Central Park

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

In the 19th century, New York City was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. 

However, it was still a very young city, and as such, the city’s leaders were able to take a step back and plan what exactly they wanted to future of the city to be. 

What they decided was that the city needed a park. Not just any park, but a great park that took up an enormous part of Manhattan Island. 

Learn more about Central Park and how it became one of the world’s greatest parks on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you have ever seen an aerial or satellite view of the island of Manhattan, you will immediately notice one thing that sticks out amid the blocks of grey. 

A long green rectangle is right in the heart of the island. 

It is so large and so different from its surroundings that it seems out of place. Almost everywhere else on the island is packed with tall buildings covering almost every block. 

That giant green rectangle is Central Park.  

Central Park wasn’t an accident. It was purposefully created and was designed to be an integral part of the city. 

To understand how Central Park came to be, you first need to know the history of Manhattan and New York City. 

New York, originally settled by the Dutch and called New Amsterdam, was chosen because of its excellent location. It had a massive natural harbor at the mouth of the Hudson River, which gave it direct access to the interior of New York State.

The original settlement was on the tip of the island of Manhattan, and despite its importance as a port, the settlement grew slowly. 

At the time of the Revolutionary War, New York had a population of only 20,000. In comparison, at the time, London had a population of 750,000 people. 

Almost everyone in New York lived on the southern tip of the island. The rest of the island was woods and farmland.

After independence, the city’s population exploded, and it mostly began growing northward from its original location at the southern tip of the island.

By the mid-19th century, New York had grown to a population of over 500,000 people, and its growth wasn’t slowing down. Most of the population at this time lived south of what is today 40th Street. 

Unlike other great cities of the world, which New York was fast becoming, they had an opportunity to plan the future growth of the city. Something that most great cities in Europe or Asia never did because they grew organically over long periods of time. 

The Commissioners Plan of 1811 was a wide-ranging plan for the growth of the city on the island of Manhattan. The plan created the grid system of streets and avenues that exists today. In fact, if you look at a map of New York, you’ll notice how the streets in the southern part of Manhattan are not at all aligned in a grid and are more European. Then, roughly north of Houston Street, I’m sorry, Houston Street, the grid begins. 

The grid, as planned, extended to the top of the island and included several small parks that would break up the grid in a few locations. 

By the mid-19th century, a movement was underway which had people appreciating nature for its own sake. This was embodied in Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, which was published in 1854. In the book, he suggested that every American city should set aside land for a “primitive forest” in order to “preserve all the advantages of living in the country.”

Even before Thoreau, in 1840, there were already calls for the creation of a large park, greater in size than any of the public squares in the city that had existed before. 

The idea caught on as the northern part of the island was still mostly undeveloped. 

One of the biggest advocates of a park was William Cullen Bryant, the editor of the New York Evening Post. As early as 1844, he was advocating for the park, saying,  “It’s good for your health, good for the city, good for all these things…”

By 1851, it had the support of the city’s mayor, Ambrose Kingsland. He brought the idea for the creation of a large to the city council, and they endorsed it. 

The first step was to find a place to build the park. The first location was Jones’s Wood, located on the Upper East Side. Today, it’s the neighborhood known as Lenox Hill. 

The idea was rejected because of cost and because it was rather small. 

A second location was selected, which was dubbed Central Park for its central location on the island. It was located between 59th and 106th streets between Fifth and Eighth avenues. One of the reasons why the location was selected was because a large reservoir that already existed on the land. 

In 1853, the New York Common Council approved the site, and that same year, the State of New York approved the Central Park Act, which provided funds to purchase the land.

The land was not the best land on Manhattan for building. Much of it was rocky which didn’t make for a good building foundation, but was fine for a park.

There was, however, a small problem. There were some people who lived on the land. Most of them lived in small villages, and one in particular, Seneca Village, was the largest.

Seneca Village was populated mainly by freed African Americans, along with some Irish and German immigrants. At the time, Seneca Village represented 20% of all the property-owning African Americans in New York City.

The people of Seneca Village, over 1,600 of them,  ended up being forcibly removed from their homes due to eminent domain. 

The total cost of purchasing the land in Central Park, 838 acred, was 7.4 million dollars. Just to put that into perspective, when the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, they only spent 7.2 million dollars, even though the size of Alaska is over 508,000 times greater. 

Finally, after years of preparation, a public contest was held for people to submit designs for the park. The commission had very specific requirements for any of the proposals. The park had to have a parade ground, a principal fountain, a lookout tower, a skating arena, four cross streets, and a place for an exhibition or a concert hall.

