We did an exploration earlier where we uncovered the fact that Central Park was an invention by man. Today, let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon of urban planning, and see how the utility of Central Park as an event venue has shaped the culture of New York City.
As with most outdoor public venues in New York City, Central Park truly comes alive in the summertime, when the City Parks Foundation hosts a season-long program called the Summerstage that it’s been doing for the last 30 years. Free shows at Central Park and dozens of other parks around the city, with performances by world class artists ranging from the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, to EDM and hip hop, to theater performances and poetry readings.
See, the historical hub of activities in Manhattan didn’t start anywhere from the north. Rather, it was in today’s Lower Manhattan, the southern tip of the island, where the Dutch first sailed in and established a settlement in the 1620s. In true New Yorker sentiment, the Native Americans who lived here found this influx of tourists to be incredibly annoying, so they proceeded to mount violent attacks on these Dutch settlers. The settlers built a wall, stretching what is today known as Wall Street, to protect themselves against these natives, and for the next 150 years until the United States of America was formed, virtually all colonial activity in Manhattan took place in this region south of Wall Street.
Manhattan was an instrumental location in the Revolutionary War and the decade that followed. The Treaty of Paris that ended the war was signed in 1783, and Washington DC wasn’t organized as our nation’s Capitol until 1801. In the interim, a number of sites served in different times as temporary capitols for this country, and Manhattan was for George Washington’s first inauguration and his first year as President, the Capitol of the United States of America.
Even in these decades before the Manifest Destiny was officially defined, early New Yorkers felt the need to increase their presence on the land, and throughout the 1790’s there has been urban planning efforts made to design the entirety of this 30 square mile island. These efforts all culminated to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, arguably the most ingenious plan in urban design ever proposed in the history of human civilization.
You see, people in the 19th Century were not the treehugging environmentalists that we are today. The Plan of 1811 that has shaped Manhattan forever since into the beautiful grid-style city that it still is today, was designed literally on the principle that we distrusted nature and that we should set out to impose human order onto the environment. So as you might imagine, Central Park was originally not part of this plan…
Central Park was invented in 1857, after decades worth of influential New Yorkers complaining in jealously of how their friends in London and Paris all get to hang out in iconic urban parks, while the only nature they get in New York were the swamps and cemeteries. The city finally caved in and modified their Plan of 1811 for an 843 acre plot of land to be zoned for the design of a great urban park.
You might imagine that Central Park was popular ever since it opened, but interestingly enough, the park was an economic and social disaster for nearly its first century of existence. Nobody maintained it, the city governance still hubbed in Lower Manhattan didn’t care about it, and the commercial activity that spread north didn’t really (and to this day still hasn’t really) expand anywhere northward of Times Square. In fact, the whole notion of the Upper East Side being the historical gathering-place for the American old money families was founded on the fact that nobody came up to Central Park in the early decades that it was built, so the Carnegies and Rockefellers and all the other industrialists had the space up there to build townhomes and mansions larger than they could anywhere south of the Park.
It really wasn’t until the 1960’s that Central Park started becoming the cultural icon that it is today. Along with the rest of America, newfound wealth after WWII enabled tremendous improvements to be made for the then-dilapidated Central Park, and new city governance made a priority of seeing it through. The Park became a major venue used for social movement rallies and protests, the Lincoln Center of Performing Arts was built right at the Park’s southwest corner, and by the 1976, New York City officially established its Department of Parks and Recreation. The Central Park area became a hub of cultural activity in New York City. In partnership with the Lincoln Center, Central Park began hosting its summer programs of opera shows and orchestral performances, and the utility of the space as a summertime event venue has evolved ever since into what makes it an icon today.
See you at the next exploration!