The rustic Dene Shelter, sitting high on a rocky outcrop, is a great place to enjoy a splendid view and think about how many, many things could go wrong in the man-made natural wonder that is Central Park.
After Egbert Ludovicus Viele did his detailed survey of the park in 1856, his first priority was to install mile after mile of drains to dry up the site’s pestilential swamps. (A different engineer took over after Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward Plan was instituted, with a different drainage system.)
It was easier to get funds for the construction of Central Park than for its maintenance. The roots of the park’s tens of thousands of plants soon cracked open the drains. The ponds and lakes that had been painstakingly built according to the Greensward Plan turned stagnant, and became … pestilential swamps. One of the occupational hazards of the Central Park police in the 1870s was malaria.
The Park’s plants were not programmed to grow according to the Greensward Plan. The rows of elms along the Mall grew into an arched canopy: a beautiful effect.
The trees in the Ramble grew just as quickly, soon obscuring the vista from the Mall to the Belvedere that Olmsted and Vaux had so carefully designed.
By the 1880s, the park superintendent warned the Board of Commissioners that underbrush was choking the trees at the north end of the Park, and weeds and moss were taking over the meadows. Rustic-style bridges, benches, and shelters such as this one needed constant maintenance, and often didn’t get it.
The Park in the 20th Century
By the 1920s, many New Yorkers could jaunt out to the countryside in their Model Ts. Central Park began to be regarded not as a pastoral retreat, but as a place for vigorous exercise. Unfortunately, the lawns had been designed to be gazed upon, not pressed under foot, under sneakers, or under cleats.
During the Great Depression and the post-war middle-class exodus to the suburbs, Central Park became ever more derelict and dangerous. By 1964, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sneered that it was a “hoodlum haven.”
The irrepressible Thomas Hoving, who was park commissioner from 1966 to 1967, tried to attract visitors to “Central Park a-Go Go” and other events with mass appeal.
Hoving’s successor treated vandalism as the public’s way of correcting errors in the original design. Litter, broken glass, and graffiti were everywhere. The Angel of the Waters gazed down benignly on guitar playing, pot smoking, and sex. Law and order, cleanliness and safety: soooo bourgeois.
The renaissance of Central Park began with the creation in 1980 of the Central Park Conservancy. The Conservancy, a private organization, manages the park for the city and provides over 75% of its annual budget.
Due largely to the Conservancy’s efforts, Central Park is in a state that Olmsted and Vaux might almost recognize – from the Pond to the Blockhouse, and everywhere in between. If you love the Park, why not say “thanks” with a donation?
- Disclaimer: I admire the work of the Central Park Conservancy, but I’m not affiliated with it.
- For more posts on the Park, click on the “Central Park” tag in the Obsessions cloud at lower right. See also this page, on which I’m slowing putting all the early images of the Park that I’ve found in five (and counting) years of digital and print searches.
- For more on Central Park in the nineteenth century, see my book Central Park: The Early Years (details here).
- This post is adapted from a forthcoming Guides Who Know app.
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