Saving Central Park: A History and A Memoir

by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018)

Saving Central Park: A History and A Memoir is a book about art and nature, place and time – a record of the park’s several lives as well as the author’s own. In it she discusses how the world’s first purpose-built park for all classes of society was created, how it was transformed, and how, when it was nearly destroyed by mismanagement and public abuse, it was rescued and rebuilt by a new kind of civic organization: the public-private park partnership. Rogers, the Central Park Conservancy’s principal founder in 1980 and its leader until 1996, recounts her quest to translate what was once an implausible ideal into a paradigm for the creation of similar citizens’ organizations in cities throughout the country.

But the book is more than simply a success story. Interweaving her personal history with that of the park, Rogers discusses the design and construction of its original landscape and the alterations made to it during the past 150 years. Chapters cover the park’s conception in nineteenth-century civic weal, its design by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, its radical alteration under parks czar Robert Moses between 1934 and 1961, and its fall into ruin through neglect, abuse, and mismanagement in the 1960s and 1970s.

To provide the reader with an understanding of the principles that governed the park’s restoration, Rogers explains the relationship between the aesthetics of nineteenth-century Romanticism and historic landscape preservation. In giving an account of the forces that upon occasion opposed the Conservancy’s management and restoration plan for rebuilding the park, she serves as guide through the thorny thickets of contemporary community politics. Even-handed in her judgment of the results of these dichotomous forces, she analyzes the changing cultural values that have made Central Park the much loved multilayered recreational palimpsest it is today.