Forming New York's Future
How did the park serve the public for whom it was built? While supposedly created to improve the health, sanitation, and overall well-being of New York’s population, who really benefitted from its completion?
The Refinement of Uptown
"Central Park Entrance at Fifth Avenue and 59th
Street," 1886, NYPL
An idyllic view of the city, centered around the now-completed Central Park, is shown in this print. Around the abundant greenery of the park grows a distinctly refined uptown, marked by the well-ordered carriages prancing along wide avenues and well-dressed couples strolling down tree-lined sidewalks. Order and balance are accomplished in the clear dividing line between the tall Plaza Hotel, the new apartment buildings on the left, and the low, leafy canopy of Central Park on the right. There are no traffic jams or crowds of beggars on the street, but instead a fashionable promenade of New York’s uptown residents.
"A View in Central Park, Showing Dakota Flats,"
Numerous apartment buildings for the well-to-do emerged as the uptown landscape around Central Park began to build up. (Crowly, 123-43). New imposing and grand buildings like the Dakota, boasting expansive park views, would be the final stamp as the upper-class took over uptown Manhattan.
The Problem of the Squatters
"On the Border of Central Park," Sept. 1880, NYPL
"Near Central Park," 1890, NYPL
Squatters were one group who were not welcome in Central Park. Their shanties and pigsties stood as the last speck of dirt muddying the elite's vision of a refined uptown. Great efforts were made to remove squatter settlements once the park was underway. The 1880s “uptown wars” over property development illustrated the conflict between the interests of the powerful and the marginalized that surfaced after the park’s creation. However, these shantytowns would remain in the park and around its Upper West Side periphery until the end of the nineteenth century.
A Vision for New York's Future
"'Cares and business and the work-a-day world vanish when
you enter there,' Central Park scene," 1895, NYPL
The “uptown utopia” vision of the park’s creators illustrates an inherent idealism in the discourse surrounding Central Park during the nineteenth century. Behind this idealism, however, lay the class interets of the uptown elite, businessmen, and politicians. Their ideals of social order and refinement ultimately disregarded public needs. The beginnings of the park in the 1850s allowed New York’s educated and business elite to use a veil of civic benevolence to conceal their own personal interests in manipulating the landscape of uptown. Meanwhile, reformers seeking to use the park in their cultural stewardship towards the less fortunate still required an attitude of deference from the poor towards their social betters (Scobey, 227-8).
Although created under the guise of social “uplift” and public benefit, the majority of nineteenth-century New Yorkers found the park inaccessible because of park regulations, transportation costs, and long work weeks, as Olmsted himself lamented in 1870. While working-class New Yorkers might visit the area, the abundance of idyllic images of the park from the period suggest otherwise. Central Park ultimately became a place where the New Yorkers in power promoted their own vision of an idealized, balanced, cosmopolitan way of life and leisurely escape from the realities of the city, while the working classes remained crowded into small parks and tenement houses downtown.
"Central Park (Summer)," 1865 NYPL