People in the Park
“Central Park,” 1863, NYPL
Once Central Park opened, visitors began to make the park their own. Various classes of New Yorkers had different ideas about what the park should be, and often those ideas clashed.
The nineteenth-century visual record illustrates how these different group interests played out. For the most part, Central Park and the people within it are represented in an idyllic manner that reveals contemporary New York social and cultural ideals. Such scenes of ice skating on the lake, children playing on the terrace, and couples strolling along the Mall do not seem surprising to today’s viewer, but were they a reality? Do any unharmonious images appear? Who is not being depicted, and why?
Stomping Grounds for New York's Elite
“The Grand Drive at Central Park,” 1869, NYPL
“Driving in Central Park," 20 Oct. 1866, Courtesy of HarpWeek
By virtue of its geographic location, Central Park easily became the backyard – the playground, if you will – of the 5th Avenue set (Kinkead, 40-4). A visitor had to physically enter the affluent uptown world in order to step into the park. In this way, the visual and physical experience of coming to the park from downtown literally lifted one up out of the city's street grid. As rich uptown residents poured into Central Park, it became an extension of their wealth and cultured refinement. Cosmopolitan elites were attracted to this new park as a place for them to promenade, like their European counterparts in London’s Hyde Park and Paris’s Bois du Boulogne. In these images, the park is a place dominated by the upper classes to show off their wealth and fashionability. It offered wider, tree-lined avenues along which they could progress triumphantly in their outfitted carriages and sleighs in a pompous display of luxury and leisure.
“Vinery Near Casino, Overlooking the Mall,"
Nineteenth-century New York was a place for seeing and being seen. From the windows of apartment buildings to the sidewalks of Broadway one was constantly on display, observing and critiquing others while also conscious of being watched oneself. Not only were driving and sleighing ways of showing off one’s social and economic status, but outlooks like the Vinery near the Casino offered places from which one could perch and study people strolling on the Mall below, as these women to the left are doing.
“Concert at the Bandstand,” 1896, NYPL
This impressionistic, atmospheric view of concert amusements in Central Park on the right is depicted as if it were a social outdoor gathering in a European pleasure-ground. This scene appeared in Vanity Fair, a publication dedicated to informing nineteenth-century New Yorkers about the latest trends and stylish looks. As this image suggests, the magazine served as a model for readers wishing to display status through fashionable attire and activites. New York elites aspired to use the park as a space for establishing themselves as part of polite, leisurely society, paralleling the refined cosmopolitan European urbanites.