A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century
by Witold Rybczynski
Scribner, 479 pp., $28.00
In the 1850s, much of New York City was still a place where one could experience something like country darkness and quiet. Above what is now called “midtown,” stretches of the Hudson and East River shores of Manhattan were thickly wooded, with a few houses built on large tracts of privately owned land. The plan to lay out the city according to a grid of numbered streets, adopted in 1811, was still mainly an idea inscribed on maps; and so the topography of New York remained visible—hills, valleys, and outcroppings of rock that have been hidden or eliminated in today’s paved metropolis, where east-west vistas are glimpsed from the street only at block-long intervals or from high-floor windows.
In lower Manhattan, however, a busy—and, to many, a menacing—city was threatening to spill northward. Of New York’s roughly 600,000 inhabitants, nearly one third were children under fifteen, many of whom were orphans or vagrants who worked as peddlers, messengers, newspaper hawkers, or as petty criminals or prostitutes. Respectable women promenading on lower Broadway found themselves ogled, according to the Evening Post, by crowds of “whiskered and mustachioed” foreigners—and every crowd, in the view of many New Yorkers, was potentially a mob. Periodic outbreaks of cholera were blamed on these immigrants, whose numbers had risen rapidly in the 1840s, and who were widely held responsible for the squalor in which they lived, and for the threat that it would spread. The businessman George Templeton Strong, who kept a diary for forty years beginning in 1835, reported that most of his friends never left home without a pistol.
In early 1848, Frederick Law Olmsted, twenty-six-year-old son of a Connecticut dry goods merchant, moved from Sachem’s Head, near New Haven, to the edge of this city of “sunlight and shadows,” as the New-York Daily Times called it, where he tried to make a success of a Staten Island farm that he had bought with help from his father. As Witold Rybczynski makes vivid in A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, Olmsted’s youth had been a series of false starts. Unable to follow his older brother to Yale because of poor eyesight, he had gone through two failed courtships, suffered from dyspepsia, and was getting a reputation as something of a dabbler—the sort of man about whom relatives whisper with sympathy tinged with contempt. His substitute for formal education was eclectic reading and traveling (he went to China on a merchant ship at the age of twenty-one), which kept his mind open, expectant, and restless even as he fretted about the amateurishness of which he stood accused. Rybczynski speculates that he chose the name “Tosomock” for the Staten Island farm by combining the words “toss” and “amock.” In early 1850, still restless, he wrote his father a letter that Rybczynski says would be “almost comical were it not also touching.” “I have found that my men are all ambitious to do their best when I am absent,” he wrote, announcing his wish to travel to England with his brother and their friend Charles Loring Brace, the future founder of the Children’s Aid Society, to observe British farming techniques.
Rybczynski, whose charming and inventive book Home: The Short History of an Idea (1986) established him as a writer adept at narrating how the private world we take for granted came into being, now turns to the story of how one unpromising man shaped what is sometimes called the “public square” in which we live and move. The story begins in earnest with the trip to England—a country, as Rybczynski remarks, that “became the touchstone for Olmsted’s ideas about rural scenery.” He arrived there in what Olmsted described as “sunny, leafy, blooming May…with hedges, English hedges, hawthorn hedges, all in blossom [and] the mild sun beaming through the watery atmosphere.”
Rybczynski writes about the landscape in the present tense as if he were looking over the great man’s shoulder while Olmsted discovers a country spared, in Rybczynski’s words, “the scorching summers and freezing winters that annually batter the American landscape,” where “the land is not only gentler; it appears more tended [and] the wilderness disappeared a long time ago—much of the country is a garden.” It was in England that Olmsted began to recognize what his New England forebears would have described as his “calling” (the term “landscape architect” did not yet exist). A few years earlier, Edgar Allan Poe had written an eerily prophetic story, “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), about a man of similar longings and unfulfilled gifts:
No definition had spoken of the landscape-gardener as of the poet; yet it seemed to my friend that the creation of the landscape-garden offered to the proper Muse the most magnificent of opportunities…. In the multiform and multicolor of the flower and the trees, he recognized the most direct and energetic efforts of Nature at physical loveliness. And in the direction or concentration of this effort—or, more properly, in its adaptation to the eyes which were to behold it on earth—he perceived that he should be employing the best means—laboring to the greatest advantage—in the fulfilment, not only of his own destiny as poet, but of the august purposes for which the Deity had implanted the poetic sentiment in man.
