That time has come!  April, 2011 brings OLMSTED AND AMERICA’S URBAN PARKS (formerly “The Olmsted Legacy”) to a television station near you, via American Public Television.  Check your local listings for details, but below, a list.

City Station Air Date/Time
Albany-Schenectady WMHT April 20, 10 p.m.
Albuquerque KNMD April 24, 6 p.m.
Atlanta WPBA April 23, 7 p.m.
Baltimore MPT2 April 21, 11 p.m.
Birmingham WBIQ April 21, 9 p.m.
Buffalo WNED Date TBD
Charlotte WTVI April 20, 11 p.m.
UNC-TV April 28, 10 p.m.
Chattanooga WTCI April 18, 10:30 p.m.
Detroit WTVS Date TBD
Fort Myers WGCU April 20, 10 p.m.
Fresno KVPT April 19, 9 p.m.
Grand Rapids WGVU April 24, 4 p.m.
April 26, 2 a.m.
Greensboro UNC-TV April 28, 10 p.m.
Greenville-Spartansburg UNC-TV April 28, 10 p.m.
Hartford CPTV Date TBD
Jacksonville WJCT April 19, 9 p.m.
Las Vegas KLVX April 20, 10 p.m.
Los Angeles KVCR April 19, 8 p.m.
Miami WPBT April 20, 10 p.m.
Milwaukee WMVS Date TBD
New Orleans WLAE April 18, 10 p.m.
New York WNET April 20, 10 p.m.
WLIW April 22, 2 p.m.
CPTV Date TBD
Pensacola WSRE April 20, 9 p.m.
Phoenix KAET Date TBD
Philadelphia WLVT Date TBD
Pittsburgh MPT2 April 21, 11 p.m.
Plattsburgh Mtn Lake PBS April 21, 9 p.m.
Portland KOPB April 29, 10 p.m.
KOPB Plus April 24, 8 p.m.
Providence RIPBS April 27, 9 p.m.
LEARN Ch. Date TBD
CPTV Date TBD
Raleigh-Durham UNC-TV April 28, 10 p.m.
Reno KNPB April 19, 9 p.m.
Sacramento KVIE Date TBD
Salt Lake City KUEN Date TBD
San Francisco KQED April 24, 2 p.m.
KRCB Date TBD
South Bend-Elkhart WNIT April 20, 10 p.m.
Tallahassee WFSU April 21, 10 p.m.
Tampa WEDU April 21, 10 p.m.
April 26, 6 p.m.
Washington DC MPT2 April 21, 11 p.m.

 

Tune into WHUT available in the Washington, DC metro area, at 8:00pm on Sunday, January 2nd, 2011 for the broadcast premiere of THE OLMSTED LEGACY: AMERICA’S URBAN PARKS featuring the voices of Kevin Kline and Kerry Washington!

Stop by the Dairy in Central Park to catch The Olmsted Legacy, playing on loop, starting today!

[photo via the Central Park Conservancy]

The Dairy, intended by Calvert Vaux to be built as a refreshment stand for children, was meant to sell fresh milk at low prices, during a time when most of the milk in New York made citizens sick.  “Swill milk,” as it was called, was taken from cows who were fed old mash leftover from the beer making process, at a time when the production and sale of milk in New York was not regulated.

Olmsted and Vaux, as a result, hoped to include fresh milk in their park as a kind of alleviating alternative to the other tainted options, and even designed a place for cows to graze and be milked in the vicinity of the Dairy.

The structure, however, underwent a significant transformation during the Tweed administration, and by the time construction was completed, there were no cows to be found.  Olmsted’s sheltering vegetation was uprooted, and a carriage lot was constructed for the introduction of a restaurant for middle-class New Yorkers, which is how the space was used until the 1950s, when the building was virtually abandoned.

Today, the Central Park Conservancy’s brilliant restoration of the building now houses the park’s visitor center and gift shop.  Still a far cry from Vaux’s original intention, but undeniably more useful for today’s park-goers than a lot full of cows!

