May 2011

Essays

Janette Turner Hospital

Wanted for loitering

A "rapscalian's" resort, Central Park. © Cameron Davidson / Corbis
Central Park, New York

From the NASA space shuttle, Central Park is visible to the naked eye as a bright emerald bar on the fat knuckle of Manhattan – index finger of New York, principal of the five boroughs that make up the city, indisputably the dominant digit as it pokes the soft underbelly of the Bronx while giving the finger casually, insouciantly, to everything west of the Hudson. If an astronaut were to plunge by re-entry capsule into the heart of the park, she could never be more than around 400 metres from the urban roar of a city of more than 8 million people densely packed. And yet, wandering the labyrinthine paths of the Ramble, surrounded by thick woodland, rocky headlands, rivulets and little stone bridges that cross ravines, she would neither hear nor see the metropolis. This is a miracle.

The wizard behind the miracle was Frederick Law Olmsted, dedicated loiterer and dilettante without formal education who coined the term and invented the profession of ‘landscape architect’. The world’s first ‘earthwork artist’, he himself credited the innovative sanctuaries he designed to the “loitering journeys” of his childhood in the Connecticut countryside, weekend family rambles “in search of the picturesque”, mandated by his father.

Olmsted was born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, into an eighth-generation family whose first immigrant forebear arrived in 1636. Because of illness, Olmsted never attended college. In 1850, he spent six months travelling in Europe, where the parks that had once been royal hunting preserves and the great English estates designed by ‘Capability’ Brown were an illumination to him. The possibility of “arranging Nature” excited him as much as the democratic possibilities of bringing the joys of the countryside to the poor and huddled masses. An ardent abolitionist and social reformer, he believed that beauty had a social and moral purpose. He joined other New Yorkers in lobbying for an urban park that would symbolise everything America stood for: rugged wilderness, a sense of unlimited space, equal opportunity for all.

In July 1853, after much wrangling, the New York State Legislature set aside 700 acres, later expanded to 843 acres, in the heart of Manhattan for a “central park” that would be open to rich and poor, to horsedrawn carriages and pedestrians alike. The wealthy industrial barons in mansions along Fifth Avenue were less than thrilled. “Rather the park should never be made at all,” noted one newspaper, “if it is to become the resort of rapscalians.”

Nevertheless, in 1857, a competition for the design was announced. There were certain restrictions. The designated land was an unpromising stretch of swamp and granite outcrops (which was why it had not been built on) but it surrounded a vital resource: the Croton Reservoir – fed by aqueduct from the Croton River – which supplied the metropolis with pure drinking water. Population growth had outstripped the water supply and so competition guidelines required enlargement of the great holding tank. Four transverse roads across the park were also stipulated. The winner was to receive a $2000 prize.

There were 33 entries. Thirty-two of these proposed the swamps be drained and the reservoir (as per the guidelines) doubled in size. They treated the designated tract between 59th Street and 110th Street much like a rectangular tablecloth on which they embroidered a geometry of lawns and flowerbeds. The four transverse roads lay across the park like guillotine blades, chopping it into segments, though the slashes were to be mitigated with flanking hedges.

The remaining entry, submitted last and late, was called by its designers – Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux – ‘the Greensward Plan’. This plan must have initially struck the park commissioners like a meteor from the outer galaxies of fantasy. The Greensward Plan did not drain water but added eight new bodies of it, channelling the swamps into lakes and lochs and waterfalls in one intricate flow system interconnected with the reservoir and the kitchen sinks of Manhattan. Olmsted and Vaux were not only moving mountains but making them. They proposed the carting in of thousands of tons of soil, the blasting of rocks and the artful rearrangement of them as naturalistic tumbled boulders on artificial lake shores. Perhaps most significant of all was Olmsted’s brilliant solution for the transverse roads: he proposed the first “sub way” in the US, the roads to be sunk below the park surface in tunnels with trees and meadows above. He also proposed an egalitarian amendment to the custom of the fashionable promenade: there were to be parallel loops of footpaths, bridle paths, and carriage roads, “so that pedestrians may have ample opportunity to look at the equipages and their inmates”.

The Greensward Plan won first prize and became the lifelong – though intermittent – work of Olmsted and Vaux. Both resigned often, exasperated by the stinginess of legislators, the greed of developers, the corrupt city councils. Both kept signing on again and their legacy is gloriously vibrant. Most tourists, and indeed many New Yorkers, think Central Park is the last remaining tract of virgin land in Manhattan. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the official history of the Central Park Conservancy notes, the park is a perfect marriage of aesthetics and engineering, a “glorious paradox”, which “copies nature so closely that it disguises its own fabrication”.

Olmsted’s experiment is a living, evolving artefact. The carriage roads are now used by cyclists, marathon runners and horsedrawn rides for tourists. The bridle paths are for dog walkers, for mothers pushing strollers and for the thousands of daily joggers. The footpaths are for loitering journeys in a parallel world of tranquility. Tourists tend to stick around the 72nd Street transverse road, marking the spot on Central Park West where John Lennon was shot, wandering along the southern shore of the lake, stopping for drinks at the Boathouse, pausing to watch the remote-controlled miniature yachts skimming Conservatory Water, and emerging through the Fifth Avenue gate close to the Frick Museum of Art. But this, to my mind, is the least interesting section of the park.

From September to December last year, we lived on West 106th, three minutes from the north-west corner of the park, close to the Great Hill, the North Woods, the waterfall, the loch and the Harlem Meer – the most beautiful body of water in the park. I developed an addiction to Central Park. Our daily walks kept extending themselves, from 40 minutes, to 90 minutes, to two hours. With a laminated strip map tucked into a pocket, we dedicated ourselves to discovery. Four months were not enough to explore the intimate nooks and crannies, the grottos, the sheep meadow, the great lawn, the Belvedere overlooking Turtle Pond. We became cordially acquainted with hundreds of people, though we rarely got to know names. Day after day, we would wave or exchange greetings with fellow loiterers. Before 9 am each day, the off-leash rule for dogs pertains and there are certain gathering places where owners stand in a huddle sipping lattes while 50 or more dogs gambol and chase each other and wrestle and roll about in canine heaven. We figured every dog must have been a graduate of obedience school because only once did we hear angry barking and the possible beginning of a fight. It was quickly silenced by stern commands from the owners, who are also well trained and adept at pooper-scooper manoeuvres.

We loved the evening pastoral of dads playing frisbee with young children, of toddlers feeding ducks, of families spreading picnic cloths, of elderly groups engaged in the slow ballet of Tai Chi. Just 20 years ago, most of Olmsted’s paradise had become overgrown and unkempt and, except for the sections close to 59th Street and 72nd Street, a dangerous area of drug traffickers and muggers. The city had no money for upkeep (and still does not) so a group of donors established the Central Park Conservancy, which pays for horticulturalists and some maintenance staff – not nearly enough. What keeps Olmsted’s legacy alive are the thousands of volunteers who plant and water and prune and mow. We stopped to watch the complicated removal of a tree by a crew whom we assumed to be professional staff. Not so. There was one paid supervisor; the others were volunteers: a student, a couple of housewives, a couple of retirees, a computer consultant on his break. This is truly a park that belongs to the people of New York, as Olmsted intended. They use it and nurture it and love it.     

Janette Turner Hospital
Janette Turner Hospital is a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Columbia University. Her books include Orpheus Lost, Oyster and Forecast: Turbulence, which was published in November 2011.

Cover: May 2011

May 2011

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