The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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The Idea of a Great Park   |   The First Park Proposal   |   The Great Park Debate
Taking the Land   |   The Design Competition   |   The Victors
The Greensward Plan   |   The Debate over the Greensward Plan   |   Building the Park   

Taking the Land
The group with the greatest reason for seeing the creation of Central Park as a violent act -- the sixteen hundred or so people who lived on the land and would lose their homes -- had not figured in the considerations of public officials. Those who dwelled on the park site, mostly poor immigrants and African Americans, had no power to make or influence policy decisions.

In the fall of 1853, New York City still did not have a grand landscaped park -- only a law authorizing one. Before the rocks and swamps covering the two and a half miles between 59th and 106th streets could be transformed into a scenic "natural" park, New York City would need to take the land, finance that acquisition, and remove the people who lived there. In the process, the physical and social landscape of upper Manhattan would be permanently reshaped.

For almost two years, beginning in the fall of 1853, the commission of estimate surveyed and assessed the thirty-four thousand lots in and around the Central Park site. [Ch349] No doubt the massive size of the task prolonged their labors, but the commissioners may also have hesitated to release a report some New Yorkers would find unsettling. Central Park, it turned out, was going to cost a good deal more than the public had been led to believe, and the benefit assessments were going to cover a good deal less of the price.

When the commission finally deposited its report for public examination on October 4, 1855, taxpayers learned that they would be paying $5 million just for the park land, more than three times what they had been told the completed park as a whole would cost. At the same time, the portion of the bill covered by assessing adjacent landowners -- $1.7 million, or one-third of the purchase price -- would be considerably less than the more optimistic of the earlier estimates. But if taxpayers believed they were paying too much, owners of park land thought they were receiving too little. Many considered the seven hundred dollars per lot (on average) the commission offered inadequate; just two years earlier some of them had suggested that they expected about eight hundred dollars. [Ch350]

By the fall of 1857, the city had paid off most of the owners, collected most of the assessments, and cleared the park of most of its residents and structures. [Ch360]

Park residents experienced the end of their world in stages. First came the orders in the late spring of 1856 that they would henceforth have to pay rent to the city if they wanted to remain even temporarily in the houses and on the lots they had long occupied. Then almost simultaneously the city's invading troops appeared -- the nineteen members of the newly organized Central Park police assigned to "protect" what was now city property. With the police came a crackdown on practices that had been customary among park dwellers. The resident arrested in the summer of 1856 for selling the "park's stones," which he had broken up as street paving, was engaging in a "business" no one would have questioned six months earlier. Other park dwellers were probably similarly bewildered to find that cutting down trees for firewood was now considered a "crime." So too were the patrons of a dance hall in the upper park bewildered by a 3:00 a.m. raid by Central Park police. [Ch374]

When the city inspector ordered "the removal of the piggeries and other nuisances now existing on the Central Park grounds," a Times reporter found the Irish hog keepers reluctant to leave. Although the owners of piggeries faced eviction in the summer of 1856, other residents were allowed to stay on while the city tried to decide how it was going to go about financing the park's construction. The final eviction orders came at the worst possible moment. On October 1, 1857, the newspapers were filled with reports of the deepening panic and mounting unemployment but made no mention of the eviction of the park dwellers. The residents -- quietly and without violence -- left their homes. [Ch375]


The Idea of a Great Park   |   The First Park Proposal   |   The Great Park Debate
Taking the Land   |   The Design Competition   |   The Victors
The Greensward Plan   |   The Debate over the Greensward Plan   |   Building the Park