The Dairy is open Monday-Sunday, 10am to 5pm, and will be continuously playing The Olmsted Legacy, beginning today.  A great way to stay cool in these last days of summer.

Join us!  THE OLMSTED LEGACY, featuring the voices of Kevin Kline and Kerry Washington, premieres in Olmsted and Vaux’s classic park–under the stars, and free for all.

Wednesday, August 4

8pm

The Celebrate Brooklyn! Stage at the Bandshell, Prospect Park.

City blogs are abuzz about this website that’s showcasing one foundation’s proposal to turn Manhattan’s verdant gem (which they call “New York City’s largest remaining undeveloped parcel of land”) into…

…an airport!

I was sent the site by a friend, and for a few gullible moments, before Google and some reputable blogs proved me otherwise, I was at once terrified and outraged, almost to the point of tears.

Rest assured, the site’s believed to be a fake, as is the foundation, called “The Manhattan Airport Foundation,” which, among other giveaway clues, has its offices at 233 Broadway, on the 58th floor of a building that has only 57.

What was especially clever of “The Manhattan Airport Foundation” is their inclusion of an “interview” with Dr. Harriet Worth, who claims to be the 5th generation grand-niece of Frederick Law Olmsted himself, and is supposedly visiting-chair of the Environmental Studies Graduate Department at HKI (what’s HKI?  Hong Kong Institute?  It’s unclear.).

The article is titled “What Would Olmstead [sic] Do?  Ancestor Sheds Some Light.”  “Worth” for the most part begins with a few accurate snippets about her great uncle x5’s urban theories:

“Part of the reason Olmsted is regarded as a visionary is that he was a master of illusion. His outdoor spaces seem to exist so naturally as to give the impression of predating the surrounding environs. Of course those familiar with his designs know each is a highly-curated, carefully-designed sleight of hand. The rock outcroppings, the reservoir, all of it man-made.”

Of course the reservoir was man-made.  It’s a reservoir.  Anyway, let’s not get finicky.

She goes on, however, to insist that green space in Manhattan, what with High Line park and all those “urban greenways” has become overly abundant, and now should be trumped by “improved access to transportation, creation of jobs for our skilled workforce, and the need to address myriad environmental wrongdoings.”

What would Olmsted say about the Manhattan Airport?  Here’s the best part:

“Olmsted was no sentimentalist. He was nothing if not a pragmatist. For him Manhattan Airport would be that all-so-rare second chance to finally realize his original vision and intent…  He would see this project as a bold opportunity to rise above the dated 19th century concept of catharsis-via-nature: The chance to finally realize his goal of an unparalleled urban oasis fostering the type of transformative experience that only a mixed-use international transportation hub can provide.”

Besides the fact that one of Olmsted’s firmest beliefs lay in the fact that catharsis-via-nature is a timeless concept, his biggest pet peeve was with people who viewed park land as “undeveloped space.”  Clever interview, but I like to think the idea would give him hives, like it did me.

In any case, we thought we’d pinned down every last descendant of FLO’s.  Maybe we missed this one, being that she’s on the other side of the world.  We’ll ask around.  Funny, though, Google “Dr. Harriet Worth,” and you’ll be directed to Harriet Worth’s IMBD page, where you’ll learn that she was second assistant director of the 2008 movie “Doomsday.”  Appropriate.

A perfect evening in Central Park

A perfect evening in Central Park (via nytimes.com)

The New York Times brings news today about an evening in the park gone very nearly perfectly right.

It was 6:15 on Tuesday evening, a breezy, golden 77 degrees, and people were streaming into the park with plastic bags of picnic food, like pilgrims bearing offerings, for one of the city’s great summer rites: At 8 p.m., on the grassy oval ringed by oaks, skyscrapers and the almost-too-cute turrets of Belvedere Castle, the New York Philharmonic would start to play. Free.

“It’s really relaxing — and almost therapeutic in a certain kind of way when you’re out running around and having people bump into you in the subway — to have this music under the stars,” Mr. Nerio said. “It almost sounds cheesy, but it’s perfect.”

