Central Park, Our Model for Parkway

There is a lot to recommend the modeling though at first glance nothing is the same between an urban park in a city of millions and a suburban park spread out over many jurisdictions.

But the Parkway is as central to our suburban community—Sacramento is about 98% suburban—as Central Park is to urban New York.

Both have multiple struggles and a new book by the woman most responsible for bringing Central Park back from some of its worst struggles, is well worth reading.

This review from City Journal is superb.

An excerpt.

If Central Park is meant to serve as the “lungs” of New York, then by the 1970s the city was suffering from serious lung disease. Anyone hoping to experience the park as a refuge from urban pressures was out of luck. Inside the park, as throughout New York City, graffiti and crime abounded, suggesting pervasive government neglect. Finally, the private sector stepped in, in the form of the Central Park Conservancy. In her new memoir, Saving Central Park, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who founded the Conservancy and led it for 15 years, recounts how her organization spearheaded the revival.

Nowadays in New York, it’s commonplace to tap the private sector to advance public ends. Examples include charter schools, business-improvement districts, and social-service providers, such as the Doe Fund. We still debate the merits of privatization, but Rogers argues that the concept was far more controversial in an earlier era. Municipal unions were determined to protect their jobs, and city leaders balked at ceding power, out of a mix of self-interest and the reflexive belief that only public employees should do the public’s work. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan believed that the most sensible solution for Central Park’s woes was for the National Park Service to take it over.

By entering into a partnership with Rogers’s Conservancy, though, the city realized many benefits, beginning with heaps of money for public services. The Conservancy provided big donors with confidence that their contributions would be well spent. As it advanced from success to success in restoring the park, the Conservancy gained the trust of the city’s elite and attracted more and bigger gifts.

What did the bad old days look like for Central Park? “The shattered luminaries on more than half the lampposts signaled that the park was unsafe at night. Litter thrown into rusty fifty-five-gallon oil drums that were randomly strewn across the landscape gave the impression that Central Park lay in a third-world country,” Rogers writes. An estimated 50,000 square feet of graffiti had to be removed from bedrock outcroppings, architectural features, and statuary. The once-lush Sheep Meadow had been ground down into a dustbowl. The Harlem Meer was a “silted, algae-coated bed of mud.”

Rogers makes clear that ideas and norms, not just budget cuts, were responsible for the park’s decline. The “Central Park á Go-Go” philosophy of Thomas Hoving, parks head under Mayor John Lindsay, made the site a default location for rock concerts, protests, and “happenings.” Central Park became whatever anyone wanted it to be—a personal canvas for self-expression. Apparently, what many New Yorkers felt like expressing back then was disdain for beautiful public art and architecture. It was one thing, in 1970s New York, to tag the side of a subway car or an abandoned building; it took a special malice, a passion for desecration, to destroy the Bethesda Terrace’s balustrade finials and smash up and spray graffiti on its ornate stairway side panels.

Rogers’s memoir doesn’t discuss Broken Windows policing, but her philosophy of park management is founded on the same premises. Ordinary citizens are driven out of public spaces if they feel unsafe in them. Cities can bring people back by reducing public disorder, thus creating a virtuous circle whereby bourgeois standards of order gradually dominate and informally restrain unruly behavior, without the need to call police all the time. The effort requires stressing small details: replacing broken slats on benches, picking up litter, making sure comfort stations have toilet paper, and removing graffiti as soon as it appears.

Restoring Central Park required negotiating not only the tension between the private and public sectors but also between the competing visions of Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses. Olmsted, along with his colleague Calvert Vaux, designed the original “Greensward” plan for the park; Moses was city parks commissioner from 1934 to 1960.

To generalize a bit, Olmsted designed the park to be something people experienced, whereas Moses saw it as something to be used. Today’s New Yorkers regard Olmstead with reverence and Moses as a vindictive despot. But, as far as Central Park goes, Olmsted was the elitist and Moses the populist. Moses promoted a “radical new recreational agenda,” for children in particular—ballfields, playgrounds—and his aesthetic tended toward the whimsical. Reading about Moses’s many popular schemes for the park helps explain why he was able to maintain power for so long. Certain forms of recreation, such as ice skating, were part of the original plan for Central Park, but Olmsted made sure that they didn’t interfere with the overall “scenic experience” of rolling vistas and “rus in urbe.” Even statuary was generally anathema to Olmsted’s way of looking at things. He once opposed a plan by the distinguished architect Richard Morris Hunt to install a series of ornate gates, seeing the monumentality of the Beaux Art aesthetic as at odds with the pastoral Greensward Plan.

Retrieved June 30, 2018 from https://www.city-journal.org/html/central-park-contains-multitudes-15997.html

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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