Central Park: New York City’s green oasis
Mapping and sketching the park
There it is!
A vast green oasis in the midst of an endless array of skyscrapers.
Whether you walk or drive up to it or fly over it, you’re suddenly struck by the juxtaposition of Central Park’s lush emerald lawns and elegant trees bordered by a concrete picket fence of tall towers that is New York City.
Central Park is much more than the city’s green haven. A brilliant combination of planning, design and landscape produced America’s first public park. About 25 million people annually visit this world renowned National Historic Landmark.
"What an awesome place — perfect for just getting away from the hustle and bustle of New York," a British tourist posted on TripAdvisor.
Before examining its roots, let’s review a (partial) list of what you’ll find in America’s finest park.
Central Park has:
- 843 acres: The park’s property between 59th Street and 106th Street, and 5th and 8th Avenues encompasses six percent of Manhattan's land. It includes 136 acres of woodlands, 250 acres of lawns, plus its seven water bodies total 150 acres.
- Trees: More than 26,000 trees from 31 families. During the fall this diversity of varieties results in spectacularly colorful foliage, while in the spring the landscape is again filled with color as thousands of trees and flowers burst into bloom.
- Birds: Over 200 species (a quarter of the species in the U.S.) visit or live in the park, including several rare varieties.
- Pathways: 58 miles of walking paths, 4.25 miles of bridle paths. Also 6.5 miles of winding roads.
- Bridges and arches: 36
- Recreation: 26 ballfields, 30 tennis courts, 21 playgrounds, 2 ice-skating rinks (one of which is converted into a swimming pool in the summer), row boat rentals and an historic carousel.
- The Central Park Zoo displays 1,400 animals on a 5-acre site. The zoo is divided into three zones (tropic, temperate and polar) and exhibits a wide variety of animals, from tiny leafcutter ants to penguins, which are enjoyed equally by children and adults.
- Sculptures: 29, including Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen. ► These statues are favorites of climbing children.
- And More: Outdoor auditoriums, site of Shakespeare in the Park; Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John Lennon; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, America’s largest art museum.
Central Park's 843 acres are enjoyed by 25 million annually
Look! Sheep in the meadow
Sheep Meadow's 15 acres was by far the most costly to build in Central Park in both emotion and money.
Before the construction began many shanty dwellers were uprooted. This area was home to some 1,600 poor people. The state legislature in 1853 authorized New York City to use the power of eminent domain to acquire the land and soon police began to displace the people.
Then German and Irish immigrant workers sweat and toiled to produce a smooth meadow. They blasted rock and filled the area with two feet of new surface soil.
When Sheep Meadow opened visitors were not allowed to walk on this large lawn. Instead, they had to stay on the paths and view and appreciate the vast green expanse from there. A flock of 200 sheep were the only ones allowed to walk on (and eat) the grass. The field, soon named Sheep Meadow, was the sheep's home for 70 years.
The sheep lived in a Victorian style sheepfold on Central Park West. Twice a day, a shepherd stopped traffic as he led his flock across the street. In 1934, the sheep were moved out and the sheepfold was converted into the now defunct Tavern on the Green restaurant.
Today, on any summer day, you'll find as many as 30,000 people picnicking and sunbathing on Sheep Meadow.
How NYC's world class park grew from swamp and rock
Central Park is so naturally part of the Manhattan environment that many people may not realize it was entirely man-made using horse carts, shovels and picks. The story starts nearly two centuries ago.
In the mid-1800s, NYC’s population tripled to a half million people. Most New Yorkers lived in crowded, cramped tenements downtown (below 38th Street).
To escape the commotion of city life people sought refuge in pastoral spaces, mainly cemeteries.
City planners had not included recreational space in their in 1811 master plan, which divided Manhattan into a grid of avenues running basically north and south, with streets heading in an easterly and westerly direction.
In 1844, William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the Evening Post (now the NY Post), championed the need for open green space within the city. He was joined in this crusade by landscape gardener Andrew Downing. Together they pressed officials to set aside land for a park before it was swallowed up by developers.
Joining their cause were the wealthy, who admired the public grounds found in Europe and felt a similar facility was needed in New York City.
This politically connected, upper-class group argued that a park would offer their families an attractive setting for carriage rides and provide the working-class someplace else to go to besides local bars. They pressured the city commission to support the initiative.
Land worth $529 billion purchased for $5 million
Politicians in both parties endorsed the idea of a large public park. New York City paid $5 million (about $150 million in today’s dollars) for 843 acres as the site of the new park.
This removed a massive parcel off one of the US’s most expensive and intensely competitive real estate markets. The land was barren of buildings.
Today, the value of the site is over $529 billion. However, 19th century businessmen didn’t have the vision to see the property’s future value. In those pre-industrial years developers weren’t interested in the site because it was full of swamps and bluffs, interspersed with boulders and rocks.
Castle serves as a landmark
Belvedere Castle ▲ is one example of the depth of Calvert Vaux’s Central Park plan. He designed this Gothic-style castle, perched on Vista Rock, as a landmark to encourage pedestrians to walk to the area. The castle also affords great views of other park venues.
Since 1911, Belvedere Castle has been used as a weather station. Today, it's also a visitor’s center.
Workers cart in tons of soil
In 1857, a landscape design contest was conducted. A pastoral landscape plan submitted by architect Calvert Vaux and journalist and gardener Frederick Law Olmsted won. A key element in their plan was how they treated cross-town vehicular roadways. They hid them eight feet underground, which produced the park’s signature great expanse of greenery.
Building Central Park was a massive public works project. Some 20,000 workers reshaped the site's features. The soil was inadequate to sustain the 270,000 plants and trees in the plan, so 500,000 cubic feet (12,500 tons) of topsoil was carted in from New Jersey.
Lacking modern machinery, laborers dug up earth using shovels and blasted out huge boulders with gunpowder. Using horse-drawn carts, over 10 million cartloads of materials and debris were carted in and out. More gunpowder was used to obliterate rock at Central Park than was fired at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
The first section of Central Park was completed in the winter of 1859 and thousands of New Yorkers turned out and skated on lakes that were formerly swamp land. It was a big success and within six years the park had 7 million annual visitors. However, the park was not totally completed until 1873. The cost of construction from 1858 to 1873 was $14 million ($200 million in today's dollars).
The wealthy enjoy daily horse drawn carriage rides in the park
Once the first phase opened, droves of the city's wealthiest citizens began taking late afternoon horse drawn carriage rides through Central Park. During its first decade, more than half of the visitors traveled to and through the park in carriages, costly vehicles owned by less than five percent of the city's residents.
The city’s middle-class also flocked to the park to enjoy winter skating and to bask in the summer sun. However, many German and Irish Americans failed to visit the park, inhibited by stringent rules that banned group picnics. Eventually, public pressure resulted in revised rules, which allowed Sunday concerts, picnics and other group gatherings in the park.
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century, other activities were gradually added. These included a carousel, goat rides, lawn tennis and bicycling.
The zoo, opened in 1871 and quickly became one of the park's most popular features.
During its more than 150-year life, millions and millions of New Yorkers and tourists have visited Central Park, enjoyed its many outdoor activities and delighted in nature’s constantly changing beauty. –TDowling
© 2013 Thomas Dowling