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A Walk Through Central Park - With David Hartman and Historian Barry Lewis Thirteen/WNET
Take a Stroll About the Program About Central Park Resources
A Walk Through Central Park - With David Hartman and Historian Barry Lewis
Rotating photos of Central Park
From the wide-open Great Lawn...
In the first half of the 19th century, the number of New York City residents increased from 60,000 to more than 500,000, mostly the result of a tremendous wave of immigration to Lower Manhattan beginning in the 1830s. In a city becoming more and more crowded and industrialized, many New Yorkers in search of pastoral diversion found themselves with no better option than Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. City leaders realized that change was essential, and plans for a large public park took hold; from 1853 to 1856, city commissioners secured land -- which was mostly, though not completely, undeveloped -- from 59th Street to 106th Street in the middle of Manhattan. (The Park would later expand four blocks north to 110th Street.) Thus began the process of creating New York's one and only Central Park.

Submitting their "Greensward Plan" to the 1858 public competition, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux earned the honor and responsibilities of designing the park. Their vision of the park eschewed New York's urban realities: "Nature first, second, and third -- architecture after a while." Yet aside from its rocky outcrops, the park's features would be completely manmade; even the water running through the Ramble is turned on and off with a water tap.

The plan was especially ambitious because of the area's terrain: the rocky and swampy land was a challenge to manipulate, and the soil there could not sustain the greenery Olmsted and Vaux had envisioned. Building the Park was a painstaking process that involved removing rock and mud; constructing bridges, lakes, and other artificial structures; carting in topsoil from New Jersey; introducing more than four million trees, plants, and shrubs (representing more than 1,400 species) to a new environment; and many other tasks, all of which were performed by people or horses. The Herculean feat of completing the Park would take 20 years.

Since its initial construction, the Park has remained in a steady state of flux. For example, Olmsted and Vaux made no mention of a Great Lawn; when they designed the Park, they had no intention of interfering with what was then the Croton Reservoir, an important source of the city's drinking water. In 1931, several years after the reservoir was rendered obsolete, it was filled in and construction began of the Great Lawn. Following decades of heavy use, the location had lost its greatness and earned the moniker of "the Great Dustbowl." But the Great Lawn, like the Park as a whole, has made a strong comeback and is now one of the Park's most popular attractions. Recent improvements to the Park are the result, in large part, of the collaboration between the City and the Central Park Conservancy, which was established in 1980.

Today, the 843 acres that comprise Central Park remain, as always, a peaceful oasis amid the whirlwind of urban life. Friends gather for frisbee or croquet on sunny afternoons. Master storytellers mesmerize children and grown-ups alike. Rollerbladers and cyclists zip along shady paths. For birdwatchers, rock climbers, model yachters, and concert-goers, few spots in the city offer the same wide open spaces, green environs and casual, relaxed atmosphere.

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