Elizabeth Blackmar, co-author of Park and the People: A History of Central Park and Gotham Gazette’s Reading NYC Book Club recently discussed the Central Park Conservancy, protests on the Great Lawn, and what lies ahead for the park. Read an edited transcript below (or click here for a full transcript.)
A PLACE TO PROTEST?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 â€“ Dave Matthews, for example â€“ 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 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.
Betsey Grover McGrath: What other venues are available for that many people?.
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 at 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. 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.
The idea with the Republican National Convention was to focus on the traffic, and how it would endanger the park landscape. 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 plan of landscape design.
Joshua Brustein: You mentioned the difference in treatment between political events and commercial and cultural events. How differently are these treated in the park rules?
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 Citywide 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 from 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 CENTRAL PARK CONSERVANCY
Valarie Sarris: Is the land in Central Park owned by the city of New York proper or the Central Park Conservancy?
Elizabeth Blackmar: The land is owned by the city. The conservancy, most importantly, raises money for restoration. It’s an interesting problem in terms of preservation. 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.
What the conservancy is doing is basically taking on the burden of historical preservation in Central Park. But it has to always do it in a political context. It’s publicly owned land, it is a 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, for example, what will happen to the skating rink. 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 places? 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.
Joshua Brustein: In terms of the conservancy’s role in management, is that different from how parks in other 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.
The great landscape parks in the Olmsted and Vaux tradition have embraced this model, because it has worked as a tactic of preservation. I 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.
THE PARK’S 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 interests 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.
What that reminds you is just that there’s always constituency out there. So on that level, I think there will be negotiations, but I don’t think there will be a change in the government. I just don’t see what the political process would be to dismantle the authority. It becomes a very utilitarian argument, which says basically this is the best arrangement for the park that generates the greatest good.