(P120) A Garden for All as Private Eden

by HERBERT MUSCHAMP, New York Times, 23 May 2003,

The article mentions the 1851 CP as a precursor to the 1853 NY CP which led to ideas for Central Park.

CENTRAL PARK looks greener this spring than it has in recent memory. Is this my imagination or the result of scientifically verifiable causes, like rain? I prefer to think that nature is making a bigger effort than usual this year to celebrate a very special occasion: the 150th anniversary of Central Park's birth.

Where else on earth has nature's floral bounty been appreciated by so many? Where else, this side of Eden, have animal, vegetable and mineral variety been more densely combined to such voluptuous effect?

Nowhere that I know of. This is worth a rousing cheer. Though perhaps a contemplative moment is more in keeping with the spirit of our great urban oasis. How about a round of applause for contemplative moments, then? Let's meditate until we're blue in the face, our lungs give out and our hands are raw from clapping. We've got all eternity to hold our peace.

I suspect that when good New Yorkers die, they go to Central Park. We, the living, go there to rehearse. Or perhaps to become more worthy of life in paradise. Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the park along with Calvert Vaux in 1857, would not have quarreled with this hopeful interpretation.

A dedicated social ameliorist, Olmsted started out in life as a crusading journalist. His dispatches for this newspaper (then called The New-York Daily Times) helped focus national support for the abolitionist cause. In subsequent years, Olmsted's leadership of the American parks movement served similarly emancipatory goals.

The squalid mid-19th-century city portrayed in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" is historically accurate. New York was an industrial town overwhelmed by the effects of industrialization. The "City Beautiful" movement had not yet been invented. More than half a century would pass before New York adopted zoning codes. Visiting slums was indeed a popular form of entertainment for the rich. The spectacle of squalor helped an insecure elite to stabilize its sense of superiority.

It is difficult, now, to recall that New York was once celebrated as a pioneer in social reform. Our era has witnessed and even shown pride in the roll-back of egalitarian programs. But the civic tradition embodied by Central Park is only partially reflected in its design. It is also found in the ideology that created the park, along with public schools, libraries, museums, and other social and cultural improvements.

The large city park was a relatively novel concept, and therefore somewhat scary. Then, as now, New Yorkers feared that parks would become breeding grounds for indecency and crime. Forget about Eden. Sex and violence; desire and aggression: parks were fit only for snakes. In the mid-19th century, such fears were aggravated by the recent influx of German and Irish immigrants and the social conflicts provoked by it.

Reformists took the opposite position. In their view the industrial city was already a toxic breeding ground in its unameliorated state. Congestion, filth and the denial of access to civic amenities to all but the privileged: these were social diseases with symptomatic antisocial behaviors.

Central Park is a metaphor for social reform as well as an instrument of it. The idea had been under discussion for some years. Public support reached a high point in 1853, when New York city staged its version of the Crystal Palace, the great imperial fair held in London two years earlier. In July of that year, the state legislature approved the project, setting aside more than 750 acres as the site.

For a full account of the park's social and architectural history, I strongly recommend a new illustrated book by Sara Cedar Miller, the park's official historian and photographer. Entitled "Central Park, an American Masterpiece" (Harry N. Abrams), the book offers a sharp summary of the ideas that fed into the park's design. Ms. Miller's fine color photography, along with copious period illustrations, lead readers on a tour through the social, artistic, scientific and religious theories that inspired Olmsted and Vaux.

Healing the Soul

Ms. Miller tells a story of transformation and recreation: the metamorphosis of rocky swampland into a three-dimensional Hudson River School painting and the quasi-mystical thinking behind it. It is above all a story of the 19th century's preoccupation with health: physical, mental and spiritual. Olmsted himself suffered from depression, an affliction for which he was twice hospitalized during the construction of Central Park. For him, the concept of recreation did not denote active sports. It meant re-creation: the soul's capacity to heal itself in suitable surroundings.

It's a story of water and its association with purity, cleanliness, the dissolution of cares, the melting away of ego and its attendant fears. And it's a story of loss, always a great 19th-century theme, the motif of a time when disease constantly threatened to bear loved ones away.

Perhaps the book's most moving chapter recounts the story of Emma Stebbins, sculptor of the "Angel of the Waters" fountain at Bethesda Terrace, described by Ms. Miller as Central Park's symbolic heart. Stebbins, too, was long preoccupied by illness, though the malady was not her own.

The sculptor's companion, the famous actress Charlotte Cushman, battled breast cancer for years until her death in 1876.

