Park and the People TranscriptElizabeth Blackmar, co-author of Park and the People: A History of Central Park and Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club met on June 30, 2004 to discuss Ms. Blackmar's book. Along the way, we looked at Central Park Conservancy and the role of the private sector in park management, protests on the Great Lawn, and the future of the park. Read an edited transcript below.
Joshua Brustein: Welcome to Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club meeting for June. With us is Elizabeth Blackmar, one of the authors of Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ms. Blackmar is going to start off the conversation by reading a passage from her book.
Elizabeth Blackmar: (after reading passage on page 382 about "Chair Sunday") It sort of captures the conflict over the park and how it should be managed.
Joshua Brustein: One thing that everyone is debating about Central Park right now is whether demonstrators should be allowed to have a large scale protest on the Great Lawn. Ms. Blackmar, what do you think about that issue, and how does it relates to some of the themes in your book?
Elizabeth Blackmar: It's not an easy issue. I was in Central Park the last time a million people gathered there, for the anti-nuclear demonstration in 1982. It was a very powerful demonstration. It had the expanse of Central Park for a million people to gather. But since then there has been a major restoration of the park, under the auspices of the Central Park Conservancy. The Conservancy has successfully restored the effects of the natural 19th century natural romantic design, and it is true that massive demonstrations are very hard on natural landscapes.
That being said, one can also observe that, of course, other public gatherings have been permitted in the park. These events have had either a cultural dimension or a commercial dimension, whether it's the metropolitan opera or a popular concert - Dave Matthews, for example - that then raises money to be distributed to other sites.
So in part it depends on whether or not you think a million people will show up to protest the Republicans, in which case it will tax the park landscape. And if one hopes for that, then maybe the park maybe isn't the best place for that to happen. Now if it's not a million people, it seems to me that the natural landscape probably could withstand a gathering on the Great Lawn. But I think that it won't happen, because of the precedent that it would reopen. Basically, the rules have been rewritten to clearly keep political actions and protests out of the park, to make it unlikely that it would be open. But I would be interested in hearing with others of you think about this.
Martha Soffer: Well if it's a gathering for the Pope, it won't disturb me if I want to walk through the Great Lawn. But if it's a protest, it's going to disturb my mind.
Betsey Grover McGrath: I'd be curious to know what other venues are available for that many people, because I don't know.
Elizabeth Blackmar: Actually the plan that has been made has been to close off the streets south of Madison, basically in order to keep the protestors in the streets with boundaries.
Mickey Blum: A very very small area.
Zoe Schneider: I was in a the St. Patrick's day anti-war demonstration and we were cordoned off into small pens. That was not just to be orderly, but so that when news and helicopters came to take photos, to show people participating in the protests, it would look like there were fewer people participating. What they did is that they had these pens that were only one block long. And they only had a couple hundred people per pen. So each pen was virtually empty. So from above, it basically looked like an empty street. So they were trying to say, "nobody is protesting here!"
Elizabeth Blackmar: I think of the whole history of demonstrations and gatherings, from the 19th century in Tompkins Square and then in Union Square, such gatherings were centered on neighborhood parks. There was an "I am an American Day" in the late 40s actually, which was one of the first direct politicizations of Central Park's use as a place for a mass audience. And I think that was because of the commerce. During the 1960s, the park was claimed by the anti-war movement, and was linked to the counterculture.
That's sort of the trade off with the Republican National Convention, was to focus on the traffic rather than endanger the park landscape. But I thought it wasn't explained because partly before there was a restoration it really seemed like they could manage it. It was in bad shape and now I think the Conservancy has really established a kind of plane of landscape design.
Joshua Brustein: You mentioned specific political demonstrations in the park, and the commercial and cultural differences between them. Are there certain ways various demonstrations have played out in terms of rights?
