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 Fragmented Park   |   "Dementia Automobilia"
The Fragmented Park
Preserving a unified conception of the park and its public would be even more difficult in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth. If the city had changed dramatically over the park's first fifty years, the pace now accelerated. Political consolidation and the rise of the boroughs, uptown Manhattan settlement, the competing attractions of commercial amusements and public playgrounds, introduction of new modes of transportation -- all these altered the park's relationship to its neighborhoods and the city as a whole. The physical landscape remained fixed by the contours and motives of Olmsted and Vaux's pastoral Greensward plan, despite dizzying change in the surrounding city. But even this aesthetic unity was fractured as skyscrapers on the borders reframed the nineteenth-century park's relation to the twentieth-century metropolis.

By the 1930s, the million or so people who lived within a mile of the park included almost the entire range of the city's population: the families of Yankee bankers, Puerto Rican garment workers, Jewish dentists, German shop clerks, Italian laborers, Irish firefighters, and African-American laundresses as well as the Irish cooks, Scottish nurses, and German governesses living in the households of the rich. Although these people lived in close proximity to one another, upper Manhattan was no melting pot. Distinct ethnic communities within these sometimes heterogeneous neighborhoods had their own churches, clubs, political organizations, and their own ways of enjoying Central Park. Still, the park offered a common ground, and many, if not most, of the park's neighbors made some sort of claim on it. Immigrant families began picnicking on the North Meadow, for example, and youths played ball there. Other claims were asserted and recognized through the political system, as when neighbors lobbied for new entrances or gained a new band shell at McGown's Pass. Given the vast range of peoples and needs represented in Upper Manhattan, the claims of the park's neighbors often conflicted, for instance, the repeated fights over the Central Park Zoo. Neighbors, moreover, formed only one set of constituents for the park.

Other groups of parkgoers gathered themselves into specialized constituencies based on hobbies or common interests. The growing prominence of these specialized user groups -- of birdwatchers, horseback riders, tennis players, nature lovers, model-boat sailors, roller-skaters -- was part of a larger process through which the park's cultural public was fragmenting. Bird watching, for example, first attracted a regular set of enthusiasts in the 1890s. More generally, the "back to nature" movement of the early twentieth century increased the number of people who came to the park "to get away from it all." But even the enjoyment of nature could represent contradictory needs and interests in Central Park. Some people fished in the lakes in order to supplement low wages; others fished for sport. In 1906 the Anglers' Club persuaded park officials to build an exclusive, padlocked dock for their fishing on the Harlem Meer. When thousands of people turned out for their annual fly-casting competition, the nineteenth-century ideal of rus in urbe gave way to "urbe in rus" spectacles. [Ch1478]


The Fragmented Park   |   "Dementia Automobilia"