Olmsted could not have said it better himself:

“Is it doubtful that it does men good to come together in this way in pure air and under the light of heaven, or that it must have an influence directly counteractive to that of the ordinary hard, hustling working hours of town life?”

-  Frederick Law Olmsted, in his 1870 essay,
“Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns”

When you ask Sara Cedar Miller what her favorite part of Central Park is, she responds:

“OK.  Pretend I have ten children.  You’re really going to ask me which one’s my favorite?”

Her relationship with the park really is like that of a mother and child–Miller, fresh out of art school in 1984, joined the Central Park Conservancy in its infancy, as park photographer.  Since then, she’s watched the park “grow up” into the beautiful urban oasis it’s become, and she knows the place as well as she would her own children.

“Oh, they’ve gotten so big,” she croons passing a family of ducklings waddling along the banks of The Lake, as we make our way towards a quiet clearing in the Ramble across from Bethesda Fountain.

The historian talks about her park sitting on one of Vaux's rustic benches, restored by the Conservancy

The historian talks about her park sitting on one of Vaux's rustic benches, restored by the Conservancy

It was our last day of our East Coast Tour, and Miller seemed to be the perfect voice to close our long series of interviews.  Today she also acts as the Conservancy’s official historian, a position she acquired in 1989.  She has photographed and written about the park for two beautiful books:  Central Park, An American Masterpiece, and Seeing Central Park.  Poised and passionate, her face instinctively brightens when she talks about Central Park, often leaning in, treating the subject like it’s this incredible, fascinating secret she just can’t wait to let you in on.

Which isn’t to say she’s not full of incredible, fascinating secrets.  She’s an adamant Vaux supporter, and won’t hesitate to let you know that the credit Olmsted gets for Central Park, though deserved, is not entirely fair.  “The story of Central Park,” she says, “is really a story about Calvert Vaux getting Frederick Law Olmsted to join him in the design competition.  Olmsted said no at first.”

Miller's latest book, "Seeing Central Park"

Miller's latest book, "Seeing Central Park"

The Greensward Plan that Vaux eventually convinced Olmsted to complete with him is what she calls “a beautiful and very simple tapestry.”  Vaux, she says, “really had the aesthetic and practical senses that Olmsted lacked.  Vaux was very enamoured of the rough and wild Hudson River Valley,” where he had worked with his partner, Andrew Jackson Downing, designing estates for the well-to-do.  “Olmsted loved the rolling hills of England.  It was the melding of all these kinds of styles that was really a new style.”

Why does Olmsted receive all the credit, then?  “He was the writer,” she says.

She’ll also tell you about how Robert Dylan, Central Park commissioner, and August Belmont, influential businessman and avid equestrian (for whom Belmont race track in Long Island is named), made a list of 17 changes to the Greensward Plan the day after it won the design competition.  One of these proposed changes included a bridge that would allow people to transverse The Lake, walking easily from Bethesda Terrace to the Ramble.  This turned into Bow Bridge, one of the most iconic images of the park today.

Bow Bridge--Vaux designed, Dylan and Belmont inspired

Bow Bridge--Vaux designed, Dylan and Belmont inspired

What would New York be without Central Park?  We ask her.  “New York would not be New York without Central Park.”

And who would she be without it?  She smiles, her eyes moisten.  “It’s my life’s work.  It would be like not having an arm or a leg.”

Morrison Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleishman chariman of The American Wing at the Metropolitain Museum of Art, can recognize American art when he sees it.  Central Park, the subject of his 2008 book, and also the verdant backyard of his museum, is not just a place for New Yorkers to seek shade, he holds, but one of this country’s great works of art.

As creators of Central Park, Heckscher called Olmsted and Vaux “towering figures in the history of American cities, of American landscape.”  Olmsted, he said, was “the father, the dean of American landscape, particularly as it has to do with city parks.”