Elizabeth Blackmar: I'm sure the rules don't read that way. But to have any large gathering in the park, you have to have a permit. Certain uses that can't be managed have a kind of customary claim of the space. But commercial concerts are an interesting case. When the restoration movement came, one of its goals was to end commercial concerts in the park. It's only in the last decade that they've come back, and they've come back with this kind of quid pro quo. Not only do the concert organizers have to promise to clean up, but they make a contribution to the City Parks Foundation, which then can benefit other parks in the city.
And it's a way of funneling the money out of Central Park because, of course, commercial concerts can sell the videos. They have another life on television and commercial media, so they are profiting even it is free concerts. That seems to me to have been a shift in policy that came once it was decided, in effect, that the park could handle those special events.
The Pope was the last thing before the Great Lawn got cleaned up. And I thought that that was appropriate.
Mickey Blum: Actually, that was Pocahontas.
Elizabeth Blackmar: Oh Pocahontas, you're right. Disney trumps the Pope!
PUBLIC/PRIVATE MANAGEMENTJoshua Brustein: You mention private donations as a way to bring in money now. Does that affect the kind of events that are going to be acceptable? Is Central Park now accountable to New Yorkers who may want to have some control over what happens in the park?
Elizabeth Blackmar: I don't think that it's just that it can be sold for any price.
But the way it becomes problematic for me is that if you don't have money and wanted to have an event with comparable numbers, you wouldn't have access to the park. You could say that the kind of minimum requirement should be that anyone who's in the park should basically clean up after themselves, that you don't leave it in worse shape than you came. But that takes money, so you could say that that could be a threshold. But the point is that if you also don't have that extra money that could be donated, then you are putting a price tag on access to the park with special events. That seems to me to be when one starts asking questions about "what is the nature of public space" and "how do we think about how decisions get made?" So I think to me, that's a little bit problematic. Again, I don't know if you all think that's true or not.
Valarie Sarris: Is the land is owned by the city of New York proper or the Conservancy?
Elizabeth Blackmar: The land is owned by the city.
Valarie Sarris: But is it managed by the Conservancy?
Elizabeth Blackmar: Most importantly, it raises the money that allows for restoration.
Valarie Sarris: And the zoo.
Elizabeth Blackmar: It's an interesting problem though in terms of the story of preservation, because the question is "Do New Yorkers value preservation?" If they do, then the issue is how you add that to the definition of the public good and how do you raise the public money to maintain that kind of continuity with the past. If one wants to see what the Conservancy is doing, what it's doing is basically taking on the burden of historical preservation of the space. But it has to always do it in a political context. It's publicly owned land, it is public recreation site, and there are lots of features in it that do not conform to the original plan, which is also always a challenge.
So we will see repeatedly questions about what will happen to the skating rink, for example. We've seen Wolman, but Lasker skating rink has to become obsolete. Who makes that kind of a decision, when that's a sort of public recreational facility that has nothing to do with what's being preserved in the landscape? So what are different public plans on that? I think we have lots of very interesting problems, in spite of what's happened to the public domain in the aftermath of the 1970s.
Nicholas Bloom: But the Great Lawn is relatively young.
Elizabeth Blackmar: Yes, it is the old reservoir. It was filled in in the 1930s, Moses put ball fields on it and it became a dust bowl. Then they let the Pope come, and they let Pocahontas come.
There are lots of things in Central Park that are not in the literal, original Greensward plan; the Great Lawn would not be part of it. Still, if the argument is that what you're doing is basically preserving the natural landscape and design, then that's comes under the plan.
A NATIONWIDE MODEL FOR PARKS?Joshua Brustein: In terms of the conservancy, is that different from how other parks in different parts of the country are managed?
Elizabeth Blackmar: It has become the model for major landscape city parks around the country. In other words, the parks in Chicago, St. Louis, some of Boston's parks, have moved into public-private partnerships of some kind. The problem with this is always that some city parks can have a constituency, and can divide the money that supports the partnership, and other city parks can't. So the cities have to show a commitment to parks that don't have a constituency with money to help support them. In a lot of cities, this is an ongoing issue.
