The demand for parks, with their groves, meadows, lakes, and rambles, dates back to the hanging gardens of Babylon, if not to the Garden of Eden. Mankind has always loved the open spaces, especially when shut up in cities; and to-day, whenever an odd acre comes into a city’s possession, its Common Council is straightway invited to make a park of it and name it after the last states-man of the town.
This demand does not come solely from those who feed the squirrels and study the birds. Everybody recognizes that parks are something of the country in the city, that they mean much pleasure to the town-dwellers, and are beautiful fields of color in a wilderness of steel and stone. Moreover, they are supposed to add to urban healthfulness. Settlement workers and city-beautiful folk talk about them as “the lungs of the city”; and possibly some fancy we should stop breathing without them. Naturally enough, they are considered desirable possessions.
But the lung metaphor is somewhat deceptive. The parks breathe for themselves, not for us. Trees, grass, flowers, and the open ground all absorb sunlight and air; they do not give them out. Instead of adding to our store they are taking away from us what they can. Of course, they help us negatively. The parks are attractive, we are drawn toward them and into the open; we thus get a larger quantity from the general supply of air and light than we otherwise would, and are benefited thereby. The result is the same and the conclusion reached is perhaps correct enough. The parks are breathing spaces of unquestionable value to the city’s health.
As regards the supply of fresh air perhaps New York is better off than is generally realized. Manhattan, it will be remembered, is an island with broad surrounding water-ways; and up and down these water-ways move winds that are forever changing and renewing the atmosphere of the city. There is never a day when the East River has not its breeze. The great wind areas of Long Island Sound and the Lower Bay are connected by this strait; and the air, like the water, draws through from one to the other. Blackwell’s Island in warm weather is cool when the Central Park is like an oven; and the East Siders, on their recreation piers, are comfortably enjoying the bands and the breezes while many a Fifth Avenue dinner party is gasping for breath behind a row of boxed bushes on the terrace of some fashionable restaurant.
The Hudson is no such wind-way as the East River. The air current through the Palisades and beyond is much slighter, and on some summer days it is almost non-existent. Usually, however, a breeze is stirring there, and in winter, with snow, the Hudson can furnish forth a gale to suit the taste of the most exacting. At all times it is a part of the circuit. Were it not, New York would be a much hotter place in summer than it is at present, which is something no sane citizen likes to think about.
Above the rivers and above the city there are still other movements of air the alternation and variation of land and sea breezes. Down in the small side streets they are not felt perhaps, but the high roof-gardens and the upper stories of the sky-scrapers are never without them. The flags up there are waving from their staffs, the white steam is cut off quickly from its pipe and blown away; the gray smoke streams out pennant-like and is soon lost. It is these breezes of the upper space that the sky-scraper gathers on its high walls and shunts down into the street, sometimes to the pedestrian’s disgust, and sometimes to his great relief. That the lower city has now cooler and better-ventilated streets than before the era of high buildings, there can be no question. To compensate for this the high buildings have cut off some light, and yet the darkening of the lower streets is not very apparent. Ex-change Place is always cited as an example of modern street gloom, but it was never other than a narrow alley at any time.
The air and the light of New York are excellent in both quantity and quality. That people build apartment-houses and offices to exclude them is unfortunately true. In utilizing every foot of rentable space, rooms have been constructed where neither air nor light can enter except in a crippled way. Unsanitary conditions are likely to arise from such economy, and, possibly, it’ is a recognition of this that drives so many apartment-house and tenement-house people to the parks. There, or promenading the streets or on a roof-garden, is about the only place where comparatively pure air and light are obtainable.
Quite contrary to the prevailing belief, New York is well supplied with parks. It is usually assumed that the Central Park is our one and only “lung”; whereas Manhattan, alone, has some thirty or more open spaces, distributed throughout the borough, and. doing service as parks or playgrounds. The dweller on the ridge, whose business is at one end of Broadway and his residence not far from the other end, knows only half a dozen. Stuyvesant Park with its fine trees, East River Park with its view of the water at Eighty-Fifth Street, and Jefferson Park opposite Little Hell Gate have probably escaped him. On the West Side the charming little Hudson Park with its trees and water garden and green grass is quite as unknown as the open grounds of the General Theological Seminary at Twenty-Second Street, or the Clinton and Audubon parks farther north. They are all open spaces, like Union Square and the Battery; and are greatly enjoyed by their own communities, though Fifth Avenue knows them not.
The Central Park is, however, the chief oasis, and one that New Yorkers are vastly proud of. It is the largest of the Manhattan parks, being two and a half miles long by half a mile wide and containing eight hundred and forty acres. In 1857 it was a denuded region sacred to swamps, rocks, refuse, and squatters. From that unhappy condition it was rescued by the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and converted into a beautiful piece of landscape. At the time of its taking over 1r. Olmsted said of it that it “had less desirable characteristics for a park” than any other six hundred acres on the island. Nevertheless, such natural features as it possessed hi hills, ravines, hollows, and waters were retained and emphasized. It was not made wholly artificial like the Boboli Gardens in Florence, nor allowed to run to mere grass and trees like the Prater in Vienna. The original endowment was cleverly utilized, and the stranger to-day does not know where nature leaves off and art begins. It is a beautiful blend of the two, resembling nothing so much as the well-kept grounds and gardens of some large country seat.
