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The Park and the People

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Planting the Seeds for the "Great Lawn"   |   Robert Moses and a New Deal
Robert Moses and a New Deal
When he took office as park commissioner in January 1934, along with La Guardia, most preservationists assumed that Central Park had been placed in the hands of an individual who shared their sentimental attachment to the park of their youth. They were wrong. Robert Moses, as it became clear, had little interest in the natural qualities of parks, nor did he see Central Park as a special kind of park. A product of the progressive playground movement, Moses viewed all parks as places for active, wholesome play, for ball fields, tennis courts, swimming pools, and playgrounds; he believed in recreation, not conservation. For him, Central Park was "essentially a playground." [Ch1626]

Reviewing Moses' first year in office, the New York Times Magazine declared that "Central Park also has a new deal." It pointed to "the brand-new brick-and-concrete zoo" that replaced the "hideous old wooden sheds," the "swank restaurant and cafe [Tavern on the Green] now housed in the shined-up sheepfold buildings," "the garden plaza enclosed by the new zoo," "the refurbished State Arsenal," the extensive "plowing, seeding, planting, and replanting," and the new athletic fields on the North Meadow that gave the "grass effect of a big-college football field or the polo field of a country club." In the next seven years, he would oversee a 50 percent growth in city park land (from 14,500 to 22,500 acres), a tripling of playgrounds (from 119 to 424), and a thirtyfold increase in swimming facilities. By the following summer, he was supervising twenty-six hundred Works Progress Administration workers in a $2 million renovation of Central Park. [Ch1627] Not since the park was first constructed had so many worked there, and not since that earlier era had it undergone so many changes in such a short period, decisively shaping the park New Yorkers use today.

By the time Moses was finished, he had substantially enlarged the recreational facilities to provide "leisure de luxe," as a newspaper headline put it. In 1934, after seventy-five years, Central Park still had only a single playground, the Heckscher Playground in the southwest part of the park. In just three more years, it had twenty-two, including seventeen (twenty by 1941) "marginal playgrounds" dotted along the park's outer rim -- each equipped with slides, swings, jungle gyms, playhouses, and sandboxes and circled by benches for mothers and nurses. [Ch1628]

By the end of the 1930s, the park's thirty-one-person recreational staff was overseeing a crowded schedule of folk dancing, kite flying, Ping-Pong, softball, baseball, football, field hockey, horseshoe pitching, shuffleboard, volleyball, lawn bowls, tennis, croquet, and ice and roller skating, as well as myriad festivals, carnivals, and tournaments. They organized contests in everything from amateur photography to model airplanes to jacks playing. With the new marginal playgrounds limited to small children, the playground in the northeast corner of the Great Lawn was reserved for older children, and the Great Hill was set aside for adults. In the 1920s, it seems, the restriction limiting the ball fields to those under sixteen had been dropped; now, access was expanded further as Moses added new fields. [Ch1630]

The real reason Moses was able to do so much was federal money. New York was receiving more than its share of the newly flowing federal dollars, in part because La Guardia enjoyed good relations with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal administration -- good enough to smooth over the problems caused by the president's hatred for Moses, which went back to old fights in New York State.


Planting the Seeds for the "Great Lawn"   |   Robert Moses and a New Deal