So the great landscape parks in the Olmstead and Vaux tradition have embraced this model because it's worked as a tactic of preservation. And I just think the level at which parks are being maintained really varies widely in cities across the country right now. I haven't been to Detroit, for example. I don't know what shape the park is in, but my guess is that it is not so great.
Mike Miscione: Well you also have the wealthy people living on the perimeter of the park. The Conservancy, I think, goes beyond a money purpose. It manages the park and makes decisions. It is a key player in Central Park. It is unlike a foundation, which attracts the bucks and doles them out. I don't think anybody denies the fact that they are attracting money, but with it goes that slavish, slavish relationship. It's questionable.
Elizabeth Blackmar: We raise these questions in the book, as to who formed the conservancy, but the thing that I myself am not clear enough about is whether New Yorkers have a commitment to public spaces. Is there that same kind of commitment to public spaces today from the larger public as there was in the earlier period? Is there the democratic will of ordinary people to actually engage in things that involve public spaces? I'm not sure; there have been major cultural changes in our society. If there isn't that will, then the question of who is committed becomes a different problem.
Mike Miscione: But that's what we elect mayors, and have administrations and park officials for. It trickles down, and at least in theory it's a democratic process.
Elizabeth Blackmar: And those public officials are accountable. There's the theory, that elected officials are always accountable for decisions. That's what we were trying to show. Finally the politicians have to answer to the electorate; there's accountability in that model of governance that's not available when you have this kind of public-private partnership. So that's one key thing that we shouldn't forget.
Betsy Grover McGrath: It's hard to answer that question, but we know what they meant in the sixties and seventies before the Central Park Conservancy was founded. I mean you couldn't walk in the park because it was so dangerous, so run down and dilapidated the masonry was ruined, people dealt drugs.
Elizabeth Blackmar: The irony of that was that the period when the Park was most vulnerable was when it was also most intensely populated. I don't mean to be flippant, but crime goes up when there are more people. Fear of crime rose as actually the number of police rose.
The park wasn't abandoned by the people, it was abandoned in maintenance, and that's partly because we were in a fiscal crisis. So you had this paradox of very intense use of all kinds, illicit as well as legitimate. There was this national representation for crime that didn't undercut its use, and then a failure because of the plans to maintain it. And that's the point at which the Conservancy formed, and it formed at the point when the city simply didn't have the money to maintain its parks.
But there is another part of the way I myself worry about the partnerships, and that has to do with that it also, that the model of the governance of public space was also set in the aftermath of the public workers unionizing. And I think one of the ways in which private-public partnerships reduced the cost of maintenance is by hiring non-union workers. There are other issues about how one wants to think about whether you want the public arena to set the standards for labor or whether you want to open up a free labor market, and that has to do with whether or not people are going to pay taxes in a larger sense.
WHAT SHOULD CENTRAL PARK BE USED FOR?Joshua Brustein: In the book you speak how the wealthy people who planned the park and the working class people for whom the park was supposedly built had different conceptions of how Central Park would be used. Could you just speak a little bit about these different perceptions among different classes about the park?
Elizabeth Blackmar: If you try to get back into the moment where there wasn't such a thing as a landscaped park, and you have to figure out what, exactly, this thing is, the sort of problem as to what the definitions were was sort of interesting.
One popular model was the Hoboken pleasure gardens where there were excursions on Sunday. Excursion boats would put Germans and other New Yorkers over to Hoboken and they could play baseball and other rowdy sports and be active in an open space. It had nature that was really undesigned in a significant way.
When the discussion of design started you would find advocates of this idea of the pleasure garden, in a sense, challenging those who were more influenced by the European model, in London, or the Bois Du Bologne, pre-Hausmann, that really understood that a park by definition was a landscape. In other words, you planned the landscape, and it wasn't simply a pleasure garden but was open to sports and active use.