Unveiled three years earlier, the fountain was named after a figure cited in the Gospel according to St. John: a Hebrew angel who endows with healing properties the waters of an ancient Jerusalem well. Ms. Miller suggests that Stebbins's theme was rooted in the water cures Cushman took as a cancer patient. She also speculates that Stebbins modeled her angel after her companion's physique. Vaux had originally envisioned an allegorical statue of Love for this spot. Ms. Miller proposes that the vision was fulfilled.

Memory and Movement

I suspect that one day it will be possible to describe with greater precision the sense in which the park promotes feelings of oneness with nature. My guess is that it involves the operation of a faculty that is not popularly understood to be a sense, like sight or smell. I mean kinesthesia: the ability to sense the movement of one's limbs and other operable parts of the body.

Architecture is like sports. Our experience of space may be more closely tied to kinesthetics than it is to vision. Organic surroundings heighten our awareness of this sense. If you want to test this premise, try walking the length of the Mall that stretches south from 72nd Street. Take it at a city clip. You can always saunter back. But if you walk at normal Manhattan street speed, you can better appreciate a heightened sensitivity to your movement. The relationship of the feet to the buttocks, the spine, and the shoulder carriage feels different. The sensation is not the radical difference you experience when working out at the gym. But it can feel as dramatic, precisely because the body is not subjected to unusual stress.

There is a correlation between memory and movement. Certain memories are acquired in movement - Proust talks about this in the concluding scene of "In Search of Lost Time" - and are aroused again by the kinesthetic sense. We may feel less threatened by painful memories when out walking, perhaps because the body associates regular steps with the power to move on, to escape the clutches of anger, fear or remorse.

Faces and seasons change. So do feelings. Flux and abundance are Central Park's most conspicuous constants. As the Greeks understood, this is a good formula for dispelling the anxieties provoked by change, the fear of death not least among them.

A Perfect Moment

On Easter Sunday, 1987, I went to the park with the best companion I ever had for walking around New York. This was our last outing together before he died. When we entered the park on Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street, it was a little before 4 p.m. What a magnificent day it was! The sky was full of what a friend once called "Jesus clouds." The celestial blue of the sky, the rays streaming down around the edges of the puffy white and silver aerial upholstery created a hilariously Baroque impression. We could almost hear the sound of a church organ playing show tunes. Well, hello, Dolly! It was that cinematic, momentous yet wildlygay.

We walked to the Boat Basin, sat down on the edge with our backs to it and watched the Easter paraders. The best were the young black families, mothers and daughters dressed in identical outfits of flounced organza. Lilac, yellow, pink and turquoise. How did we happen to stumble upon such a perfect moment? It was a spur of the moment decision, to go up to the park.

I'm lucky to have that memory of the park's coincidental staging of our pending separation. We knew it was a memory, even as we were living it. In such a setting, there was no fear in acknowledging that our lives were heading along different paths. Parting seemed as natural as saying goodbye to childhood.

Less Is More

Looking back now, I like to think that my friend and I had briefly shared a single state of grace. We were just receptive to it, that's all. And the park was designed with precisely such moments of receptivity in mind. Jean Gardner, the environmentalist and Olmsted scholar, observes that Olmsted wanted to create a place where selves could feel safe enough to open up to all of life.

The concept was partly rooted in transcendental ideas, Ms. Gardner says, but with a critical difference. Olmsted did not envision park-goers being wafted up to some higher place, on a plane with a transcendent "Oversoul." He wished, rather, that people would become more deeply attuned to the experience of this place, wherever that might be for each visitor.

For that reason, Olmsted eventually came to oppose the placement of explicitly defined memorials in parks. The memory should not be coaxed in the direction of specific people and events. People should freely choose what and how to remember.

Olmsted's position was not so much anti-memorial as it was pro-simplicity, or, as he termed it, plainness. This was an issue about which he and Vaux disagreed. Vaux, he felt, had evolved toward the architectural ornateness associated with the City Beautiful movement. His own thinking veered toward the unadorned.

Today, we can appreciate the essential modernity of Olmsted's view. In concept, if not in form, it anticipated Mies van der Rohe's belief that "less is more." The delimitation of memory allowed a greater abundance of memories to flow in.

With the passage of time, of course, memorials become less obtrusive. Instead, they often become totems of forgetfulness. Pigeons have inherited objects that were solemnly produced for the sake of posterity. The anonymity of the formerly famous is wonderfully democratic. In the future, everyone will be forgotten, remembered, lost sight of, and recaptured, like the park in changing seasons.

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Ed:[Thanks to John Greatrex for the article]

1/6/03 Last updated 1/6/03