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March 17, 2017

Central Park: a surface-level skimmed history

If you’re the type of odd person who gets off to The Art of War, then you’re probably a fairly firm believer in Sun Tzu’s whole “know thy enemy” concept as well. In the context of this weekend’s New York City Half Marathon, you could argue that means becoming intimate with the personal story and racing strategies of elite athletes like Feyisa Lilesa or Molly Huddle.

But let’s face it. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not a 59-minute half-marathoner or a favorite to contend for the women’s title this weekend. So instead, let’s refine our definition of “enemy” and infer that here, it means the course that you’ll be battling. (You could also claim the enemy is time itself, or weather, but a poorly-written diatribe about time, or a series of links to the Weather Channel’s website just wouldn’t be as fun.) And so, without further ado, I invite you to better acquaint yourself with the history of one of the main locales included in the Half’s course.

By the 1850s, Manhattan’s population was about four times what it was at the turn of the century.

Out of equal parts recognition of the need for bucolic green space in the increasingly miasmic and crowded cityscape, and the desire to keep up with the Europeans and their famed urban parks, in 1853 the New York State Legislature set aside a parcel of land smack in the middle of the burgeoning Manhattan grid plan, originally 700-acres in area, but later increased to 843-acres, for use as a big ass park. This specific section of Manhattan was selected, due to its difficult terrain; it was rocky and hilly and marshy, and would have been tough to plop roads and buildings on top of.

Shortly thereafter, a landscape architecture contest of sorts was held, with the winners being the famed duo of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (who was 5’2”), whose design called for a variety of landscapes, like European-style gardens, rugged, fairly untouched portions, and a water course. There were communities of Irish immigrants and free Blacks living within the big rectangle of land (your daily reminder that even good things like parks often have a shitty human rights portion of their past) and had to be displaced. But work began pretty promptly in 1857, after eminent domain forced these people out.

And wouldn’t you know it, almost as soon as the park was completed in 1873, it went to shit. Ol’ Boss Tweed and the boys down at Tammany Hall didn’t allocate much in the way of funding for anything besides patronage positions, so parks weren’t top of mind. Cars slowly became commonplace so pollution became an issue. The Great Depression happened. A World War took place. And to cap it all off, in actuality, people didn’t want to use a park how Olmsted envisioned because he was a bit of a snob. Rigidly enforced park rules proved to be a buzzkill. The sun umbrella and picnic basket hoped for by Olmsted  was rarely favored over more active pursuits like games and sports. But the park’s original planning didn’t allow for such activities so interest in visiting it waned.

Out of neglect, grass and plants died, and so the park became a big dusty expanse of gloom during periods of drought. Except for if it rained, then the park had major drainage issues. Stagnant, malaria-infested sludge-puddles would form after bad storms. It became dotted with shantytowns, too. Issues like these really hacked off real estate developers, who saw the eyesore of a park as detrimental to housing costs in its adjacent neighborhoods. As is still the case today, these whiny, speculative baby’s cries eventually led to some change, in the form of minor improvements to the park’s landscaping, so that nearby residents didn’t have to worry so much about mosquito-borne illness. This sort of incrementally implemented change was about as good as things got for a while, like, for over half a century. And they came slower than the pace of the park’s natural decay. Most funds directed at the park were mismanaged to a farcical degree, as was the case for The Casino, a restaurant and nightclub located within the the park during the 1920s that catered almost exclusively to the city’s social elite.

1930s aerial shot of Central Park, complete with dust. (Courtesy NYC Dept. of Records)

That is until the man for whom the airport was named, Fiorello La Guardia was elected mayor, and quickly helped power-hungry Robert Moses get a major taste of non-elected governmental power. From the 1930s until the 1960s, Moses left his mark on Central, and many other city parks. He reapportioned funds using the New Deal to re-sod the lawns and hire maintenance workers. With little regard for the original design, he altered the physical layout of the park to favor recreation over leisure, and brought in regular events like theatrical and orchestral performances. And even with the limited resources and labor during WWII, Moses still saw that Central Park enjoyed a siphoned off revenue stream and manpower to bring to fruition his vision of the park as the city’s playground.