The Irish News wanted to put a racecourse in there, but even as there are there different ideas, they were copying elements that were part of the design specifications. So it really is a concession to the popular idea of the park that it initially included a ground for militia drills and a parade; that was in the original specifications for the Greensward plan. Militia drills were gatherings for guys between 18 and 22 who first would drill and then would drink.
Mike Miscione: Guns and beer!
Elizabeth Blackmar: Yeah, not in keeping with any kind of genteel concept of a park as a scenic landscape which allows you to escape the city and allows you to have an experience that is social and aesthetic at the same time. Very quickly, as part of the original plan, that kind of space was renamed the Sheep's Meadow, and redefined in its aesthetic function and its use. So you have these popular ideas that really see it as a sports ground.
Then there were the kinds of sports that could be permitted were such as ice-skating, which was a very new fad in New York, that didn't in any way damage the landscape. They arranged the pond to be raised and lowered and gradually other sports came back in, but they came back in not in that old Hoboken pleasure garden kind of way, but in a much more orderly way.
One that's interesting is lawn tennis, in part because it was a mixed-sex sport; women played alongside of men. But it also actually did tax the landscape. It was permitted because it came in at the era of the Gibson girls, and the rediscovery as outdoor recreation as healthy, so at the point there was a bend because of popular demand.
Other sports, like baseball, came in only barely before the 1930s, so Hecksher playground permitted boys to play with notes from their principal. You don't get the facilities until Robert Moses, who had a very different conception of the park as an active recreational field. This idea goes back, without the rowdiness, to that earlier popular idea of public recreational space.
Joshua Brustein: Was this a smooth transition, or were their periods of conflict and how did they play out?
Elizabeth Blackmar: I'm trying to think about how one talks about how they played out. It seems to me that one just has to try to think about that why in the 1920s, Olmstead's son was part of the preservation movement aiming to, in a sense, protect the park from encroachments.
One could ask how is it that Moses was able to come in with a really different perception of the park and put it into place. He really did, put it into place what with playing grounds and pools. I think the answer is money and power. I mean he had the New Deal, he had the money, and he had the power and so there was a political contest here, but preservationists saw him as a reformer. Iphigenia Sulzberger had an alliance with Moses as well, but in a sense they had to concede. So how these political conflicts work out, it seems to me, has to do with a balance of power at any given moment.
Think about Sundays in the park. Park concerts were banned on Sundays, and you get all these people in New York who have only Sunday as their day of rest, and who want to be able to go to a concert. In response, they exerted political pressure on the alderman to get the alderman to weigh in to open the park on Sundays. So that was a sort of direct political confrontation, in the most conventional sense.
Other times you see the incremental pushing of rules, this kind of constant negotiation. Take, for example, the boom box negotiation. Now there are rules against the boom box. But probably for 10 years people just sort of personally negotiated and decided when it was worth it to tell people when to turn it down, in that kind of New York way.
Book Club Member: Soccer is a menace and is really hard on the park. Are there any plans to accommodate that?
Elizabeth Blackmar: No. I think the solution becomes finding alternatives and making sure they're organized. In other words, instead of saying you can't play soccer on the Great Lawn, saying we're putting in soccer fields in Riverside Park, and East River Park, and we're going to provide alternative places. Prospect park is where the soccer battle is most interesting.
Book Club Member: Because there are more Europeans living up there.
Elizabeth Blackmar: Yes, and also just because there are more available possible soccer fields. The Great Lawn has brought up the question of "do people want a great meadow there?" And I think it is still political. Anybody who has government involved in these places has to listen. They can't ignore them.
Book Club Member: I don't know if it's all year long, but in North Meadow, there are designated areas.
Elizabeth Blackmar: Well and people complained about that.
Book Club Member: Well there are pick-up games all over the East Meadow, too.
Joshua Brustein: As someone who has actually tried to have a pick up game of soccer in Central Park, it's not easy.
Book Club Member: Where did you try?
