November 5, 2019
Just home from a week in New York, at its October best. My lodging is as near Central Park as you can get, and I spent all my spare hours walking in this extraordinary playground landscape. Thirty years ago it was a crime-ridden wasteland. To walk there after dark (or even before) was not advised. Then in 1980 mayor Ed Koch initiated The Park Conservatory and put Betsy Barlow Rogers in charge as its first administrator.
I first met Betsy in the late 1960s at a radio station when we were both promoting our respective first books. Hers was on The Wetlands of New York; mine was on wine. Last week we had lunch on a golden autumn afternoon at The Boathouse overlooking one of the lakes and recalled how the park, covering 843 acres, was created in the heart of Manhattan, pretty much with shovel and barrow. Frederick Law Olmsted and the English architect Calvert Vaux, its creators, were inspired by the new park at Birkenhead on Merseyside, designed by Joseph Paxton, one of the first to be created to be open for the public to enjoy.
Birkenhead was finished in 1847. Olmsted arrived in Liverpool in 1850. He wrote ‘I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as has evidently been employed. I will only tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constantly varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with exemplary neatness! In democratic America there is nothing to be thought of as comparable to this people’s garden.’
Olmsted’s Manhattan site was more problematic; marshy, among huge up-rearing grey rocks, partly built over in the voracious development of the city, almost desolate of vegetation. His vision was a pleasure ground on an unprecedented scale, shaded with the glorious variety of America’s trees, embracing the pastoral (the sheep meadow), the romantic (a castle overlooking a lake), the monumental, the frivolous, the untamed, the useful, the whimsical….. every genre and mood of gardening. Among the early visitors was the essayist Oliver Wendel Holmes, who wrote: “The Central Park is an expanse of wild country well crumpled so as to form ridges which will give views, and hollows that will hold water. The hips and elbows and other bones of nature stick out here and there in the shape of rocks which give character to the scenery, and an unchangeable, unpurchasable look to a landscape that without them would have been in danger of being fattened by art and money out of all its native features. The roads were fine, the sheets of water beautiful, the bridges handsome, the swans elegant in their deportment, the grass green and as short as a fast horse’s winter coat….”
It was a stupendous task to construct and is even more of a challenge to maintain. So its current state, a bustling resort where every visitor feels at home, safe, stimulated, active, absorbed, pop-eyed with discoveries, is an extraordinary achievement – for which Betsy deserves much of the credit.