Moses’s men filling in the old reservoir. 1935. (Courtesy NYC Dept. of Records)

 Moses really pissed of preservationists with his complete revamping of the park’s DNA, and his legacy is blatantly tainted by his power grabs and general disdain for humanity, but it’s clear that his impact on Central Park was mostly positive. After his exit from the absurdly powerful position of Parks Commissioner in 1960, the press unfairly harped on instances of crime in the park, as emblematic of wider societal ills. It was an easy scapegoat and served as a quick and easy example of urban decline. But it’s not as though conditions in the park really deteriorated much more than anywhere else in the city, which did have a pretty rough patch in the 1970s and 1980s.

The next decade saw a slight shift in public perception of what was acceptable in the park, with anti-war protests and cool things like that periodically taking place. People got naked, smoked weed, enjoyed weird outdoor sex, had “happenings,” and you just love to see these sorts of things.

Sadly the golden age of Central Park nudity wasn’t built to last. By the time the city was crippled by the financial crisis of the 1970s, and on the cusp of bankruptcy, Central Park was not top of mind for really any policymaker. With public funds not in the equation, those of means who lived near Central Park began exploring how they could use their wealth and private influence to improve matters. And given the circumstances, the city was pretty amenable to such a configuration, that years earlier it would have scoffed at.

Mayor Ed Koch to City, 1979: “Hey folks, we’re boned, here.” (Courtesy NYC Dept. of Records)

The Central Park Conservancy was formed, and this combo of public and private efforts played a crucial part in setting the park back on the right track. But ultimately, it took conditions city-wide improving, and for public perception to catch up with the bettering reality. This didn’t happen overnight. Racial and class tensions remained 

high, and there was no more publicly captivating and awful example of that than the infamous Central Park Five case.

A jogger was raped and beaten to within an inch of her life in Central Park in 1989. That’s clearly a terrible thing. But the backlash only made things worse. Five boys from Harlem — who were seen in the park, harassing people earlier in the day — were arrested and coerced into offering false and self-incriminating testimonials to police, despite no evidence existing that they were the perpetrators of the brutal crime. Around the time of their arrest and impending trial, our now full-diapered president, Donald Trump, even took out $85,000 worth of advertisements across four major city papers calling for the death penalty for the teenage suspects. His hyper-public heehawing played a huge role in how the public viewed the case and all five boys were wrongly locked up for over a decade, before the man who actually committed the crime confessed up to it well after the fact. DNA evidence corroborated his admission.

Thankfully, this crappy event was a bit of an aberration. Crime was more or less on the decline, and so eventually, things began to mellow out. Morale improved all over the place, and people were less quick to leap to the increasingly false assumption that the park was a dangerous place. Aiding this healing of public perception was the media’s softened tone when describing the place. Plus, the Central Park Conservancy continued to pump money into the swankification of the place.

With crime on the decline, Alberto Salazar and Allison Roe pay NYC a visit to win a marathon in 1981. (Courtesy NYC Dept. of Records)

The 1990s, 2000s, 2010s… all saw Central Park as a place to be cherished and enjoyed, instead of avoided. And the park entered another round of salad days, where the two biggest recurring controversies seemed like small potatoes compared to how things used to be. The first issue being the heightened vertical development near Central Park South; several primarily residential buildings that rival the Empire State Building for air space have gone up in recent years, that cast shadows on the park’s southern portion. People don’t like shadows. The other issues is more nuanced, and pertains to the extent to which a seemingly public space is now governed by a private entity.

Nowadays, the Central Park Conservancy keeps making sure the park stays nice and operates on an annual budget of $67 million, so things are going pretty well and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the first six or so miles of the race around the park’s main drive!

This was a very shoddy skim of the park’s history. Thank you for reading.

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