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 Heckscher Playground   |   The Casino   |   Demands on the Park
Demands on the Park
By the 1920s automobile traffic was taking a much heavier toll on the drives than the carriages ever had, and no doubt the air pollution spewed out by the cars and by factories and coal-burning heating systems also took a toll on the trees and shrubs. Warmer winters, which limited the number of days when the ice froze, and changes in local fashion meant that ice skaters were no longer a major portion of park visitors -- and ice was the most easily renewable landscape resource. At the same time, loosened park regulations and enforcement practices were subjecting the lawns, a less easily renewable resource, to more intensive use. Further, new patterns of use required modernizing the infrastructure -- adding modern plumbing and sewers for comfort stations and electric lights on the paths at night. [Ch1492]

These demands on park department resources increased in a period of declining budgets. When the outbreak of World War I in 1914 prompted European creditors to call in their loans, New York faced a fiscal crisis; the Federal Reserve Board and private investment bankers dictated a new regime of financial stringency. Between 1913 and 1919, spending on Manhattan parks (in real dollars) dropped by half; not until the late 1920s would park appropriations return to the levels reached in the early 1910s. Whereas in the nineteenth century the park budget had overwhelmingly gone to Central Park, moreover, by 1916 only about 7 percent of the department budget was spent there, less than went to the maintenance of the American Museum of Natural History. [Ch1493] Indeed, the department was spending less on the park than it had fifty years earlier, though use was far more extensive.

Under budget constraints -- and the force of nature itself -- parts of the landscape deteriorated. Periodic droughts damaged the grass, topsoil eroded, and photographs show that most of the tall, vigorous elms that lined the Mall in the 1890s had died by the 1920s. The particularly severe winter of 1917-1918 killed off large numbers of other trees as well as most of the thirty thousand rhododendrons Mrs. Russell Sage had given to the park a decade earlier. Despite the problems of nature, "lack of appropriated money," the World noted in 1920 (around the low point in park spending for the entire twentieth century), was "the root of park evils of decay." [Ch1494] Central Park was expensive to maintain, and the parks department was not spending nearly enough money to maintain it properly. When spending finally began to rise after 1920 under Mayor Hylan, most of the money went first to higher wages to redress the losses of wartime inflation.

Still, the park never decayed as badly as critics said it did. In 1927 when the parks department hired Herman W. Merkel, superintendent of the Westchester County Park Commission, to survey its condition in preparation for a million-dollar rehabilitation, his report did document numerous instances of deterioration: the appearance of the Ramble and the northern park was "disreputable," and there was an "appalling number of wholly or partially dead trees," which gave the park "a neglected and unkempt appearance." But his overall conclusions were measured. "In general," Merkel wrote, "the condition of Central Park is fairly good." He labeled "much of the criticism which has appeared in the public press" as "unjust" and argued that despite "over-use" Central Park "today contains an infinite amount of charming vistas, of splendid greensward and magnificent trees." [Ch1495] Merkel's survey reminds us that for all its urban characteristics and woes, the park still remained pastoral.


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