The late Roy Rosenzweig, Professor of History at George Mason University was the author of Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920. Elizabeth Blackmar, Professor of History at Columbia University, is the author of Manhattan for Rent, 1785-1850, also from Cornell.
Now embraced as a cultural treasure and called the most democratic space in New York, Central Park has a contentious and elitist history - expertly chronicled here by Rosenzweig (History/George Mason Univ.) and Blackmar (History/Columbia Univ.). Conceived by a small group of the wealthy in the 1850s as an answer to Europe's society gathering spaces, the park sparked debates from the beginning: Why did New Yorkers need an uptown park when Hoboken's Elysian Fields were half the distance away? Where should the park be located? What kind of park should it be? A civic monument? A programmed pleasure garden? A commons for public assembly? Or a landscaped preserve of artificial nature, as essentially proposed and executed by chosen designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux? And just what public should the park attract? There was not much debate, though, about displacing the site's squatters, whom Rosenzweig and Blackmar find were members of stable communities: Some owned their property, most probably paid rent, and many were black. And there was no protest when the park became a venue for the rich to see and be seen in their fashionable carriages. While the masses took their pleasure at commercial gardens elsewhere, Olmstead - a tyrant who drove and underpaid park workers, enforced strict decorum among visitors, and elbowed the more sympathetic Vaux out of his share of credit - maintained the park as a landscape to be viewed. Though the park's creation and early decades are extensively detailed here, the authors complete the political, class-conscious story through years of realestate speculation, Tammany patronage, and reformers' penury; and then, in the 20th century, through a growing diversity of use and users, and - with homeless residents and millionaire neighbors - an evolving debate over the question of whose park is this, anyway? Neither dry chronology nor anecdotal diversion, but exemplary social history. (Kirkus Reviews)