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”

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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

“There is one large American town, in which it may happen that a man of any class shall say to his wife, when he is going out in the morning:  ‘My dear, when the children come home from school, put some bread and butter and salad in a basket, and go to the spring under the chestnut-tree where we found the Johnsons last week.  I will join you there as soon as I can get away from the office.  We will walk to the dairy-man’s cottage and get some tea, and some fresh milk for the children, and take our supper by the brook-side;’ and this shall be no joke, but the most refreshing earnestness.

photo taken between 1900 and 1910

Central Park boys' playground. Photo taken between 1900 and 1910.

“There will be room in Brooklyn Park, when it is finished, for several thousand little family and neighborly parties to bivouac at frequent intervals through the summer, without discommoding one another, or interfering with any other purpose, to say nothing of those who can be drawn out to make a day of it, as many thousand were last year…  Often they would bring a fiddle, flude, and harp, or other music.  Tables, seats, shade, turf, swings, cool spring-water, and a pleasing rural prospect, stretching off half a mile or more each way, unbroken by a carriage road or the slightest evidence of the vicinity of the town, were supplied them without charge…  In all my life I have never seen such joyous collections of people.  I have, in fact, more than once observed tears of gratitude in the eyes of poor women, as they watched their children thus enjoying themselves… When the arrangements are complete, I see no reason why thousands should not come every day…to use them; and if so, who can measure the value, generation after generation, of such provisions for recreation to the over-wrought, much confined people of the great town that is to be?”

[Frederick Law Olmsted, from his essay, Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns, 1870]

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