Yet the Central Park, for all its variety in water, hill, and meadow, its grace of roadways, bridle-paths, and foot-paths, its charm of color in trees and vines and flowers, has several notable defects. By reason of being imbedded in the city it is an interior park without a water front something that is sadly missed. Again, it lacks commanding ground, an eminence from which a view of the city or the surrounding country would be obtainable. Just now, hemmed in as it is by high apartment-houses and hotels, it begins to look cramped in its quarters. Still again, it has no large trees, nothing of the primeval forest. When the ground was taken over by the city fifty years ago, it was practically bare. Half a million trees, shrubs, and vines have been set out there since, and the result has been most astonishing. The trees now stand thick in spots, the undergrowth of shrubs is a delightful tangle, and the happy disposition of flowering bush and plant along the driveways calls for nothing but praise;. yet one misses the big trees of the Bronx and the Pelham Bay parks.
And once more (to go on with the defects of its character), the Central Park has not flat spaces enough to lend that quality of repose so essential in landscape. It is a series of turns, twists, elevations, and depressions, full of strange and beautiful surprises, stimulating, even exciting; but not restful or peaceful. Its scant Meadow, with its “babble of green fields,” does little more than suggest the rural. It is a meadow of a lovely if limited beauty, a city meadow nurtured by art. The whole park is like it a beautiful exotic, a rare orchid, ornate in form and distinguished in color; but not a field daisy, not a flower of the forest.
But those who drive in the Central Park every afternoon never think of its defects nor question its superiority. To them it is one of the loveliest spots in all the world. And in the early spring, when the jonquils and Forsythia are in bloom, when the young grass is just starting, and the stems and buds are reddening along the way, you are quite ready to agree with them. Nothing could be more charming than the park at this time, unless it is the same park later in the season when the azaleas and rhododendrons are out, or bushes like the syringa are in blossom. All through the summer there is change and variety in the bloom, and when the winter arrives, the Belvedere, the Mall, the Ramble are still beautiful in their lines even under a mantle of snow.
Very different from this enclosure is the open strip of land along the Hudson called Riverside Park. It is a high, commanding bench of ground looking out over the river to Weehawken and the Palisades, and is without doubt the finest driveway in Manhattan. Even Mr. Henry James has something good to say of its natural location, if not of our utilization of it :
“She (New York) has come at last far upon the west side, into the possession of her birthright, into the roused consciousness that some possibility of a river front may still remain to her; though, obviously, a justified pride in this property has yet to await the birth of a more responsible sense of style in her dealings with it, the dawn of some adequate plan or controlling idea. Splendid the elements of position, on the part of the new `Riverside Drive’ (over the small, suburbanizing name of which, as at the effect of a second-rate, shop-worn article, we sigh as we pass); yet not less irresistible the pang of our seeing it settle itself on meagre bourgeois happy-go-lucky lines. The pity of this is sharp in proportion as the ‘chance’ has been magnificent, and the soreness of perception of what merely might have been is as constant as the flippancy of the little vulgar ‘private houses’ or the big vulgar apartment hotels, that are having their own way so unchallenged, with the whole question of composition and picture. The fatal ‘tall’ pecuniary enterprise rises where it will, in the candid glee of new worlds to conquer; the intervals between take whatever little foolish form they like; the sky line, eternal victim of the artless jumble, submits again to the type of the broken hair comb turned up; the streets that abut from the east condescend at their corners to any congruity or poverty that may suit their convenience. And all this in presence of an occasion for noble congruity such as one scarce knows where to seek in the case of another great city.”
But commercial New York, with all its greed, has not ruined the Riverside Park. On the contrary, a good many people have thought it much improved by its terraces and stone copings, its paths down to the water, and its little towers and pavilions. Seen from the upper river it is rather an imposing-looking park in its monuments and marbles, its trees and grass and flowers. As for its skirting residences, they might be worse. In fact, we have seen worse along the banks of the Thames and the Seine residences that never have received a word of criticism on the score of either ugliness or commercialism. Farther up the island there is a pendant to it (now fast changing into a continuation of it), an inside park the Speedway along the Harlem. It is not so provocative of the adjective as the Riverside Drive, but is not the less a beautiful stretch along the water with high woods and gracefully turned hills on its western side.
But any one of the Greater New York boroughs is better off than Manhattan in its parks. The borough of the Bronx, for instance, has in the Bronx Park not only six hundred odd acres of land, but a river with a gorge, many hills and meadows, and real forests. Van Cortlandt Park is still larger, with over eleven hundred acres; and it also has forests, glen, meadow, stream, and lake, where people can go without being warned off the grass, where golf and tennis and ball can be played without let or hindrance, and where beautiful gardens can be studied quietly and loved at leisure.
