The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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Andrew Green and the Model Park   |   Early Use of the Park
Training the "Ignorant" How to Use a Park
Restricting Play in the Park   |   The Fight over Sunday in the Park

Early Use of the Park
On a December Sunday in 1858 about three hundred skaters showed up at the newly frozen, only partially filled Central Park Lake at West 73rd Street. No one cut a ribbon or made a speech, but these venturesome ice skaters may have been the first New Yorkers to play in Central Park. Ten thousand turned up on the following Sunday and perhaps twice as many on Christmas Day. On workdays, however, the more than two thousand laborers still outnumbered the visitors, and the unfinished park sometimes presented difficulties. The stone breakers' noisy chorus competed with the first park concerts, for example, and winter thaws turned ungraveled roads to mud. [Ch81]

The next December, the Herald reviewed the park's first year, declaring that "there was never perhaps an institution established for public enjoyment which has grown popular and available so rapidly." Large crowds welcomed each new phenomenon: after the skating pond in the winter of 1858-1859 came the Ramble in June and the first three and a half miles of park drives in November. Every few months, or even weeks, newspapers proclaimed new park attendance records. Fifteen thousand visited the Ramble on a Sunday at the end of July; twenty thousand came on a Sunday in late August; forty thousand enjoyed a particularly clear and sunny mid-October Sunday; fifty thousand skated or watched the "skating carnival" on the park's second Christmas Day. In 1860, 2.5 million people came. Over the decade, attendance more than tripled, growing fifteen times faster than the city's population. [Ch82]

It is apparent from the extraordinarily thorough visitor counts the gatekeepers maintained for the first thirteen years of the park's operation that the largest and most regular group arrived at Central Park by carriage or horse. Relatively few New Yorkers owned either, but bankers, merchants, landlords, manufacturers, and politicians -- the richest 5 percent -- did. These were the sort of gentlemen and ladies Anna and Robert Minturn had thought about and consulted with when they put forward the park idea in the first place. [Ch86]

For every four million New Yorkers who arrived at the park in carriages and on horseback in the 1860s, another three million or so came on foot. Few came from the city's poorest neighborhoods, a sizable number came from the city's upper circles, but most were probably part of a vaguely defined "middling" class, about one-third of the city. Families of independent artisans, young professionals, and shopkeepers made their way to the park by foot or streetcar. They came to skate, stroll through the Ramble, hear the free Saturday afternoon band concerts, picnic when the lawns were open, flirt on a boat ride, promenade down the Mall, feed the swans on the Lake, admire the decorative bridges and the richly ornamented Terrace, and take their children to the zoo that was developing behind the Arsenal. [Ch839]

Working-class families were largely excluded from Saturday afternoon concerts and wintertime skating because of their six-day workweek and the distance of their homes from the park. On Sunday, however, the most popular day of the week, when the park attracted about one-quarter of its visitors, the carriage riders ceased to dominate. Their numbers dropped by one-quarter; and the crowds of pedestrian parkgoers assumed a somewhat more proletarian character. Even on Sundays, New Yorkers arriving by carriage made up two-fifths of the park's visitors. In fact, working-class families remained vastly underrepresented at Central Park, contributing no more than an eighth of the total annual visitors and a third of Sunday visitors. [Ch858]


Andrew Green and the Model Park   |   Early Use of the Park
Training the "Ignorant" How to Use a Park
Restricting Play in the Park   |   The Fight over Sunday in the Park