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Honor Andrew Haswell Green!

by Michael Miscione, Nov 10, 2003
 

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Andrew Haswell Green gets nothing more than a portrait in City Hall and a park bench.

Exactly one hundred years ago on November 13th, Cornelius Williams, a jealous and delusional furnace tender, set out to kill the elderly gentleman he claimed stole his girlfriend. Williams pumped five bullets into the greatest civic hero in New York City history, 83-year-old Andrew Haswell Green.

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New Yorkers can be forgiven for not having heard the name, since his murder is not the only injustice committed against Andrew Green. Obscurity has done in a man whose contributions to the city were truly astonishing.

It was Green who was as much responsible for the creation of Central Park as its architects Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. In his position leading the state commission charged with building the park, he secured the adoption of their Greensward plan, defended it from meddlers, kept it on budget, expanded its acreage.

This would have been enough to make him deserving of recognition, but it is only one of his accomplishments. He was largely responsible for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. He brokered the creation of the New York Public Library and co-founded the Bronx Zoo. He added Riverside, Morningside and Fort Washington Parks to the map, too, and threw up a bridge over the Harlem River.

Most importantly, Green masterminded the 1898 consolidation of Greater New York, a fiercely contentious measure that, in a stroke, lassoed the various municipalities of today's Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island within the borders of New York City, enlarging the metropolis fivefold.

"It took Robert Moses, Fiorello LaGuardia and Franklin Roosevelt, drawing upon the combined resources of the federal, state and city governments, to exceed Green's accomplishment," urban historian Thomas Kessner has written. But while Moses has a state park, LaGuardia an airport and Roosevelt a drive named after them, among much other recognition, Andrew Haswell Green gets nothing more than a portrait in City Hall and a park bench. He deserves more.

GOTHAM'S FIRST COMPREHENSIVE CITY PLANNER

Born in

New Yorkers can be forgiven for not having heard the name of the man responsible for the Washington Bridge (above) and the Bronx Zoo, since his murder is not the only injustice committed against Andrew Green.

Worcester, Massachusetts in 1820, Andrew Green moved to New York as a young man, became a lawyer and developed an interest in civic affairs. In 1857, after a stint as president of the Board of Education (where he railed against unfair state funding of upstate schools at the expense of those in the city!) he landed his position on the Central Park Commission. Honest, hardworking and tight with a buck, Green soon became the driving force behind that body

He convinced the legislature to adopt a series of escalating measures that gave the commission authority beyond just Central Park itself, and allowed it to oversee the development of all of northern Manhattan, the Harlem River and the suburban hinterland we now call The Bronx. In essence Green leveraged the Central Park Commission into the first comprehensive urban planning body in New York City history.

Mindful of growth and economy, two principles that would always guide his proposals, Green insisted on the coordinated planning of all the public improvements under his authority -- roadways, parks, bridges, water supplies, transportation lines and even cultural institutions.

By gaining the trust of public officials and the city's powerful business elite with well-formed arguments and a track record to back it up, Green was able to influence the metropolitan region's physical development to the end of the nineteenth century, long after the park commission was officially dissolved in 1870.

COMPTROLLER AND PRESERVATIONIST

In 1871 Green was enlisted to serve as New York City Comptroller after the Tweed Ring bankrupted the municipal treasury. He immediately put a stranglehold on the city's chaotic spending habits. By trimming unneeded workers, denying fraudulent claims, curtailing public works and sometimes even using his own personal credit to secure funds to meet the government payroll, he restored the city's fiscal health.

Green was a lifelong historic preservationist and champion of urban green space. He chose the location of the Bronx Zoo where it would fell the fewest trees, and even objected to the placement of Grant's Tomb and the New York Public Library - an institution he fought hard to create - on park grounds.

Soon after helping to quash a proposal to demolish City Hall and move the seat of government uptown, Green gathered New York's preservationists into the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, an organization he founded in 1895. In his lifetime and beyond the society created numerous state parks, lobbied to save endangered sites like Hamilton Grange, erected countless historic markers and proposed the name for the Williamsburg Bridge.

OUR INDIFFERENT CITY

In 1898 a small island was named for Andrew Green at Niagara Falls in recognition of the preservation work he did there. But incredibly, here in the five boroughs, no park, bridge, building, school or even street bears his name! All he has here is a forlorn and obscure bench in Central Park that was evicted from its original prominent hilltop years ago to make room for a compost heap.

"It is preposterous that the only memory marker recalling Green's contributions to New York is a park bench," wrote Mike Wallace, the Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of Gotham, a History of New York City to 1898.

I agree. And I'd like to propose two significant structures, both in need of a name change, as candidates for a Green monument.

The first is the little-known Washington Bridge, a handsome Harlem River span that Green conceived. Ever since the Port Authority built the giant George Washington Bridge, the name of this other, lesser-known bridge has only confounded drivers.

The other is the Tweed Courthouse, the newly refurbished home of the Department of Education. (Tweed's designation is not "official," some say, but it is literally engraved in stone on the building.) Tweed was perhaps our city's greatest villain and Green our greatest champion; Tweed has a big shiny courthouse, and Green has a sad little bench. Isn't something wrong with this picture?

Michael Miscione discovered Andrew Haswell Green when producing a TV documentary in 1998 about the consolidation of all five boroughs into the City of Greater New York. He has launched a campaign to get a substantial monument named for Green.


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