Green core of the Big Apple

Central Park

September 3, 2004

This book greatly disappoints - it is little more than a slavish recitation of the values and practices of its author's employer, the Central Park Conservancy, a charity charged with restoring New York City's Central Park. The title and subtitle are accurate, but scholarly or systematic proof of Sara Cedar Miller's assertions is never provided.

Instead, this edited and inaccurate history of Central Park does a grave disservice to its origins and features. Ironically, while Miller praises the park's designers Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for their "democratic" approach, she does not appear to share their values.

The chapters cover landscape, architecture, sculpture and the designers' sketches. Only the sculpture chapter explores fairly fully what is still a neglected subject, but even this overlooks how the sculptures on display have all been unsuitably repatinated under the Conservancy's "sculpture care" programme, and how newly cast pieces are not announced as such. In the other chapters, omissions of both research and insight abound.

Miller's approach to the subject is well camouflaged by pretty photographs.

Only someone familiar with Central Park's recent history would note the omission of important structures from the maps and story she provides.

These historic buildings are omitted because the Conservancy does not like or support their maintenance. They include the Naumburg Bandshell, the Delacorte Theatre, the Lasker Rink and Pool, the Tennis House and the Swiss Cottage. New structures erected by the Conservancy are pointedly emphasised, including the Harlem Meer's Dana Discovery Center, and the new names on the park's gates carved by the Conservancy are noticed without drawing attention to the fact that they are modern changes, albeit based on historic evidence.

The book purports to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Central Park's founding. But, in fact, the only event of 1853 linked to this was the enactment of legislation to establish a park on the site. Central Park in its present design took another five years to be conceived and approved, and a further 15 to build and open. Frankly, this book and the attendant anniversary celebration are merely an obsequious opportunity for the Conservancy to fundraise among corporations, foundations and private sponsors.

There are major drawbacks to the present private sponsorship of what is a public park. But this topic is not even touched on. Rather, such sponsorship is glorified as the only way forward in Betsy Barlow Rogers'

epilogue. She founded the Conservancy and now sees it as a national movement: a highly questionable assertion. Her conflated vision is set forth as if it were a new national religion. Yet consider how few US parks have the financial resources of Central Park's immediate vicinity to draw on and you will see why their story is far less glorious than Rogers leads you to believe.

This inadequate book is suitable for little else but browsing. It is a lost opportunity to understand Central Park better. I recommend waiting for a more meaningful publication that carefully considers the history of a truly groundbreaking and fascinating work of landscape art.

Christopher W. London is an architectural historian with a DPhil from Oxford University. He lives in both London and New York City, where he is active in efforts to conserve the city.

Central Park: An American Masterpiece

Author - Sara Cedar Miller
Publisher - Abrams
Pages - 255
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 8109 3946 0

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