Joshua Brustein: We tried a couple places and we kept getting moved. They kept telling us here and there. I don't remember because at the time I didn't know where I was, it was just this big field, and we'd play there, and then we'd be moved.
Elizabeth Blackmar: Well it's interesting though, that they were trying to move you and they didn't just say, "don't do it!"
Joshua Brustein: Well, I think it was more like "Move out of my jurisdiction."
JB: It was always a different person who came along.
Book Club Member: Well, that's not a bad tactic, huh?
WHO DESIGNED CENTRAL PARK?Joshua Brustein: One thing that's different about your book from a lot of the other stuff that has been written about the park is most of the other books talk about the design of the park, or about how Frederick Law Olmstead designed the park. You tell a different story. Did you set out to write a revisionist history of Olmstead?
Elizabeth Blackmar: No, that came out of reading the papers. Frederick Law Olmstead's saved everything, and Calvert Vaux didn't save much. So partly, if you want to come out the winner in history, you should save everything you've ever written.
Mike Miscione: Or have a son!
Elizabeth Blackmar: Right, right, or rename your son. But no, we didn't know what the nature of the collaboration between Vaux and Olmstead was. I would say that because we thought of the park as a public institution, we never thought of it as a single product of a single man, so we had that kind of stance in terms of trying to explain how it was designed. We expected all the designs to be a kind of social and political process because of how New York is.
Watching it now with the World Trade Center, you know that there isn't such a thing as an immaculate conception of a park that a single person has realized. But we didn't know much about Calvert Vaux. It was in reading his letters and reading the documents that they produced together, and understanding Calvert Vaux's own training as a designer that brought him to the forefront.
Vaux actually did know something about the art of design. Olmstead knew a lot about the theories of landscape design but had no practical experience. So partly it was just trying to think realistically about what it took to reach the original Greensward plan.
If you've seen the Greensward plan, you know the plan required skill. So understanding the skill that is not just in theory but actually how you did the layout lead us really to take seriously what went into the design process. They themselves said it was a neutral design. And I think that's true, in the sense that they talked it through, all the way down the line. But I personally think Calvert Vaux's contribution was really not presented in history. As that emerged in the letters, it became something that I wanted to make a strong statement about, about what Vaux had done. As it turns out, having written the book, it didn't change anything. Everybody still attributes everything to Olmstead. And then there's Andrew Green, who oversaw the actual construction and you see that it isn't ever a single person.
THE FUTUREValarie Sarris: You were speaking earlier about the private partnership arrangement and the design of Central Park, and I think we all have an interest in it. How do you think it's likely to play out; are people committed to public space? I think you have a more pessimistic view than we'd all like to hear, but at least we'd like to know what you think about it. .
Elizabeth Blackmar: Well I don't see there being a real change in the park.
Valarie Sarris: Despite how private interest might or might not try to affect it?
Elizabeth Blackmar: In other words, I think that the conservancy will reclaim governance of the park. I don't see the political situation that would in effect restore the park to the department of public parks, Central Park or Prospect Park. That's because of the fundraising. You could say that private fundraising could dry up, but when private fundraising dries up we'll be in another fiscal crisis as well, so I don't know if I see the government taking back the park.
What do I see in terms of how different kinds of pressures to permit uses or not? I think that'll always be in flux.
I am very interested that Christo is back. In 1980, they said "this is completely inappropriate, you cannot have Christo's gates, this is not what a public park is for." And Gordon Davis, the commissioner of the park at the time, wrote a very eloquent statement about why this is an inappropriate use of the park in 1979. Davis recently wrote a very interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal explaining about how we are in a different moment, and Christo is not going to harm things.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF PARK?Joshua Brustein: You wrote that Central Park is a different kind of park, that it was used differently from other parks in different cities. Do you think that's still the case?
