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Central Park: the resort of rapscalians?
September 10, 2013 9:27 PM   Subscribe

The story of Frederick Law Olmsted's 'Greensward Plan' for New York's Central Park. "From the NASA space shuttle, Central Park is visible to the naked eye as a bright emerald bar on the fat knuckle of Manhattan... If an astronaut were to plunge by re-entry capsule into the heart of the park, she could never be more than around 400 metres from the urban roar of a city of more than 8 million people densely packed. And yet, wandering the labyrinthine paths of the Ramble, surrounded by thick woodland, rocky headlands, rivulets and little stone bridges that cross ravines, she would neither hear nor see the metropolis. This is a miracle."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (34 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
minor nitpick: The only capsules capable of landing on the ground (as opposed to the sea) are Russian or Chinese. If one of those landed in Central Park, there would be a helluva lot of political and acoustic noise.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:41 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another minor nitpick: the only verification that Central Park is visible from space is this tweet of Chris Hadfield's, and it's at night, and not exactly the naked eye.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:46 PM on September 10, 2013


Pedantic nitpick: it's "rapscallion."
posted by lumensimus at 9:55 PM on September 10, 2013


Geez you guys.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:19 PM on September 10, 2013 [23 favorites]


So I'm curious, is the claim about noise true? I understand Central Park is big, but I find it hard to comprehend that it's so big that you can't hear any of the noise of the city.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:21 PM on September 10, 2013


the Harlem Meer – the most beautiful body of water in the park.

I dunno man, it is pretty, but like much of New York it is a thin veneer over hidden terror. I hear there are monster fish in there. Big enough that concerned anglers have relayed to me in hushed tones that my lithe graphite rod would be snapped like a twig if I were to catch anything.

Turtle pond, near Belvedere Castle, is similarly terrifying. One might expect turtles, but the sheer amount is stupefying. There are thousands. Years ago Turtle pond was drained for some kind of renovations to the park. Left was a writhing mass of turtles. They clamored atop each other in the muck, sometimes 10 deep. Turtles all the way down. They refilled the pond as fast as possible.

It is also true that on cold winter nights it is possible to get lost. You really cannot hear the noise of the city above the crunching of show and your own breath. With falling snow obscuring the distant landmarks it is possible to get turned around. More than once I've set out across the park with the Dakota at my back, only to emerge back at the Dakota.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:26 PM on September 10, 2013 [16 favorites]


Yes, the claim about noise is pretty true. At most you hear a sort of faint murmur that it's easy to dismiss as being the sound of wind.

I've heard that the original plans Olmstead had for Central Park were actually tweaked quite a bit throughout the process, as one or another politician had his say in adding one or another thing - a path, a land feature, a gate, etc.

Olmstead went on to design Prospect Park in Brooklyn afterward, which had a lot less meddling (the only thing Brooklyn city fathers tried to do was to route a major road through one corner, and Olmstead refused - they compromised, where they made that major road the new border of the park, and the bit that got cut off became its own tiny park). Prospect Park is thus a lot more rustic looking; I've always thought of Prospect Park as Olmstead's "second chance", a sort of "okay, here's what I really wanted Central Park to look like".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


the only verification that Central Park is visible from space ...

... are all the pictures you can find of it. Like this one, where the park sits exactly as described.
posted by Twang at 10:29 PM on September 10, 2013


This is how I feel about the size of New York (and its constituent parts): "England no longer existed. He’d got that – somehow he’d got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway."
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:37 PM on September 10, 2013


Prospect park is a lot wilder as a whole but where Central Park excels is set pieces, hidden from everything else. A tiny brook, small pool, or scenic bridge, is completely separate from the band shell, or the formal gardens. Each place is a pocket universe. Prospect Park is more expansive and naturalistic, but somehow not as magical.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:37 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Prospect Park is more expansive and naturalistic, but somehow not as magical.

