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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The "Spoils of the Park"   |   Rides and Restaurants   |   The Central Park Zoo
The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The "Spoils of the Park"
At 5:15 p.m. on April 20, 1870, the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park adjourned its final meeting, expressing "apprehension" and "deep concern" about the future. The commissioners entrusted the board's property to Andrew Green, one of two members who would join the new Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks. Two weeks earlier, the Democratic-controlled legislature had approved a new city charter that would dramatically alter the city's subservient relationship to the state. This so-called Tweed charter -- a backhanded tribute to Tammany boss William Tweed, whose political skills and timely bribes had secured the restoration of home rule -- transferred control of Central Park. Henceforth, the mayor would appoint the park commissioners, and debates over its management would remain in the thick of city politics. [Ch101]

Anti-Tammany editors marked this moment in 1870 as initiating the destruction of the park that had so triumphantly represented the values of elite New Yorkers. By the next year the Times was charging that "park administration" under the leadership of Tweed's closest adviser, Peter Sweeny, "has become thoroughly demoralized ... overthrowing the best and only well-executed work in the City." [Ch102]

Most contemporary (as well as retrospective) accounts agree that the park continued to deteriorate long after Tweed's brief regime ended in 1871. Such charges found their fullest and most famous expression in 1882 when Frederick Law Olmsted published a pamphlet titled The Spoils of the Park. Central Park had taken on a "slovenly and neglected aspect," Olmsted charged, because city politicians and their "ignorant" appointed commissioners had surrendered park service to "that form of tyranny known as influence and advice and that form of bribery known as patronage." [Ch104]

In focusing on freeing the park from politicians, Olmsted and others ignored the more fundamental cause of the deterioration of the landscape. Public institutions required public money, and as Commissioner Salem Wales observed, Central Park was an "expensive luxury" to maintain. [Ch107] When propertied taxpayers demanded budget cuts, city officials slashed park maintenance funds as well as park workers' wages. The fight over the "spoils" of the park in the 1870s thus rested on the larger issue of who would control public resources.

The physical deterioration of their preeminent public institution dismayed genteel New Yorkers. Editorials in national journals and letters to local newspapers complained of worn-down carriage drives, muddy paths, overgrown vegetation, unrepaired bridges, and of the taste of the park's new administrators. The carriage parade proceeded apace on weekday afternoons, but the backdrop of landscape art was peeling away. In the late 1860s the city had been spending about $250,000 per year for the maintenance of Central Park. Ten years later it spent $100,000 less on taking care of all city parks. Although deflation compensated for some of the 60 percent drop in spending, the responsibility for twenty-three additional parks and squares meant a drastic cut in the money available for maintaining Central Park. [Ch1052]

Wealthy New Yorkers continued to use the park and to defend the designers' original vision, but they would never again confidently regard it as the symbol of their own standing as the "representative class" of a unified public. The era of Tweed and retrenchment marked a retreat from the optimism with which elite New Yorkers had advocated creating a public park that would accommodate their own desires and needs and elevate those citizens below them. They realized that providing working people with, in Olmsted's terms, the "mental & moral capital" of leisure time and space might encroach on their own financial capital. Precisely because Central Park was "public," new groups -- park workers seeking a living wage, park officials advocating a different aesthetic, or politicians running the party system -- made new claims on its administration. Whatever the problems of patronage, the restoration of home rule had given a voice to new constituencies that would work to open city politics and the park itself to a broader public. The park that had in the 1860s represented elite accomplishment would become in the 1880s and 1890s a more genuinely democratic public space.


The "Spoils of the Park"   |   Rides and Restaurants   |   The Central Park Zoo
The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art