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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Reshaping Park Politics   |   Modifying the Park Landscape
Easing the "Iron Rules"   |   Sex and Sex Crimes in the Park

Reshaping Park Politics
Press coverage of the board's antics in 1880 and 1881 revealed a shift in administrative style since the relatively staid days of the original board of gentlemen. Park politics had become part and parcel of city politics. In the same era that Central Park itself was becoming more eclectic, diverse, and open to the city (more part of the city), park politics became more contentious, and more open to different views. When the Tweed charter of 1870 restored Central Park to home rule, park commissioners faced the demands of often antagonistic constituencies -- politicians, reformers, taxpayers, landowners, and working-class families.

The Republicans and Andrew Green, who dominated the first park commission, had claimed the mantle of disinterested stewardship, but in the three decades after 1870, commissioners -- two-thirds of them members of the Democratic party -- unapologetically took an active part in local politics. Factions pitted Tammany Democrats against the reform-minded (and frock-coated) "swallowtails" associated with the County Democratic organization. Furthermore, staggered five-year terms produced new alignments on the board roughly every two or three years and thus limited commissioners' ability to deliver the department's patronage to any one political faction or, for that matter, to set a clear agenda for parks. [Ch115]

In August 1881 the board settled on a Welsh carpenter, Aneurin Jones, as the new superintendent. Olmsted and Vaux each took up the campaign to bring Central Park back under "professional" superintendence. After the park board abolished his office in January 1878, Olmsted had moved to Boston, where, in partnership with his eldest stepson John, he had begun designing that city's parks. Despite his growing national prominence, he continued to follow politics in the city where he had first made his reputation. When in the fall of 1881 his friends advised him that Superintendent Jones was "mutilating" shrubs in his campaign to permit "the healthful circulation of air," Olmsted wrote his pamphlet on the park's spoils. Controversy heated up when Jones began cutting vistas through trees to provide parkgoers with a view of the Mineral Springs Pavilion and the Third Avenue elevated railroad, a wildly admired engineering marvel. [Ch1112]

Advocates of administrative reform focused on the issue of patronage raised by Olmsted's spoils pamphlet. State assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity to launch his own reform career by championing Olmsted's call for placing the park in the hands of an unsalaried board of directors, which would "exercise conservative control" by reviewing the superintendent's policies. A similar determination to establish "professional," "businesslike," or "scientific" government propelled the reform campaign for a civil service law in New York State in 1883. Legislative efforts to reform the park board never went very far, but in 1884 New York lawmakers extended civil service to municipal government by establishing new examination procedures for salaried officers in city departments. [Ch1117]

All in all, the new civil service measures had relatively little effect on the management of the park. Just as many workers and managers were skilled "professionals" before 1883, so, too, patronage did not disappear after that date. Moreover, the quality of maintenance depended more on the level of appropriations than on either patronage or professional managers.


Reshaping Park Politics   |   Modifying the Park Landscape
Easing the "Iron Rules"   |   Sex and Sex Crimes in the Park