweig and Blackmar detail the many ways in which elites tried to dominate park usage. Conversely, working people also have a voice as do ordinary New Yorkers whose actions and park usage is well documented from a plethora of sources, many of them private papers.

Urban historians seem particularly well served in this volume, as do social historians, especially if it is read as a biography or commodity history. The park, as we learn, was never static and for many years in a precarious position as land values rose and the park morphed to accommodate new uses. Central Park became the model for many other large municipal parks around the country and that helps inform our thinking about urban, suburban and recreational spaces. As time progressed, the park was claimed by many constituent groups and park management continued to engage in the debate about how to govern a public space. Reaching its apex in the early twentieth century, park usage slowly began to decline as New Yorkers found other leisure activities. Understanding the complexity of something so many take for granted and marrying that to questions of agency produced an outstanding model for thinking about uses and users within an urban environment.

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