Eh, I think it depends on what you find "magic". If you like the "tiny hidden pocket universe" approach, Central Park's for you; if you prefer "expansive nature in the middle of the city," then Prospect Park's for you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:42 PM on September 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well it isn't like I hate Prospect Park or anything. I just love the upper part of Central Park, where you can stumble across a tiny pool, the entire skyline obscured by trees. I like the fact that you can turn a corner and be back within sight of skyscrapers.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:48 PM on September 10, 2013


Oh, no, I was more explaining my own preference.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:53 PM on September 10, 2013


Oh, You know what is amazing? Greenwood Cemetery. It is actually 1.9 square kilometers. This alone is incredble.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:54 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the picture accompanying the article, is that a golf course in the foreground?
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:57 PM on September 10, 2013


In the picture accompanying the article, is that a golf course in the foreground?

Those are the North Meadow Baseball Diamonds. There are 10-11 baseball diamonds. There are also 7 Softball Diamonds near the Great Lawn.

Oh, no, I was more explaining my own preference.

Hey, New Yorkers can argue about anything. Just saying I hear you about Prospect Park.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:02 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, if you get a chance pick up The Falconer of Central Park.It details the birds and other wildlife of the park against the backdrop 1980's New York. Honestly one of the better books about New York because it focuses on the moments of quiet and beauty possible in such a big city.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:25 PM on September 10, 2013


The designated land was an unpromising stretch of swamp and granite outcrops (which was why it had not been built on)

This is somewhat misleading. While there were indeed farms up and down Manhattan, and a few scattered villages, the urban grid in 1850 simply hadn't reached that far north.

From September to December last year, we lived on West 106th, three minutes from the north-west corner of the park, close to the Great Hill, the North Woods, the waterfall, the loch and the Harlem Meer – the most beautiful body of water in the park.

I feel the same way, not the least because these are simply lesser known areas than the ones more easily accessed from the tonier and touristy parts of the city. Unfortunately, while living in NYC in the 1980s, they were simply too sketchy and walking there outside of bright, sunny weekend afternoons was too uncomfortably isolating.

Still, this is one of the things that surprises people about the park, as it did me, and similarly to the questions about city noise above. Even in the southern half of the park there are really quite large areas away from walkways, buildings, and (for the most part) people. You can, if you like, find a rather wild acre that seems yours alone for a time.
posted by dhartung at 12:33 AM on September 11, 2013


Time and Again is worth reading for a view of a young and growing New York, when Central Park was anything but central, the Dakota was 3 miles from civilization and nobody wanted to live in it, and everything around the park that wasn't an empty new building was farmland.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:34 AM on September 11, 2013


More nit picks: It's the Frick Collection, not the Frick Museum of Art. And John Lennon was not shot in the park, which the story seems to imply.
posted by beagle at 4:48 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow what a fascinating insight. Thanks. It reminded me of getting lost on Dartfor Common when I first moved there, an event my local friends could never understand. It took me a while to realise most of them had never been there let alone explored it.
posted by BenPens at 6:23 AM on September 11, 2013


Frederick Law Olmsted may have been the greatest force of good for North American cities ever. He gave Chicago Jackson Park, The Midway Plasiance, and the University of Chicago campus -- and the White City in the 1893 Columbia Exposition. He gave Auburn the Auburn campus.

Montreal's Mount Royal park is his. Milwaukee? Both Lake and Riverside Park are his work. Niagara Falls? The layout is his. Detroit's Belle Isle park, his. Atlanta's Piedmont Park, his. Louisville, KY has *five* parks by him. The entire park system of Buffalo, NY was designed by him.

He was just amazing, and we are all better off for him. All the great cities have great parks, and he did more than his fair share to help all cities have great parks.
posted by eriko at 6:47 AM on September 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


If you want more than 1500 words on Central Park, The Park and the People is an epic but quite readable telling of its planning, construction and history, and weaves the park's story into the broader context of New York City. Also, after 20 years of living in and around NYC, there's still nothing like a run around the reservoir on a fall day when the leaves are changing and that first hint of chill is in the air.
posted by bassomatic at 7:29 AM on September 11, 2013


> Louisville, KY has *five* parks by him

Darned right we do, along with some of our parkways.

The parks are beloved by the locals. I don't know landscape architecture, but I know that people who come to Louisville are frequently blown away when they see our parks. Even driving down the Olmstead parkways is a lovely experience (traffic headaches notwithstanding).

