A lithograph of Central Park, circa 1962. Library of Congress

Central Park was conceived as “social salve” to ease tensions between existing residents and newcomers, a historian writes. Did it work?

In 1811, when New York City commissioners laid out the city’s grid, they didn’t put in many parks. Unlike Paris and London, Manhattan was an island, and so didn’t require the same kind of open spaces for leisure, commerce, and circulation of clean air, they argued at the time.

But over the next few decades, New York’s view of urban parks underwent a transformation. Catherine McNeur, history professor at Portland State University and author of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City documents this shift in a new article in the Journal of Planning History. In the abstract, she writes:

By the 1850s, politicians, journalists, and landscape architects believed Central Park could be a social salve for a city with rising crime rates, increasingly visible poverty, and deepening class divisions.

What changed their minds? Two big waves of immigration that took place between 1820 and 1850, which affected socio-economic conditions in the city. The changing demographics of 19th-century New York City reconfigured the way lawmakers, architects, and residents imagined their surroundings.

The park boom was a response to the first wave of immigrants

The Erie Canal, built with the help of immigrant labor, opened up in 1825. Immediately, commerce picked up in New York City, attracting newcomers looking to make a living—both from rural America and from abroad. The influx of these new residents ruffled the social fabric of the city and worried its elites. For the upper crust of New York, parks became spaces to re-establish the social status quo, McNeur tells CityLab via email:

It was becoming harder to know who was a part of New York society and who wasn’t. There was a lot of fear of confident men, or conmen, in this period because the city was growing more anonymous and you couldn’t tell where people stood in the hierarchy. The 1830s park boom reflected this, as wealthy New Yorkers looked to secure spaces that were exclusive where they could promenade and mix with people they were certain were their equals.

Gramercy Park and Union Square were created as a result. It wasn’t hard for lawmakers and developers to get behind these projects. City leaders hoped that fancy parks would keep rich Manhattanites from moving out to Brooklyn, and anticipated a rise in property taxes in the regions surrounding these parks. The mechanism by which these open spaces were funded also benefited the rich and powerful, McNeur notes in her article:

While Union Square was never intended to be private like Gramercy Park, the public parks that the city government opened during the 1830s were developed within a funding structure that essentially turned them into partially privatized spaces, explicitly intended to benefit real estate developers, local landowners, and the government’s tax revenue. The way the city financed public parks laid the foundation for the unequal distribution of green spaces throughout the urban landscape.

After the second wave, Central Park was born

In the 1840s, large populations of German and Irish fled political instability and famine in their countries, and made their way to New York City. This new batch of immigrants were among the poorest in their own countries, but in their new surroundings, they stuck out. Their poverty was visible, McNeur writes, and therefore seen as a threat to the character and health of the city:

As the number of ragpickers sifting through the city’s uncollected garbage rose, hawkers’ cries became more cacophonous, wooden shantytowns on the outskirts of town grew denser, and exposés dramatized the conditions of the notorious Five Points neighborhood, immigrants and their poverty became impossible to ignore. With health officials blaming cholera outbreaks and other urban ailments in part on their crowded, subpar housing, it seemed as though the poor threatened to spread disease as they spilled outdoors and through the streets. State politicians described tenement housing as ‘‘oozing with pollution’’ and ‘‘reeking with filth.’’ All of this, coupled with rising crime rates, fueled the idea that the city’s poor threatened to infect the urban body politically, biologically, and morally.

Central Park was conceived as the antidote—the one-stop shop to solve all the problems New Yorkers blamed on immigrants. Early supporters of the park argued that immigrant and poor residents of the city could be “civilized” by sharing space with their richer, more cultured counterparts in Central Park. ‘‘The higher social and artistic elements of every man’s nature lie dormant within him,” Andrew Jackson Downing, the landscape architect and editor for the Horticulturist, is quoted as saying in McNeur’s article. “Every laborer is a possible gentleman, not by the possession of money or fine clothes—but through the refining influence of intellectual and moral culture.’’ So when the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted set out to design and implement this significant, sizable park project, he had a vision of Central Park as a democratic space—a space for all classes—in mind.

That vision didn’t quite pan out. The concept for the park, as lofty and noble-seeming as it was, was planned, executed, and maintained via a “top down” approach, McNeur writes. And perhaps that’s because even the most progressive elites at the time considered Central Park to be a place where the poor could be regulated, not a place that they could coexist in equal capacity. The creators of the park (including Olmsted) and city officials made sure that the lower classes were heavily policed there so that it remained a space where the elites felt comfortable—and that practice continues till today. If poor people of color in America even have access to open public spaces, they are punished for being in them. The idea that parks are for all, born with the creation of Central Park, is still waiting to be realized in a meaningful way.

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