A Need to Get Away: The History of Central Park
A need to “escape the noise of New York City” even as far back as the early 1800s led to residents going to cemeteries and few other open spaces. A need for a public park became apparent to many in 1844, and was contemplated using London’s Hyde Park and Paris’ Bois de Boulogne as examples. With New York State appointing a commission to investigate a possible park, a design contest was held. This contest was subsequently won by architects Olmsted and Vaux, leading to the opening eventually of Central Park in Manhattan, New York, with 778 acres (which would then become the now 843 acres with further expansion).
Construction included some key points:
(1) 1600 “squatters” were displaced to make room for the park – with areas such as “Seneca Village” demolished, under governmental law of “eminent domain”;
(2) cross-town traffic traversing the approximately 50 street-long park was hidden via “transverses” with different elevations, to promote concealment of these roads also using trees;
(3) each of the 36 bridges was unique in its construction;
(4) each of the 18 gates into the park were given names based upon New York City professions;
(5) the park fell into decline till the 1930s, until mayor Fiorello La Guardia unified an effort to clean up the park; further, decline was seen in the 1960s, with the “love-ins” and other rallies;
(6) the Central Park Conservancy led to the immediate revamping and maintenance of the park, and over the initial 2 decades of its involvement, it largely subdivided and assigned park care, engaged volunteers, and raised capital investments. Among donations to the Central Park Conservancy is the $100mm donation from hedge fund manager John Paulson.
Today’s Central Park
Central Park has numerous venues which make it unique, as well as characteristics. As far as venues, these include:
- landscaped “natural looking” lakes, ponds, walking tracks, two ice-skating rinks (one which becomes a swimming pool in summer), wildlife sanctuary, “natural woods,” 106-acre reservoir with an approximately 1.5-mile track around it; an outdoor amphitheater (Delacorte Theater), Belvedere Castle, Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, Carousel, major lawns, meadows and minor grassy areas, playgrounds for children, and 29 sculptures;
- natural flora and fauna which inhabit the areas freely;
- the zoo, which contains a variety of animals, birds, and reptiles.
Unique characteristics include:
- being the most frequented park in the United States, with 35 million visitors annually;
- the Conservancy employs over 80% of people, with investment in 2007 of greater than $450mm, with annual operating budget of over $37mm;
- the park has its own precinct, with less than 100 crimes in a recent year (compared to 10-fold that in the 1980s);
- given its own census tract, Central Park is reported as having 18 people (12 male and 6 female, median age 38.5 years, with 3 households and average household size 2.33);
- the real estate value appraisal of Central Park as of December 2005 was nearly $529 billion;
- 25,000 trees;
- 58 miles of walking paths;
- the largest concert ever (Garth Brooks, 1997, free admission for 980,000 people)
A variety of tours, plays (including Shakespeare in the Park), concerts, and other activities as diverse as model boat contests or bird watching. An extensive list, beyond the scope of what can be covered in this article, appears on the website of the “official Central Park website” www.centralparknyc.org under the “Things to See and Do” category.
Will the Park remain Central?
Perhaps one of the most striking thing about the park, when juxtaposed against the New York City Skyline, is that the skyline has been practically unable to traverse the park’s boundaries. This may be a testament to the fact that while so many of the richest people in the world live in New York City, even more influential people can keep them from invading the park’s boundaries. This has been the case for over a century now. With the price of New York real estate ever climbing, and the park already appraised at over $500 BILLION, the park had held the line despite its lure as a takeover target. It is hence ironic that some of the most successful private equity firm managers (e.g. KKR), hoteliers (e.g. Donald Trump), and other strong-willed individuals have residences and offices at-the-ready at the boundary of Central Park and benefit from Central Park views, and the conservancy keeps the park strong and hence not a weak takeover target. Members of Wall Street like hedge fund manager John Paulson have donated $100mm to keep the park alive.
Yet beyond this, programs such as the Olmsted Visionaries, a special group who include the Conservancy in their estate plans,
Perhaps the most salient reason for the existence of Central Park, despite its status as an oasis in the concrete jungle, is the very reason it exists in the first place – without it, New Yorkers would have to resort to cemeteries or leave town (as the did in the early 1800s, to escape the “busyness and noisiness of the city”). From an environmental perspective, while people and industry consumes oxygen to create carbon dioxide and other gases, the 25,000 trees of Central Park reverse the process and via photosynthesis also restore not only oxygen but the peace of mind. It is a rare instance, perhaps necessary in cities like Beijing where pollution is at visibly high levels, where one can escape the city by going deep into the city.
Anybody wondering about the majesty of Central Park need only to go to a high floor in a building bounding Central Park, and look upon the Park – and see the thousand or so buildings that stand at the ready but cannot cross the street… that may be in itself a beacon of hope and respecting what is important, in one of the most materialistic cities in the world.