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"
Dementia Automobilia
As Central Park confronted the modern age, the most "frankly urban" intrusion -- the automobile -- penetrated its interior, transforming both the illusion of a pastoral retreat and the experience of parkgoing forever. When the first motorists applied for permission to drive horseless carriages in the park, commissioners said no, pointing to the existing problems of carriage and bicycle traffic and accidents. In 1899 the Automobile Club of America challenged the ban on cars by dispatching drivers into the park to get arrested. After a judge ruled that automobiles were "pleasure carriages" and thus allowed by park rules, officials relented and issued the first permit for driving an "electric automobile runababout" in Central Park. A week later, motorists persuaded Commissioner Clausen, an avid horse lover, to try the "experiment" of taking a spin through the park. When the car broke down, Clausen walked home. [Ch1462]

In the first decade of the twentieth-century, the new motorcars, often driven by chauffeurs, skirmished with carriages, often driven by coachmen, for control of the park drives. Equestrians, pedestrians, and carriage riders alike complained that the foul-smelling, noisy cars frightened horses, disrupted the decorum of the carriage parade, and ruined their own retreat to nature. The chains that automobilists placed on their wheels to improve traction, moreover, tore up the drives' gravel paving. When park officials oiled the drives to keep down dust, the carriage riders warned that their horses had difficulty maintaining a firm footing on the oil-slick surfaces. Park police tried valiantly, but in vain, to enforce the eight-mile-an-hour speed limit and to stop cars that had chains and the worst-smelling vehicles at the gates. In 1906 three people died in what may have been the park's first fatal auto crash. [Ch1463]

By the mid-1920s planners and letter writers to the newspapers were continually calling for a ban on automobiles in the park. Short of such drastic intervention, some thought that the solution to the "car menace" lay in slowing down motorists by making the park's drives more winding. Others proposed instead to straighten and widen the old carriage roads to speed up the traffic. Planners urged widening the transverse roads, and also Fifth and Eighth avenues to absorb park traffic and called for reducing the park's speed limit, now twenty miles an hour (and mostly ignored). "Central Park was laid out as a restful recreation area," state senator Nathan Straus, Jr., said in 1924 when urging that cars be banned, "not as a thoroughfare for mechanical transportation." But by 1932 the automobile was firmly entrenched in city life, and park administrators installed in the park those most prosaic and mechanical of city features, traffic lights. [Ch1467]


The Fragmented Park   |   "Dementia Automobilia"