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Frederick Law Olmsted, on Central Park  (1870)

Olmsted was the landscape architect who built New York Cityís Central Park as well as Prospect Park in Brooklyn and a host of other parks throughout the nation.  As you read, think carefully about how the construction of Central Park might been seen as an example of an early progressive reform.

At one time nearly four thousand laborers were employed; and for a year at one point, work went on night and day....

For practical and every-day purposes to the great mass of people the Park might as well be a hundred miles away.  There are hundred of thousands who have never seen it, more... who have seen it only on a Sunday or holiday.  The children of the city to whom it should be of the greatest use, can only get to it on holidays or in vacations....

During the last four years over thirty million visits have been made to the Park by actual count, and many have passed uncounted.  From fifty to eighty thousand persons on foot, thirty thousand in carriages, and four to five thousand on horseback, have often entered it in a day.

Among the frequent visitors, I have found all those who, a few years ago, believed it impossible that there should ever be a park in this republican country ­ and especially in New York of all places in this country ­ which would be a suitable place of resort for "gentlemen." They, their wives and daughters, frequent the park  more than they do the opera or the church.

As to the effect on public health, there is no question that it is already great.  The testimony of the older physicians of the city will be found unanimous on this point.  Says one, "Where I formerly ordered patients of a certain class to give up their business altogether and go out of town, I now often advise simply moderation, and prescribe a rise in the Park before going to their offices, and again a drive with their families before dinner.  By simply adopting this course as a habit, men... are able to retain an active and controlling influence in an important business, from which they would have otherwise been forced to retire....

The lives of women and children too poor to be sent to the country, can now be saved in thousands of instances, by making them go to the Park.  During a hot day in July last, I counted... eighteen separate groups, consisting of mother with their children... taking picnic dinners which they had brought from home with them.  The practice is increasing under medical advice, especially when summer complaint is rife.

The much greater rapidity with which patients convalesce, and may be returned to safety to their ordinary occupations after severe illness, when they can be sent to the Park for a few hours a day, is beginning to be understood.  The addition thus made to the productive labor of the city is not unimportant.

The Park, moreover, has had a very marked effect in making the city attractive to visitors, and in thus increasing its trade, and causing many who have made fortunes elsewhere to take up their residence and become taxpayers in it ­ a much greater effect in this way... than all the colleges, schools, libraries, museums and art-galleries which the city possesses.

[As the Herald says], "When one is inclined to despair in the country, let him go to the Central Park on a Saturday, and spend a few hours there in looking at the people, not at those who come in gorgeous carriages, but those who arrive on foot, or in those exceedingly democratic conveyances, the street cars.... We regret to say that the more brilliant becomes the display of vehicles and toilettes, the more shameful is the display of bad manners on the part of the ­ extremely fine-looking people who ride in carriages and wear the fine dresses.  We must add that the pedestrians always behave well."

Here we touch a fact of more values to social science than any other in the history of the Park; but to fully set it before you would take an evening by itself.  The difficulty of preventing ruffianism and disorder in a park to be frequented indiscriminately by such a population as that of New York, was from the first regarded as the greatest of all [concerns]  which the commission had to meet, and the means of overcoming it cost more study than all other things.

It is, perhaps, too soon to judge of the value of the expedients resorted to, but there are as yet a great many parents who are willing to trust their school-girl daughters to ramble without special protection in the Park, as they would almost nowhere else in New York.  One is no more likely to see ruffianism or indecencies in the Park than in the churches, and the arrests for offenses of all classes, including the most venial, which arise simply from the ignorance of country people, have amounted to but twenty in the million of the number of visitors, and of these, an exceedingly small proportion have been of that class which was so confidently expected to take possession of the Park and make it a place unsafe and unfit for decent people...

Jeremy Bentham, in treating of "The Means of Preventing Crimes," remarks that any innocent amusement that the human heart can invent is useful under a double point of view: first, for the pleasure itself which results from it; second, from its tendency to weaken the dangerous inclinations which man derives from his nature.

No one who has closely observed the conduct of the people who visit the Park, can doubt that it exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city ­ an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance.

At three or four points in the midst of the Park, beer, wine and cider are sold with other refreshments to visitors, not at bars, but served at tables where men sit in company with women.  Whatever harm may have resulted, it has apparently had the good effect of preventing the establishment of drinking-places on the borders of the Park, these not having increased in number since it was opened, as it was originally supposed they would.

I have never seen or heard of a man or woman the worse for liquor taken at the Park, except in a few instances where visitors had brought it with them, and in which it had been drank secretly and unsocially.  The present arrangements for refreshments I should say are makeshift and most discordant with the design.

Every Sunday in summer from thirty to forty thousand persons, on an average, enter the Park on foot, the number on a very fine day being sometimes nearly a hundred thousand. While most of the grog-shops of the city were effectively closed by the police under the Excise Law on Sunday, the number of visitors to the Park was considerably larger than before.  There was no similar increase at the churches.

Shortly after the Park first became attractive, and before any serious attempt was made to interfere with the Sunday liquor trade, the [Parkís] head-keeper told me that he saw among the visitors the proprietor of one of the largest "saloons" in the city.  He accosted him and expressed some surprise; the man replied, "I came to see what the devil youíd got here that took off so many of my Sunday customers."

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