> He was just amazing, and we are all better off for him. All the great cities have great parks, and he did more than his fair share to help all cities have great parks

Co-signing on this! Olmstead was awesome.
posted by magstheaxe at 7:40 AM on September 11, 2013


There's a sequence in The Muppets Take Manhattan where Miss Piggy gets her purse stolen in Central Park while she's eavesdropping on Kermit. There's a chase and an arrest and rollerskates and Gregory Hines, but in retrospect this is my main takeaway: in the 1980s, crime in Central Park was so ubiquitous that even a Muppet movie about New York felt that it had to include a purse-snatcher for verisimilitude.
posted by savetheclocktower at 9:14 AM on September 11, 2013


What was Vaux's role, exactly? You mostly hear about Olmstead.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:05 AM on September 11, 2013


Oh, gosh, just remembered something - the Metropolitan Museum of Art once had this big exhibit on American Impressionism or something huge and far-flung like that, a really sprawling and all-inclusive exhibit, with a lot of the works dating from the time when Vaux and Olmstead were at work.

One room in the exhibit dealt with either landscape painting or garden planning or park space planning or something like that. That room was in the back of the Met, with a big window that looks out onto Central Park. I remember going into that room, and seeing the paintings of parks and landscape plots and such therein - but then I noticed that the Met had also slapped one of their tags next to the window itself, crediting Vaux and Olmstead with the park.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:19 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was told by an astronaut that the only man-made object visible from space is the Great Wallof China and that viewing central park was a myth...Perhaps it depends on atmospheric conditions/time of year what is in fact visible from space?
posted by bob_london_13 at 11:55 AM on September 11, 2013


Straight Dope: Is the Great Wall of China the only manmade object you can see from space? (includes Hadfield comments)
posted by Chrysostom at 12:05 PM on September 11, 2013


> I was told by an astronaut that the only man-made object visible from space is the Great Wallof China

The claim that the Wall is visible from space is quite tenuous. It really depends on what you mean by the words "space" and "visible."

I never really understood the idea that the Wall can be seen from space — it's quite narrow and long, so the actual structure itself doesn't seem like it would be recognizable. I'd more easily believe that Central Park is visible from space simply because it's wider and can be recognized in Google Maps even when you zoom out quite a bit, but I think it'd still require far greater visual acuity than humans actually possess.
posted by savetheclocktower at 12:08 PM on September 11, 2013


What was Vaux's role, exactly? You mostly hear about Olmstead.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:05 AM on September 11 [+] [!]


My understanding is that Vaux was the beard, the letterhead that justified Olmstead, who was otherwise an unknown.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:22 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a great book on Olmstead called A Clearing In The Distance that is one of the best biographies I have ever read. His career as one of the first American landscape architects (along with business associate Andrew Jackson Downing, who introduced Olmstead and Vaux) actually was one of several careers he had including abolitionist journalist (pointing out in a series of travelogues for what would become The New York Times that the South was doomed to economic ruin if they seceded due to their inefficient agricultural methods and reliance on foodstuffs brought in from the North and abroad) and a member of the US Sanitary Commission during The Civil War which was responsible for revolutionizing the care and treatment of wounded soldiers. It is not hyperbole to say that his life's work made him one of the most important Americans who ever lived in terms of the reach and scope of his work for the public good both during his lifetime and down through the ages.
posted by KingEdRa at 8:08 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


in the 1980s, crime in Central Park was so ubiquitous that even a Muppet movie about New York felt that it had to include a purse-snatcher for verisimilitude

Even so, it's got nothing on The Out-of-Towners, in which Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis are mugged not once, but twice. The general narrative outline is: suburbanites visit quintessential city, are mugged by reality, plan to return to home-sweet-home even at a lower salary.

At any rate, the 1970s and 1980s were the peak of a bell curve in which crime rates ramped up rather alarmingly in just a couple of decades (i.e. within individual lifetime experience) and then back down again.

I never really understood the idea that the Wall can be seen from space — it's quite narrow and long, so the actual structure itself doesn't seem like it would be recognizable.

One of my assumptions with this claim is that the wall may represent a change in land usage from one side to the other, which often happens with borders. Although the wall isn't really a political border anymore.

And of course the problem with proving that something can be "seen from space" by using an aerial photograph is that cameras can be lensed to much greater visual acuity than the naked eye -- and also that many aerial photographs online are not actual satellite views, but high-altitude aerial photography.
posted by dhartung at 1:26 AM on September 12, 2013




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