The Vision of Central Park

In response to:

America’s Green Giant from the November 5, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

To Martin Filler’s excellent, comprehensive review of new Olmsted publications [NYR, November 5] could be added an important point about his and Vaux’s visionary design of Central Park. Yes, it was deeply inspired by European models but the design was also a reaction to a particularly local development that was horrifying Olmsted: the rectilinear street grid plan of Manhattan.

Ordained in 1811 to provide an orderly expansion of the unplanned town spreading from Manhattan’s southern tip, the grid marched mercilessly northward, flattening and regimenting the naturalistically varied island in its path. Filler lauds “Olmsted’s ability to imagine how a barren stretch of urban wasteland could be turned into an idyllic glade,” but in the early 1850s the area that was to become Central Park was distinctly pre-urban, that is, it had been doomed under the 1811 plan to become an indistinguishable segment of an unbroken island-spread grid. Just as straight new streets were reaching that area, prescient officials (not all as corrupt as Filler says) carved out a measure of relief. “The time will come,” Olmsted wrote in 1858 in a report to the park planning commissioners,

when New York will be built-up, when all the grading and filling will be done, when the picturesquely varied rock formations of the island will have been converted into the foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect, angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park.

Affronted by the prospect of a right-angled flatland, Olmsted with Vaux fashioned a space of no right angles: bridges, roads, pathways, ponds, fields, play spaces—practically all of it curvilinear, diagonal, serpentine. Olmsted’s park is the anti-grid, New York’s unique anti-urban urban center. The irony, of course, is that the park itself is a rectangle, like a wondrously equipped but nevertheless rigidly bounded exercise yard within a vast rectilinear penitentiary. I’ve wondered if this irony bothered Olmsted.

Gerard Koeppel
New York City