N.Y.C.'s Central Park; Can a tree still grow in Manhattan?
It is early morning and sunlight is just beginning to sparkle on the lake. The air smells of fragrant new-mown grass; orioles and robins sing; no human voice disturbs the serenity of the scene.Skip to next paragraph
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The wilderness of Maine or Oregon, you say? No, but one of the world's most famous chunks of real estate: New York's Central Park.
If you lift your eyes above the tree line on the other side of the lake, a half dozen Manhattan skyscrapers crowd upon the pastoral beauty like giant interlopers. And as you look more closely around you, there are other unmistakable, mostly less attractive signs of urban life: beer cans sitting in the heavy silt; patches of litter on the grassy shore; trees gashed by vandals.
Yet, overall, 840-acre Central Park represents an amazing ongoing success story, perhaps unparalleled in the history of America's urban parks.
At a time when the Reagan administration has proposed that no federal monies at all be earmarked for urban parks, Central Park is undergoing a metamorphosis - economically as well as visually. This can only be likened to the changes wrought by the architect-in-chief of the park, Frederick Law Olmsted. Working with English architect Calvert Vaux, Olmsted, a former newspaper editor, transformed an unwanted, undistinguished, alternately swampy and hilly tract of land - crisscrossed by filthy trenches and studded by tin-roofed hovels and inhabited by several thousand squatters, including a handful of Indians and wild dogs - into a work of landscape art.
''The ragged desert of out-blasted rock, cat briars, and stone heaps begins to blossom like a rose,'' George Templeton Strong, an early chronicler of New York life, wrote on Sept. 2, 1859. It was just two years after Olmsted had been appointed superintendent of the Central Park work force. ''Many beautiful oases of path and garden culture have sprung up, with neat paths, fine greensward, and hopeful young trees.''
To those who think that all that was done to create Central Park was to fence off an area bordered on the south by 59th Street and on north by 110th, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, it should be pointed out that nearly 30,000 barrels of dynamite were used to shape and contour the land like some mammoth version of a child's sand castle. Sculptured fairy-talelike lakes glistened where there were fetid streams; sunken swamps were transformed into rolling meadows; stone terraces and brass fountains replaced squat shanties and huts.
In 1862 the park had more than 2 million visitors; in 1870 there were 10 million. The Astors and Vanderbilts came in their costly carriages; poor immigrants from Manhattan's Lower East Side donned their Sunday best and strolled footpath and arbor, meadow and glen - drinking in the views, escaping their slums.
But as early as 1872 Olmsted's design was under attack from those who failed to discern its importance as a complete and interlocking rural landscape, festooned with tasteful and architecturally fitting man-made garnishes such as the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain or the Bow Bridge, spanning an arm of the lake. A wide variety of ''improvements'' were proposed, including building a cathedral in the park, a race track, and a cemetery. These plans never were implemented. But gradually ugly tenement-brick storage buildings began to tarnish the serene landscape; carriage drives and meadows were covered with asphalt for new roads and parking lots; a zoo displaced more green space; vandalism and lack of proper maintenance led to erosion of many of the original rural flourishes that remained.
In the early 1930s the park again came under an attack of sorts. City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses brought an official stamp of approval to a change in philosophy: to consider the park as primarily a playground and not a beautiful rural respite.