Morrison Heckscher, On the Park

032508 sitdown Morrison Heckscher, On the ParkLocation: Your new book, Creating Central Park, asserts that the park was a testament to democracy, lowercase ‘d.’ But it wasn’t born of it. Can you explain the vote for the park and the general push for the park?

Mr. Heckscher: I would like to start by saying that the whole issue of the park has to do with open space in Manhattan. Central Park is, shall we say, the conclusion of 50 years of political machinations of how to provide, for the city and Manhattan, open space mostly for health reasons—for air and space for the health of the public, and recreation.

Why hadn’t it been done beforehand?

One of the most interesting, shall we say, discoveries, to me, of writing this piece was that the oft-maligned commissioners’ plan of 1811, which is the grid for New York City, had, in fact, quite a lot of open space—well over 500 acres of open space was provided. And, in fact, that was deemed too much. And, over the next decades, that was chewed away and there was very little left.

It was only in the 1830’s, with the growth of the city, that there was slowly the realization by at least parts of the public that the city had to protect some land for recreation and health.

The ‘true visionaries,’ as you call them in the book, behind Central Park were William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing. But they both came from the world of arts and letters; Bryant, for instance, was a newspaperman and Romantic poet. Was it pushed as a work of public art at the time?

I think for most people it was pushed as an amenity and not a work of art. For Downing, it was definitely a work of art; for Bryant, I think he was more interested in getting open space wherever it may be rather than creating a work of art where Central Park is.

If Central Park hadn’t been developed where it is, where else in Manhattan would it have been?

The only really available large space other than where Central Park is was Jones’ Wood, which was in the East 60’s on the East River; which was a large piece of privately owned land; which was available; and which was considered and promoted very aggressively before the Central Park site was chosen.

What would’ve gone there if Central Park hadn’t been built? Would it be all luxury condos and skyscrapers by now?

It was very rough land. It would ultimately have been built on, of course; it was not the most desirable, because it was expensive, to make into building lots. I think the key to where Central Park is is the reservoir.

And the receiving reservoir of the Croton Aqueduct System—on a high plot of land between 79th and 86th streets, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, right outside my office there—that was completed in 1842. That was 30 acres taken off the tax rolls. … By the time the land for Central Park was being considered, the city had already committed to build a much bigger reservoir next to the receiving reservoir; that [bigger one] is the one that still exists, across 86th Street.

So the opportunity came along in the 1850’s: How do you integrate a big public park that’s going to take a lot of valuable real estate off the tax rolls, and how do you efficiently do that at the same time you’re adding a 100-acre reservoir?

And the existing rectangular reservoir was the one that was there [back then], and the one that was very clearly the absolute epicenter of the park. That is the reason Central Park is here; not further uptown, not further downtown. And you just look at it—79th Street’s the south end [of the old reservoir]; go one mile—20 blocks—you get to 59th Street. And you have to stop there because Broadway is cutting across and that would get in the way of the park.

So they had to stop 20 blocks south; and so they went 20 blocks north—86th to 96th to 106th Street. And that’s where the park stopped, right in the middle of that great big hill. … Within minutes of having agreed upon having the land taken for the park—1853—they realized, ‘Well, actually, that’s the wrong location for the northern border of the park because you couldn’t drive a road through it.’ So it took several years to extend it to 110th because they had to go and get more land.