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

Training the "Ignorant" How to Use a Park
Olmsted had set the tone for public use of Central Park in the first place back in the 1850s. "A large part of the people of New York," he told the commissioners shortly after he was hired as superintendent, "are ignorant of a park, properly so-called. They will need to be trained to the proper use of it, to be restrained in the abuse of it, and this can be best done gradually, even while the Park is yet in process of construction." From the start, he was determined to "train" the public to understand the difference between this park and other open spaces; he drew a particularly sharp line between public property (as government-owned state property) and both unregulated private property and common property. "Visitors to the Park, should be led to feel as soon as possible," he declared, "that wide distinction exists between it and the general suburban country, in which it is the prevalent impression of a certain class that all trees, shrubs, fruit and flowers, are common property." [Ch93]

In 1858 the state-appointed police commission granted policing authority to officers nominated and paid by the park board. Olmsted organized his twenty-four park keepers along paramilitary lines; he insisted on military salutes and clothed his corps in uniforms that the Democratic Leader ridiculed as aristocratic imitations of the garb of Windsor Forest's keepers. (Later, the gray-coated park keepers would be nicknamed "sparrow cops," in disparaging reference to the less dangerous beat they walked than those of the blue-coated city police.) [Ch98]

Despite their military bearing and their vigilant enforcement of the rules, Olmsted saw the keepers more as teachers than policemen. "The chief duty of the Park Keepers," he wrote, "is by timely instruction, caution and warning to prevent disorderly & unseemly practices upon the Park, and thus as far as practicable to avoid occasions for arrests." Considering the 2 million or so visitors who came to the park in 1859, the 228 arrests that year seem quite modest, and on a per-visitor basis, the 1859 haul was roughly eight times higher than the park arrest rate for the rest of the 1860s. [Ch910] Perhaps Olmsted shifted his keepers away from a rigorous arrest policy because it annoyed elite patrons. Or perhaps the hard line taken in the first year succeeded in "training" visitors in proper park use, and violations diminished. Most likely, both were true.

About half the rules focused on proper movement through the park, reflecting the emphasis of the Greensward plan on the visitors' relationship to the scenery. Parkgoers were enjoined to enter only at the specified gateways, to use the paths (not the grass), and not to block the roads with horses or carriages. More than a hundred signs scattered across the park directed the movement of individuals through the landscape and to particular features. [Ch911] The speed limits were set at seven miles per hour for carriages and ten for saddle horses. [Ch913]

Other rules adopted in 1859 insisted on the distinction between the park and the woods or the commons. One regulation explicitly barred visitors from cutting, breaking, or defacing the trees, shrubs, and plants, and another prohibited "persons" from turning cattle, horses, goats, or swine into the park to graze. In effect, officials wanted to ensure that the park would not be "common," in either sense of the word -- nonexclusive or low and vulgar.

Olmsted's early efforts to grapple with the problem of controlling public use of Central Park could not entirely anticipate the controversies that would emerge when it opened. Within a year of adopting the original park ordinances, for example, the board added rules forbidding swimming or fishing in the ponds, setting off fireworks, playing musical instruments, displaying any "flag, banner, target or transparency," posting any bills or notices, or parading in military or target company or civic processions. [Ch919]


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