Elizabeth Blackmar: No, I don't think so. Can you think of other cities? I mean it's different because it has the wealthiest neighbors, and others probably don't have as many films. They don't have Woody Allen, so its icon status must surely make it always different. But I was over there a couple weeks ago with a landscape architecture class, and was just watching. The sort of coming and going of the park is not so different from other places. I'm not sure how to answer that.
Joshua Brustein: Do other people have a feeling, just from other parks in the city, as to the different way you go to Central Park? For instance, if you're from Park Slope, going to Prospect Park?
Mike Miscione: I think we're too old. I'm not sure if you're talking to the right group of people. I think there's a kind of pastoral use of the park, and I think it fits our demographic well.
Zoe Schneider: Summer Stage has really changed. I used to work for Summer Stage, and I think it's not as good as it used to be. It was once much more democratic, I mean you'd go and there were local venders, and restaurants from the West Side would sell food. Now there is corporate sponsorship, and you have to wait in a line for two or three hours. Prospect Park it's just a much larger space. I think the Summer Stage space just has a terrible location. They need a much larger space, it should be four times the size, if not larger. Prospect Park is gigantic. If you don't want to be inside the gate, you can go outside. They're more lenient about picnicking, and I think it's much nicer and more pleasant in Prospect Park. And I live by Central Park, and I think it's unfortunate.
Claudia Zimmer: Well in New Jersey there are many Olmstead parks, and people from the city are shocked to find out that these parks do exist, and they become publicized during their restoration. These parks have concessions, you know with paddleboats. They're overused because they're smaller parks. And I don't think there's the same awareness.
Maria Soffer: I feel safe in Central Park, and I don't feel safe in Prospect park. If I want to go to the country, I go to Central Park. I mean, it's actually safer. Central Park is the safest place, and it has the lowest crime rate in the.
Elizabeth Blackmar: It's almost always had the lowest crime rate.
Nicholas Bloom: How do you think this Conservancy fits in with Olmstead's view?
Elizabeth Blackmar: This is my conceit, and I don't think this is historically demonstrable, but I think Olmstead would have loved the conservancy and Vaux would have abhorred it. That's not true, because Vaux was the one that thought hardest about the design, when it was being modified, so I shouldn't really say that. But he thought the public needed to be trained in how to use a public space, so he would have no trouble with it being regulated. He wouldn't want people to wander freely, because he understood that in a democratic public space you have to conform.
You could take umbrage with the story I read there, it being "what's wrong with these people, why don't they just learn to behave themselves in this public space, why do they have to sort of make this claim?" Olmstead would say that the value of public space requires a certain use of it in the best appropriate sense, and I do think it's true that these wandering uses are quite fluid and spontaneous.
Still, I walk up in the Riverbank Park, which was the park that was built on top of the sewage management plant, and it was designed by the guy who designed the Adventure Playgrounds in Central Park. It's completely compact. Each use is cheek-by-jowl the other, and I've never seen a more brilliant use and designed space anywhere in terms of serving its constituency. And it's always moving, I mean people are constantly coming in at all hours of the day, using those different spaces, and there is something just exhilarating about it, I have to say. This guy is brilliant! It's designed in a different aesthetic, it's designed for a different constituency, it's very different and yet it just goes to show that you can have different kinds of parks that fulfill their purpose quite well, and I love it. I choose to walk there instead of Riverside, as a social space.
Book Club Member: Where is it located?
Elizabeth Blackmar: 127th on the other side of the highway. There are actually bridges. I mean you look at it, you can't believe anybody would put a park on a septic tank. It smells bad, and that's one of the contradictions. This was the payoff, a tradeoff: they got the neighborhood to agree to it because they said we'll give you a park, but what you get is a park where you have to pay with the smell.
Joshua Brustein: Thank you to everyone for coming. Next month's book will be Gotham, which we are reading for the next two months. At July's meeting, Mike Wallace, one of the book's authors, will discuss the first three parts with us. The meeting will take place right here at Borders on 100 Broadway, on July 28, from 6 PM to 7 PM.