This 1862 photograph shows the construction of Central Park. Note how the soil has been raked and the boulders placed in preparation for the landscaping that would come later.

This 1862 photograph shows the construction of Central Park. Note how the soil has been raked, the boulders placed, and the stone walls laid in preparation for the landscaping that would come later.

This week, in between hacking from the cough I seemingly cannot shake, I have been making progress on the Theodore Roosevelt Senior book. I have been focusing my energies at the moment on the 1850s, when the sectional crisis was intensifying. Many New Yorker had strong Southern sympathies and were ambivalent at best about slavery one way or the other. New York was also a notoriously cramped and squalid place, with its own concerns and provinciality. Ultimately all politics is local and New Yorkers were most concerned about their own increasingly dangerous and crowded streets. Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853 to combat at least some of the city’s social ills. He and Theodore Roosevelt Senior were active with the Aid Society for decades. The CAS exists today in the 21st century, doing much of the same work it has always done.

On July 21, 1853, around the time Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, the New York States Assembly passed the enabling legislation for what would eventually become Central Park. Five years later Frederick Law Olmsted and his colleague Calvert Vaux would win the design competition. It is lucky the park was ever finished, its construction coming as it did in the wake of the Panic of 1857 and the onset of the Civil War in 1861.

I say all this because Olmsted and Brace were best friends and shared many ideas about the city. For one thing, both passionately believed in the democratic and redemptive power that open land could have on a city’s populace. One must remember that there were few public parks in Manhattan at this time. It had no garden cemeteries either. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn had opened in 1838 as much to serve the needs of the living as the dead. Still that was a ways to come with no subways or Brooklyn Bridge to get you there. Thus a communal, public park was crucial for New York City’s future. These things are important to keep in mind when in a place such as Central or Prospect Parks. The tendency is to think they just put a fence around nature when nothing could be further from the truth. These are planned communities in every way.

(image/Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “View of the crossing in connection with 8th Ave. and 96th St. October 18, 1862.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1862. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/94b7acd9-dc7f-74f7-e040-e00a18063585)