In Poe’s story, the man possessed with these ambitions is immensely rich, and roams the earth until he finds “an elevated table-land of wonderful fertility,” which he buys and turns into his private artifact. Olmsted had to wait. Needing to make a living, he accepted an assignment in 1852 from Henry Raymond, editor of the fledgling New-York Daily Times, to travel in the South and send back a series of dispatches about Southern life. What he found was, to his mind, a failed civilization, which he described with irony aimed as much at Northerners wary of fugitive blacks as at Southerners committed to white supremacy: “When the negro is definitely a slave, it would seem that the alleged natural antipathy of the white race to associate with him is lost.” Olmsted thought he was seeing a world of indolence and brutality (he had witnessed the caning of slaves) in which self-reliant, disciplined individuals of the New England type were becoming extinct on both sides of the racial divide. And, he thought, the results of their extinction were written on the Southern landscape itself—which appeared to him as an uncultivated land of lonely roads clogged by packs of “long, lank, bony, snake-headed, hairy, wild” hogs. Only occasionally did one catch sight of a house set back, like Poe’s House of Usher, “with no distinct path leading towards it out of the waggon-track.” Distorted, partial, and partisan as it may have been, Olmsted’s was a devastating portrait (especially since he had begun as a moderate on the slavery question) of a culture that had pretensions to emulate the classical ideals of honor and otium, but that had become dissolute and violent.
Rybczynski devotes an interesting chapter to the contrast Olmsted encountered on a second trip two years later to San Antonio and elsewhere in Texas, where he visited several communities of German emigrants who, “undebilitated by mastership or slaveship,” had created a civic culture with thriving newspapers, free schools, music, gardening and political clubs, and a wide array of tradesmen’s shops. Here was confirmation of his view that the inner convictions of people express themselves in their outward surroundings—in this case in snug and clean houses situated in neighborly proximity to one another—and, just as important, that outward surroundings help to sustain inner convictions. It was all reminiscent, as Rybczynski remarks, of Olmsted’s native town of Hartford, Connecticut.
In the polyglot city of New York, however, where Olmsted was acquiring a reputation for intellectual distinction, there was no hope, or point, in trying to replicate the cozy regularity of a New England village. He had become too cosmopolitan for nostalgia. What he saw in New York—but never with the “let-them-be-damned” disgust felt then, as now, by many outsiders—was the specter of linked deterioration in the inner and outer life. It was a different syndrome from what he had encountered in the South, but no less ominous. As the city choked itself off from light and air (Melville, in his great story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” , described the view from a Wall Street office window as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life”’), and gave itself over entirely to the rush and struggle of commerce, it seemed to be cutting itself off from the civic good will of its citizens. New York was acquiring its modern character as a composite of discrete and sharply bordered neighborhoods, and in the process was becoming a city without much open space or a common center.
As early as 1844, the journalist, poet, and editor William Cullen Bryant—after whom the recently restored Bryant Park just west of the New York Public Library is named—had published an editorial in the Evening Post calling for a new city park whose advocates hoped it would function as the “lungs of the city.” By the late 1840s, there was talk of enlarging the ten-acre Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan by hauling in landfill (a technique that, in our own time, has created such add-ons to Manhattan island as Battery Park City), while other candidates for a “people’s park” included the 150 acres known as Jones Wood, between 66th and 75th Streets and Third Avenue and the East River.
There was no precedent for setting aside a large expanse of land within a growing city for the sole purpose of public recreation. The great gardens Olmsted had visited in England, such as Trentham or Kew, belonged to private or royal estates; and even in putatively democratic New York, earlier parks such as Gramercy and St. John’s (which was located near the present-day entrance to the Holland Tunnel) were gated, locked, and accessible only to privileged keyholders who, since they were visible through the fences, were duly resented by the excluded public. Like many New York stories, the story of how a great democratic park came into being in the roiling city is a mixture of civic altruism and private greed. Battery Park and Jones Wood proved inadequate to the need, and when the new park was finally assigned to the area between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, and between 59th and 106th Streets (the northward expansion to 110th Street took place in 1863), it was much vaster than any earlier plan had envisioned—nearly 800 acres.
In the process, fortunes were made and lost. Landowners whose lots fell within its boundaries (not to mention the nearly two thousand “squatters” who, without recognized land deeds, were simply evicted) cried foul at the buyouts imposed on them by the city’s Commission of Estimate. In what the historians Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar call “the first known proposal for a Central Park statue,” one angry landowner demanded that a “monument of brass on which shall be inscribed the complete history of this transaction” be erected in the park as visible testimony to the fraud.1 Yet if some were forced to sell at big losses, others who owned property adjacent to the new park enjoyed big gains, since their property values rose while the assessments they were required to pay to the city were relatively modest. Most of the cost of buying the parkland, and, later, of constructing the park, fell to the taxpayers.
The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 83.↩
The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 83.↩