A great review of the book, Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir, by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, on how it was done, providing a philosophical guidebook to saving our own Parkway, from the Wall Street Journal, and it is in the final paragraph of our post that the secret of the salvage is made clear.
People take parks for granted. After all, they’re just natural landscape, grass and trees, and maybe some water. In truth, parks are complex man-made creations. Their design involves no less artifice than buildings, and like buildings they require constant attention—arguably greater attention, since their fabric is natural, and left unattended nature rapidly regresses to its wild and untamed state. Parks appear solid and unchanging, yet they are actually fragile. Made with great effort, they are easily unmade, easily altered and easily wrecked.
Consider the fortunes of New York’s Central Park. The 19th-century park was the brainchild of the poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing, a prominent horticulturist and landscape designer. Civic leaders supported the idea, the city acquired the land, and Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux provided the plan. Construction started in 1858 and was substantially complete by 1873. The south end, with the Mall, the Bethesda Fountain and the Lake, was finished first and was immensely popular with the public. But once it was built, the Tammany Hall politicians who ran the city lost interest, and the funds for maintaining the more than 800 acres of parkland dried up. Trees went unpruned, lawns unseeded, ponds untended. By the early 1900s, the park was an abandoned ruin.
This changed when the reformer Fiorello La Guardia, who became mayor in 1934, appointed Robert Moses parks commissioner. In his almost 30-year reign—and it was a reign—Moses effectively rebuilt the park. With Depression-era federal funds, he created the Great Lawn on the site of an old reservoir, introducing new roads and playgrounds, baseball diamonds, handball courts and ice-skating rinks, one doubling as a swimming pool. The autocratic Moses was no conservator, and some of these recreational facilities compromised the original artistry of the park, but he understood that management and maintenance were key ingredients in a successful park. By 1960, when he left his post, the revived Central Park was functioning effectively again.
In 1966 the newly elected mayor, John Lindsay, appointed Thomas Hoving as parks commissioner. Hoving initiated what is sometimes called the Events Era of Central Park. The Great Lawn and Sheep Meadow became the site of assorted musical concerts (symphonic, operatic, rock ’n’ roll, folk) as well as an assortment of mass rallies, political demonstrations and so-called happenings. This was “Central Park à Go Go” in Hoving’s showy phrase. The problem for him and his successors was that this intense public use coincided with a period of economic decline; by 1975 the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. Park budgets were slashed, maintenance and oversight reduced, and the much used—and much abused—landscape was left to its own devices.
The results were predictable. Structures deteriorated, ponds silted over, fountains dried up, the trampled Great Lawn became a great dust bowl. Walls, benches, even rock outcroppings were covered in graffiti. The lack of effective upkeep and policing encouraged a lawless atmosphere characterized by heavy drinking, vandalism, drug-dealing and other illicit activities. Some parts of the park, such as the Ramble and the North End above the Reservoir, were considered so dangerous that they became no-go zones, even for park workers.
This is where Elizabeth Barlow Rogers comes in. “At a time when Central Park was on the brink of collapse, I became, though a combination of zeal and luck, the leader of the cause to save it from destruction,” she writes in her compelling memoir, “Saving Central Park.” “Becoming the torchbearer for this cause was even more improbable given my gender, generation, and class.” Ms. Rogers was born in San Antonio. She had a privileged childhood. She was raised in a verdant garden suburb of the city; the family’s weekend retreat was a ranch in the Texas Hill Country. “Nature was my actual playground, not its digital representation in an adventure game computer application,” she writes. She was sent east to Wellesley College, where she majored in art history. She did not return to Texas but instead married, had a child and, while her husband was studying law at Yale, enrolled in that university’s graduate program in city planning. In 1964, the couple settled down on East End Avenue, on the edge of New York’s Upper East Side.
While raising a family, Ms. Rogers pursued a part-time writing career. Her first book, “The Forests and Wetlands of New York City” (1971), won the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing. Her second accompanied an exhibition on Frederick Law Olmsted at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was the Olmsted book that led in 1974 to an invitation to run the Central Park Task Force youth-employment program, a privately supported philanthropic initiative. With characteristic energy and imagination, Ms. Rogers organized summer interns and volunteers to work on restoring the park’s ravaged landscape.
These activities came to the attention of Gordon Davis, parks commissioner for the newly elected Mayor Edward I. Koch. In 1979 Koch appointed Ms. Rogers “Administrator of Central Park,” an unpaid position with yet-to-be defined responsibilities. “I broached the idea of founding a private organization to work in concert with his administration to arrest the further decline of Central Park,” she recalls. The following year the Central Park Conservancy was born.
During Ms. Rogers’s 16-year tenure, the Conservancy raised more than $100 million of private money for the park. (Today that total has grown to $1 billion.) But under her spirited leadership the Conservancy was much more than simply a successful fund-raising machine. Its mission statement was to “make Central Park clean, safe, and beautiful.” That required preparing plans, managing resources and setting priorities. The Koch administration had its hands full with the city’s economic recovery, so much of this work was done by the Conservancy, whose staff included landscape architects, horticulturists, historians and planners, aided by scores of volunteers and outside consultants: soil scientists, hydrologists, architects and sociologists. During the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, the arrangement remained much the same. …
The author’s reasonable voice rings clear in this beautifully written memoir, steely resolve beneath old-fashioned courtesy. Reading between the lines one senses her periodic frustration with a sometimes hide-bound bureaucracy. The cause of the tension between Ms. Rogers and the city was ultimately philosophical. The city bureaucrats saw the park as a collection of individual recreational amenities, whereas for her Central Park was a great work of landscape art that demanded to be treated as a unified canvas.