The largest park, however, is that of Pelham Bay, with its seventeen hundred acres. Perhaps this has the greatest possibilities of all, for by the disposition and the quantity of its land it is capable of bringing the real shore-and-country scene into the city proper. At present it is somewhat apart from the life of the metropolis. It lies beside Long Island Sound and is six miles from the Harlem River. The growth of Manhattan has not extended up the shore of the Sound. The facilities of transit are not good, and perhaps the time-honored tradition of “malaria” continues. At any rate, Pelham Bay is quite primitive; and the magnificent park, ,though under the park commission, has not been “laid out” like a Sans-Souci. Its nine miles of shore line, its islands and little caves and bathing beaches, are still intact and practically untouched; its broad, flat meadows and its great trees have not been wasted or denuded or cut up in any way. It is a superb natural park, open to the Sound view and swept by the Sound breezes. In a short time, when traveling there is made easier, the people of the city will discover that_this is their real playground the most rural and restful of all their parks.
Prospect Park in Brooklyn is another city-hemmed space like the Central Park in Manhattan. It is not so large by several hundred acres, but it is in many respects a finer and more beautiful spot of green. It has high ground with a commanding view of the greater city, the harbors, the islands, the channels, the sea. Indeed, it was this high ground that was chosen for the battle of Long Island in 1776, and near it a tablet and a monument record the place and the event. The people of Brooklyn were wise in reserving this five-hundred-acre tract as a memorial, as well as for a present need. Fortunately, many of its old trees were still standing when the park was taken over in 1866, and to-day they are one of the attractive features of the place. Besides these there are meadows, parade grounds, terraces with great masses of flowers, drives, bridle-paths, lakes, rambles, fountains all that art can do to supplement nature. In addition there is its imposing Flatbush Avenue entrance. A plaza has been formed with shrubbery borders, and in the center of it a massive masonry arch in honor of the soldiers and sailors of the Civil War has been erected. On top of it is MacMonnies’ spirited bronze quadriga. From this main entrance one can drive straight down the avenue and over the new Manhattan Bridge into Manhattan; while from the south-eastern entrance he can drive in the opposite direction by the Ocean Parkway straight to Manhattan Beach and the sea.
But Prospect Park is not the only breathing place, nor the best one, in the borough of Brooklyn. The East River shore and the Brooklyn Heights are excellent in view and in air; and down below Gowanus Bay, where the shore runs into the driveway to Coney Island, the view becomes vast and magnificent. This shore road, with its ridges and meadows that slope down to the water’s edge, is to the lower harbor what Riverside Drive is to the Hudson a point of outlook upon natural beauty. The flat water of the Upper Bay and the Narrows, with its stately ships moving seaward, the distant heights of Staten Island, the near water-edge, with its small craft at anchor, the meadows still rank with wild flowers, and (in contrast) the road with its artistic bridges and arches, make up a picture perhaps superior to the Hudson with its Palisades.
And what a restful picture! On summer nights when the moon is up and the wind is stirring, what a road this is to travel this winding road to the sea! The glittering waters are like those of Lethe, inducing forgetfulness of the city and its business; the ghostly ships with their silver sails are full of poetry and romance; the road flows on in serpentine windings through a mystery of light and shadow. It is Brooklyn’s most beautiful parkway, and some day, when it is extended from the bridges to Coney Island, it will be possibly the finest shoreway in all the world.
One can see a future for these roads and drives and shoreways. The new city needs them as entrances and exits, even more than as pleasure grounds. Wide boulevards in all directions, above ground and below it, are crying necessities of transit. About the parks, however, one wonders and perhaps has doubts. Will the press of business and the crowds of people eventually crush them out? In the boroughs of Queens and Richmond there are few parks as yet established.’ The open country is still existent there in thousands of acres. But in crowded Manhattan it is very different. In the congested districts many of the little parks have been converted into bare playgrounds where nothing green grows. It was a necessity. The tramp of many feet requires a pavement. Besides, the park commissioners will tell you of thousands of dollars’ worth of trees, shrubs, and flowers put out on parkways one day, and absolutely disappearing, root and branch, before the next day. And, aside from wear and vandalism, gases with electricity and the close air of the city are fighting against vegetation. Even the rain that comes to it is tinged with sulphuric acid by falling through city smoke; and that means destruction to almost every-thing copper, glass, tin roofs, and growing life alike. Year by year the trees in the smaller parks seem to look more haggard, the grass more bleached and sparse, the flowers more like half-starved house plants. Will they eventually disappear and the parks be turned into mere open areas like Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde?
Business, to do it justice, is rather fond of the parks. Down town it enjoys the pale thin trees and grasses of Trinity and St. Paul’s, and up town it drives in the Central Park with both pride and pleasure. But some day business is to absorb the whole island of Manhattan, the residences will be converted into stores and offices, the streets will be for motor wagons only, business men will walk on second-story platforms, and the women and children will be housed beyond the thirty-mile circle.
In that not-distant day what will become of the parks and their growths? Will they be flattened into asphalt and swept by the vagrant winds, or will they be built up with steel and stone structures ? In NewYork everything keeps shifting, moving on, passing away. How shall the parks escape the swift transition and the general change?