Olmsted Redux: Prospect Park Looks to Its Future by Restoring Its Past

Everybody say “Promenade.” (Spencer Tucker/Mayor’s Office)

In 1867, Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed a formal concert area in Prospect Park and called it Music Island. It stood as a curved arena of grass around a central island where musicians would disembark from row boats to play for an expectant and enthralled audience. It was beautiful, stunning—and broken. Nobody could hear a thing.

Nearly a hundred years later, Robert Moses, would use most of the granite and iron of the surrounding esplanade as landfill when he paved over, as was his want, the pastoral and put up the practical in the form of the still popular Wollman Rink. The funds for which had been a gift by the same eponymous philanthropic family.

And now, thanks to another different wealthy family, we’re just about done putting the crazy thing back together again.  It’s a topsy-turvy world this philanthropy game. One, that has the rich keeping everyone on their toes and, at least temporarily, off the ice. The new indoor-outdoor rink is still under construction. And naturally one of the city’s wealthiest was there today to cut the ribbon.

New York has always been, to some extent, at the whim of its moneyed elite. A sinister notion to be sure. Something which calls into question so many aspects of the democratic society we’ve built for ourselves and the corrosive nature of power when it’s consolidated into too few hands, but it is not an arrangement without its occasional benefits too. Thankfully, the newly named Chaim Baier Music Island & the Shelby White and Leon Levy Esplanade is one of these rarer gifts.

Led by a $10 million grant from lead benefactress and native Brooklynite, the inimitable Ms. Shelby White who, while taking a moment to compare the achievements of ancient Athens to Brooklyn, found the cradle of democracy lacking in the face of Prospect Park and the Dodgers.

The plan has also slotted in nicely with the Bloomberg administration model of construction, which has been largely focused on undoing some of the more destructive aspects of the Robert Moses legacy. A model that has also seen the recent restorations of the waterfront and the rebuilding of the Lower East Side.

“The revitalization of Prospect Park is a remarkable example of the impact that concerned citizens and public-private partnerships can have on our city’s parks,” Mayor Bloomberg said, standing under a big white tent to keep the rain at bay for this morning’s ribbon cutting. He added with a laugh, “we’ve gained back what was lost and it only took a hundred years.”

It was a thought echoed by Veronica White, the Parks Commissioner, a job title that must bring with it almost obligatory weather metaphors, who offered her own applause of the mayor’s vision. “This mayor has been with us not only in the sunny budget years but in the rainy years as well,” she said. “This iconic and historic park has never looked better.”

Nearby, while the dignitaries all took up their positions to cut the obligatory ribbon, a string trio played classical music (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, natch).  They were seated in a wide tent along the newly restored grass lwns of the lake side arena, though not actually on Chaim Baier Music Island itself, which is still as acoustically useless as it ever was.

Olmsted Redux: Prospect Park Looks to Its Future by Restoring Its Past