Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Seen and the Unseen

One of the enduring miracles of New York City, undiminished by repeated visits and prolonged lingering, is Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in 1858, The Central Park, as it was called then, very quickly became, at least by 1870, exactly what Olmstead and Vaux had in mind: a place for all the people of New York, regardless of their wealth or station, to interact, mingle, and to learn to be together.

What we tend to forget and what a new documentary about Olmstead's Legacy focuses on, according to a review in the New York Times today, is the breathtaking vision and ambition of this project. Arguably bigger than all the highways and parkways promoted by Robert Moses, the Park had no obvious benefits or advocates. It didn't appear to assist commerce or to advance transportation opportunities. It was just a scrupulously planned park that truly was an attempt to improve on nature. After all, what Olmstead and Vaux were proposing, among other things, was adding thousands of trees to an area that only a few years earlier had been prepared for development by eliminating trees! The Park didn't have an obvious use even then. But the visionaries behind it knew it would make the City far more livable and help to democratize it at the same time.

As the documentary points out, the genius of the Park can be found most strongly in its unseen, constructed beauty. Just about everything that makes it a glorious place to visit is unnatural and human-made. Despite all the praise it has received, it remains still one of the underestimated products of the human mind. We New Yorkers, especially those close enough to enjoy it daily, can never forget how much we owe Olmstead and Vaux for helping to make this enormous urban landscape one of the most humane cities in the world.

Central Park is one of the few places I know of that can be described as inexhaustible. For this, as well, we have Olmstead and Vaux to thank.

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