There were 32 submissions, and the winning proposal was by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Their proposal was called the “Greensward Plan.”

Most of the proposals tried to integrate the park into the city. The Greensward Plan however, opted for a clear distinction between park and city. The design of the park was largely inspired by Birkenhead Park in Birkenhead, England, which is considered to be the world’s first publicly funded park city park.

Creating the park was not simply a matter of preserving space in the city, the park had to be actively developed. Roads and walking trails had to be built. Swamps had to be drained and an incredible volume of soil and rock had to be moved. 140,000 cubic meters of rock and soil were moved and there was more gunpowder used in the Battle of Gettysburgh. 

Likewise, because of the poor soil in the park, more than 18,000 cubic meters of top soil had to be brought into the park.

The roads going through the park are sunken, so they can’t be seen. The paths and roads in the park are seldom straight because they designers wanted to discourage people from carriage racing.

Parts of the park opened sooner than others. The first section to open in December 1858 was The Lake in the middle western part of the park. 

In 1859, the city purchased 65 more acres of land in the north from 106th to 110th Street.

Construction on the park continued throughout the entire decade of the 1860s, right through the American Civil War. 

In 1870, the park and its construction came under the control of Tammany Hall, the political machine that ran New York. Boss Tweed, the leader of Tammany Hall, abolished the board overseeing the park and installed his men instead. 

However, this resulted in Olmsted and Vaux resigning from the commission in late 1870. However, this didn’t last long as Tweed was arrested in an embezzlement scandal in 1871, and the members of the commission were replaced with Olmsted and Vaux being rehired.

In 1872, two areas in the park were set aside for two of its largest and most important construction projects. On the west side, what was known as Manhattan Square was to become the American Museum of Natural History. 

On the east side of the park was to be the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Both museums are significant enough to be subjects of their own future episodes. 

After eighteen years of construction and the piecemeal opening of parts of the park, Central Park was finally and officially considered complete in 1876. 

Even though the park was quote-unquote done, that doesn’t mean construction and development stopped. 

From approximately 1880 to 1930, several iconic structures were built, including Belvedere Castle, the Bethesda Terrace, and the Central Park Zoo. Various statues and monuments were also erected.

The park saw various rises and falls over the years. It would fall into disrepair and then undergo renovations. More changes and additions took place, especially during the Great Depression. 

An area known as Sheep Meadow actually had sheep in it, but they were eventually removed because of the construction of the Tavern on the Green restaurant. 

In 1935, carriage rides returned to the park after an absence of several decades and today remain a popular feature. 

The 1960s saw the creation of an ice skating rink and the start of the Shakespeare in the Park program. 

One of the things about Central Park that is interesting to ponder is its economic value. 

There are a couple of ways you can look at the economic value of Central Park. One of which is what it does to real estate prices in New York. 

Apartments that overlook Central Park and apartments that are near Central Park have a premium. 

One local park advocacy group estimates that Central Park adds $26 billion dollars to the property values of the real estate around the park. This alone adds over one billion dollars per year to the revenue of New York City. 

Perhaps a more interesting question is, what would the land value of Central Park be today? Central Park is the largest remaining block of undeveloped space in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets. 

While no one is suggesting that Central Park should be sold, and it certainly never would be, it is an interesting question. 

For starters, it is difficult to price undeveloped land in New York City because, for all practical purposes, there is none.  Almost all land values in the city assume the value of the buildings that are on it. 

Second, the value of the buildings around Central Park varies dramatically. The land across from the southern end of the park is some of the most expensive real estate in the world. On the northern end of the park, near Harlem, prices are much less. 

So, let’s assume an average value of $1000 per square foot of undeveloped land, which actually might be an underestimate. Next, there are 838 acres of land in Central Park, and there are 43,560 square feet per acre of land, which means there are 36,503,280 square feet of land in Central Park.

That includes everything, including the lakes, ponds, and buildings, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Using these estimates, the approximate entire land value of Central Park, using Manhattan prices, is $36.5 billion dollars.

These price estimates are based on land around Central Park, which has value because of Central Park. Remove Central Park, and suddenly, that value isn’t as high. 

The interesting thing is that the increased value of properties around Central Park isn’t that far off from the theoretical land value of Central Park itself. That means there might not even be an economic justification for ever developing Central Park.

Central Park is one of the great urban parks in the world. It is a massive swath of green right in the middle of one of the largest, most densely populated cities in the world.

It exists because of planning and foresight in the 19th century, which created the park before it became overwhelmed by the growth of the city.