A Once and Future Greensward

By Ana Daniel
Elizabeth Barlow Rogers Michael Lionstar

“Saving Central Park”
Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
Knopf, $30

This book enfolds many stories and observations of significance to those who value nature — be it in conservation areas or in the wild. It is timely because we are in a laissez-faire period when nature in urban spaces, national parks, and the wilderness is threatened with incursion and neglect.

Elizabeth (Betsy) Barlow Rogers’s saga of Central Park in Manhattan from its creation through many ups and downs to its present state of conservation holds many lessons: historical, political, horticultural, philosophical, personal — and feminist. It is rich and complicated. For this reader — a New Yorker fully on board with Ms. Rogers’s objectives for the park, which, believe it or not, are not universally supported — there are several threads of special interest. They cut through the narrative, but I will take them one by one for the purposes of this review.

The overarching story is the history of the park, which today occupies 843 acres, 51 blocks long and three avenues wide. It starts in 1857, when Frederick Law Olmsted and his architect partner, Calvert Vaux, won the design competition for the transformation of what was still then a “ragged . . . wasteland” north of the city’s center of gravity into what the city fathers intended “to be a people’s park open to all classes of society.” In this phrase lies the seed of a conflict that would afflict the destiny of Olmsted’s creation up to the present time and which makes up a considerable portion of Ms. Rogers’s narrative.

Stepping back to Olmsted and Vaux’s creation, we learn that their aesthetic was Romantic, aiming to produce a “landscape devoted to scenic recreation,” and that “the park’s broad vistas . . . were scenically framed like the views found in landscape paintings.” Olmsted “looked at trees not so much as a botanist or gardener would, but rather as the arboreal palette of the landscape artist.” To this end, “five million trees, shrubs, and vines were ordered from commercial nurseries or propagated . . . within the park to cultivate seedling plants.” The whole thing was accomplished in 15 years! 

As with everything in politics, the ideal of a “people’s park” has been subject to opposing interpretations. Ms. Rogers takes us through the back-and-forth phases of populism versus elitism that have alternated over the 161 years since the park’s creation. She characterizes a parking lot added in 1962 as an “eyesore [that] exemplifies the opposition between the modernist aesthetic of the mid-twentieth century and the nineteenth-century Olmstedian Picturesque.” 

Her bias is against the anti-populist side because it is anti-conservationist. She is firmly committed to the preservation of Olmsted’s creation in its original design and, to that end, led the way to creating the Central Park Conservancy in 1980, which she headed until her retirement in 1995.

In opposition, we learn of the depredations of the Robert Moses years (1934 to 1961) and the “anything goes” administration of Thomas Hoving during the “happening” ’60s, which left the park with “fifty thousand square feet of graffiti covering every conceivable hard surface.” Democratic Party administrations appear as both neglectful and obstructionist. Bottom line, $1 billion of private money, raised by the Conservancy, saved the park.

“Saving Central Park” is also Ms. Barlow Rogers’s memoir, starting with a comfortable and traditional postwar girlhood in San Antonio, where she was “imprinted” with a love of landscapes, followed by an intellectually transformative education as an art major at Wellesley College, then a master’s degree in city planning at Yale.

It is starting at this point in her development that Ms. Rogers traces what she sees as the parallels between herself and the park’s creator: “Like Olmsted, I have continually found myself at pains to make people understand that, as with a painting, an actual landscape should be read in terms of foreground, middle ground, and background . . . that both natural and designed landscapes should be seen as holistic compositions in which the spatial frame itself, rather than the objects within it, is preeminent.” When marriage brought her to live in New York, this spiritual partnership was born.

A second autobiographical parallel in this story lies in the evolution of women’s position in society, from the 1950s, when a “girl’s (we twenty-one-year-olds weren’t yet referred to as women) diploma did not carry with it the assumption that she was prepared to work outside the home,” via the ’70s — Betty Friedan, Rachel Carson, and the urbanist Jane Jacobs — to the present relative equality of women. 

Along the way, of possible interest to readers on the East End, there is a chapter-long digression into the creation and development of the author’s own garden in Wainscott.

Organizing to save Central Park was also the vehicle of her professional formation as a manager and leader (she is also the author of a number of titles related to horticulture). Through a number of political administrations, she learned how to mediate the conflict between authority (the city that owns the park) and autonomy (the priorities of the Conservancy) and the philosophical rivalry between the values of Olmsted versus Moses. We get a brief executive tutorial in the chapter headed “Growing Pains”: “Was it really true that predictability and expectation were more congenial than innovation to most of my employees?” In most cases, yes, she concludes. 

At the end of the story, Betsy Barlow Rogers has achieved the dual goals of saving the park in Olmsted’s image and securing political acceptance of the Conservancy’s prerogatives: “No longer was the concept of private-sector support for parks resisted by city officials, and opposition within the Parks Department to the Conservancy’s right to assume control over the design and implementation of capital projects within Central Park had been dispelled at last.”

Let us hope this conclusion holds and that there will not be new grumbling about “rich people taking over the park.” Without this rus in urbe paradise this determined woman has done so much to preserve, Manhattan would become hell on earth. 

Ana Daniel is the special projects editor for The Southampton Review. She lives in Bridgehampton.

Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain in all its fall glory. Central Park Conservancy
The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center sits on Central Park’s Harlem Meer, a site once occupied by a “burned-out, heavily vandalized boathouse” built by Robert Moses in 1947, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers writes. Central Park Conservancy