But it was William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing, he insists, who were really responsible for sparking the original initiative to create a major park in New York City.  Downing, one of the great dictators of public taste in the early 19th century (Sara Cedar Miller calls him the Martha Stewart of the time period), was founder and editor of the magazine The Horticulturist, and also a popular landscape architect with his partner, Calvert Vaux.  Downing acted as a kind of mentor to Olmsted, publishing some of Olmsted’s first writing, and inspiring his interest in the young profession of landscape architecture.  Bryant, poet and longtime editor of the New York Post, helped give Downing’s plea for Central Park in 1851 a voice that would be heard by the public.

Title page of an edition of The Horitculturist

Title page of an edition of The Horitculturist

In fact, it is generally assumed that had Downing not died in 1852 in a tragic steamboat accident at the age of 36, he would have been the logical choice to be designer of the park.  After his death, Olmsted was approached by the newly partnerless Vaux to enter the design competition, which they of course won in 1858.

Though the circumstances of the launch of his career arguably depended on the doomed fate of another man, Olmsted, Heckscher holds, is an artist, and Central Park, “literally, a series of works of art.”  In particular, Heckscher cited the views that Olmsted and Vaux carefully planned within the park, which tend to appear suddenly, framed by elements of the landscape and “set low within the landscape–one comes upon them walking through the park.”  Heckscher calls this “an extroadinary but very subtle architectural satement.”

interviewing Morrison Heckscher, with a view of Bethesda Terrace

interviewing Morrison Heckscher, with a view of Bethesda Terrace

What is the difference, we asked, between the park and the great works that hang in frames from the walls of the Met?  “The extensive difference is its dynamism, the fact that it’s alive,” he said.  “There’s no way that one can freeze a park within a certain moment.  Olmsted and Vaux envisioned mature plants and trees, but eventually that moment passes, and the trees go.  The challenge, in moving ahead,” he says of the future of the park, “is recognizing that [the plants and trees of the park] are not static.”

Charles Beveridge called Prospect Park “a classic example of [Olmsted and Vaux’s]  concept of a great urban park,” and “the most pleasing that they created during their collaboration.”

Olmsted himself had this to say to those involved  in the construction of the park in 1865:

“We must study to secure a combination of elements which shall invite and stimulate the simplest, purest and most primeval action of the poetic element of human nature, and thus remove those who are affected by it to the greatest possible distance from the highly elaborate, sophistical and artificial conditions of their ordinary and civilized life.

Thus it must be that parks are beyond anything else recreative, recreative of that which is most apt to be lost or become diseased and debilitated among the dwellers in towns.”

Prospect  Park has the unique quality of seclusion in New York City.  Where the tall buildings of Manhattan which surround Central Park have come to act as artistic framing elements, Brooklyn benefits from being significantly shorter.  Walking through the park today truly offers the illusion of rurality, which Olmsted and Vaux so adamantly sought to create.

This is Brooklyn we're in, you say?

The canopy in the Ravine, Prospect Park. This is Brooklyn we're in, you say?

Tupper Thomas, who became Administrator of Prospect Park in 1980, and has acted as President of the Prospect Park Alliance since its formation in 1987, prefers to do less talking, more showing when it’s time to convince people of the park’s value.

“I don’t talk history and preservation,” she says.  “I take people to look at it, and I say, ‘Look how beautiful this is!'”

The view of the Long Meadow through Endale Arch

The view of the Long Meadow through Endale Arch

The Vale of Cashmere

The Vale of Cashmere

She still, though, has plenty to say on the topic:

“It’s gorgeous, multi-use, brilliant in its design, and it’s everlasting.  Even today the park still replenishes your soul, does wonderful things for your psyche.  It’s still what people need.

The fun thing to do is give people a tour of the park, and tell them it’s designed.  The art of [Olmsted and Vaux’s] design is that it doesn’t look like design.”

Evidence of the design--a c1874 photo of construction on Prospect Park, by the entrance at Grand Army Plaza

Evidence of the design--a photo from circa 1874 of construction on Prospect Park, by the entrance at Grand Army Plaza

There are no transverse roads that cut horizontally through Prospect Park, a fact which allows it to get away with the Long Meadow, the longest unbroken meadow in any urban park in America.  Prospect Park also posesses 120 acres of woodlands, which shelter tinier meadows of their own, and a 60 acre lake.

