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

Easing the "Iron Rules"
The year 1870 represented something of a benchmark in the use of the park. After reaching 7.6 million in 1865, park attendance remained essentially stable for the rest of the decade, but in 1870 attendance began to climb. It rose by 16 percent that year and in 1871 by 26 percent. It leveled off again for the next three years, and after that, the gatekeepers stopped counting. One of the few available sources suggests another 40 percent increase (to 15 million people) over the next two decades or so. [Ch122]

As more and more working-class New Yorkers headed for the park on Sundays, some sabbatarian regulations imposed in the 1860s gave way. Boat rentals, once so hotly debated, became a regular feature of park Sundays; so did pony rides and goat carriage rides for children. The Sweeny board of the early 1870s, under constant pressure from religious groups, was still not ready to allow Sunday concerts, but even this taboo disappeared in 1877, when the board began to experiment cautiously, limiting the concerts to after 7 p.m. In 1884 the commissioners finally voted unanimously to permit regular Sunday afternoon concerts. [Ch127]

Other skirmishes centered on use of particular areas of the park, especially its lawns. The Sweeny board responded to pressure for more space for active sports by opening part of the North Meadow between 97th and 102nd streets to baseball, though it still refused calls to allow working men and youths as well as schoolboys to play the national game. The official ban on adult baseball games remained in place until the 1920s. [Ch1215]

Still, resistance to other sports in the park, particularly those that reflected the growing middle-class enthusiasm for competitive games and "strenuous living," weakened. In the 1880s the commissioners began to permit archery, lacrosse, football, and tennis on lawns, roller skating on paths, and bicycling (with some restrictions) on the drives. Tennis, first permitted in 1884 with temporary nets on the South Meadow just below 97th Street on the park's western side (the site of the present-day tennis courts), was particularly popular with both middle- and upper-class New Yorkers. By 1892 there were 125 grass courts in the upper park, though all who used the courts had to get permits. [Ch1216]

The longtime concern about the condition of the lawns continued, but the "keep off the grass" regulations aroused constant protest. The newspapers denounced "iron rules" that made the lawns "meadows only in name," "panoramic beauties to be gazed upon but not enjoyed." Even the New York Times, which had faithfully supported park regulations in the 1860s complained in an 1875 editorial: "The rules about not walking upon the grass are now enforced so rigidly that sending children to the Park is rather a punishment for them than a treat." [Ch1217]


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