Our interview with Tupper Thomas took place on a Saturday afternoon in the Long Meadow.  We were surrounded by park users–there to picnic, scooter down paths, play soccer, and celbrate birthdays, which gave the background of our shot some colorful dynamism.

Tupper Thomas

Tupper Thomas

cue the cute kids with balloons...

cue the cute kids with balloons...

group photo with Tupper Thomas

group photo with Tupper Thomas

The Long Meadow in Prospect Park is arguably the happiest place in the world in the hours before 9am on Saturdays.

Saturday, 8am, happy pups

Saturday, 8am, happy pups

The off-leash initiative started in the 1980s, when Tupper Thomas, Prospect Park Administrator, and now president of the Prospect Park Alliance, needed a way to get people back in the park.  Dogs are allowed to be off-leash in the park from 9pm to 1am, when the park closes, and from 5am to 9am in the morning.

Our crew was able to catch a beautifully joyous scene at around 8am on Saturday, June 27.  I racked my brain to no avail to see if I had ever been in one place with so many dogs.  We strolled among the throngs of dogs and their owners, many of whom also had adorable babies in tow.  The cuteness factor was almost too much to handle.

P1010042

The Great Lawn

Who knows if Olmsted could have forseen the popularity of this particular activity–early on, in the late 1800s, dogs did come to the park–leashless, it seems–but presumably in the interest of tending sheep.  Tennis ball launchers, of course, had not yet been invented.

Sheep in the Long Meadow, circa 1900-1905

Dogs and sheep in the Long Meadow, circa 1900-1905

With no sheep to tend to on Saturday, the raucous canine party left virtually no mess behind them, and by 9am, the dogs were diligently leashed back up and led either to the shaded paths of the Ravine, or the surrounding streets.  Later, when I asked Tupper about this incredible display of public respect for the park, she told me about the organization FIDO.  FIDO stands for “Fellowship in the Interest of Dogs and their Owners,” and is a community organization that works with the park to educate off-leashers about park rules, while encouraging the maintenance of a safe and healthy place for dogs.  Read more about FIDO here:  www.fidobrooklyn.org.

Sara Cedar Miller, historian and photographer for the Central Park Conservancy, and author of the beautiful books Central Park:  An American Masterpiece and Seeing Central Park once candidly called Doug Blonsky the Frederick Law Olmsted of today.

Blonsky is president of the Central Park Conservancy, as well as Chief of Operations of Central Park, which means he’s not only the leader of the organization that raises 85% of the park’s $27 million annual budget, but he manages a staff of over 250, and about 3,000 volunteers.  Olmsted, in addition to creating the spectacular design for the park, was also superintendent, and later architect-in-chief of the park.  A landscape architect by training, Blonsky calls Central Park “the soul of New York City,” and laughingly shrugged off Miller’s admiring comparison.

Shortly after 9/11, he said, “The park was the cathedral, it was the church, it was the temple,” going on to describe the masses of people who came out to the park.

He also did not hesitate to bring up one of Olmsted’s most convincing arguments for supporting urban parks.  “A lot of people don’t stop to think about how important Central Park is for the economy,” he said, referencing the Central Park Effect, a report commissioned by the Conservancy in May, 2008, which estimated that visitors to the park generated $80 million in spending outside the park in 2007.  “Real estate values,” he added, “quadruple within a 10-minute walk of the park.”  Appleseed, the economic development consultants who released the report, posted an interesting article on how Central Park responded to the recession on their blog.

Interviewing Blonsky on Vaux's benches in the Mall in Central Park

Interviewing Blonsky on Vaux's benches in the Mall in Central Park

Doug Blonsky

Bethesda Fountain, 1880

Bethesda Fountain, circa 1880

Bethesda Fountain, 2009

Bethesda Fountain, 2009

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