Reviews of Saving Central Park

AM New York

Whether you‘re a sunbather, a birder, a cyclist or just out for a stroll, the Central Park of today offers a clean, green and welcoming oasis from the city grind. But longtime New Yorkers remember a not-so-distant past when the park was distressed, revenue-starved, graffiti-covered and dangerous in parts.

As president of the Central Park Conservancy from its inception in 1980 until her retirement in 1995, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers played a major role in shaping the park’s transformation from what she calls “near death” in the 1970s to its current “golden age.”

The year before the private nonprofit group was formed, Rogers had been appointed to the new city position of Central Park administrator, a post she held throughout her Conservancy tenure that nominally made her responsible for the 843-acre park. Her first day on the job, a local reporter taught her a valuable lesson about the city’s feelings toward her new charge.

“[I was] showing him ‘my’ park,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘Lady, it’s not your park, it’s everybody’s park.’ And I never used the possessive pronoun again.”

Rogers’ forthcoming memoir, “Saving Central Park,” is equal parts personal history and park history. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect guide than Rogers, who embodies aspects of historian, gardener, politician, city planner, landscape architect and plain old park lover.

On a gorgeous spring morning last week, we spent a leisurely two hours walking the park with Rogers, talking about its past, its future and her new book.

Under Rogers’ leadership, the Conservancy took a holistic approach to the park, viewing it as a unified work of art, much the way it was envisioned by the original designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, in 1858.

“The park was this beautiful romantic landscape,” Rogers says, “It’s where you were meant to get away from the city and have this experience of rural nature, even though its manufactured.”

She is impassioned and demonstrative as she walks, relating the story behind some statue or monument or trees, chatting with birders, or highlighting design touches, such as the lampposts reinstalled by the Conservancy at the north end of the mall which were crafted in 1902 by Henry Bacon — designer of the Lincoln Memorial.

Pointing to a bit of carved-out schist framing the bridal path on the park’s western edge, she adds, “See the rock just sort of melts into the hillside. And it’s just beautiful.”

Rogers writes candidly about the Conservancy’s many successes and its major defeats, as well as her own learning curve when dealing with city’s maze of power, politics and money.

Some of her sharpest critiques, both in the book and today, are reserved for the NYC’s ultimate power player, former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who upon taking the title in 1934 immediately “put his stamp on the park,” Rogers says.

And while she has nothing but disdain for many of Moses’ initiatives, such as the parking lots he installed in the park, Rogers acknowledges much that Moses did was right, including the 22 “hugely successful” playgrounds that he built.

The Conservancy’s task, she says, was to take those Moses designs, “caged” and “very definite,” and integrate them more seamlessly into the park, starting with the low fences seen today.

She warmly describes her interactions with artists such as Yoko Ono, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and philanthropists, including the late Lucy Moses.

As for the future of the park, Rogers says she is “absolutely thrilled” with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent announcement that cars will be banned from the park below 72nd Street.

“I can’t tell you how long the Conservancy, from the beginning, has campaigned [for the closure],” Rogers says. “This is brilliant.” And she believes the Conservancy itself is in great hands under its new president, Elizabeth W. Smith. Their annual Women’s Luncheon just raised $4 million for the park.

When she is in the city, Rogers still goes to the park every day, but she and her husband now also spend a lot of time in New Mexico.

“It’s not for nothing they call New Mexico the land of enchantment,” she says.

But her devotion to and love for Central Park is undiminished. Stopping to gaze at the American elms along the mall, she spreads her arms and exults with awe, “Look at this, it’s like the nave of a cathedral.”

— Cory Oldweiler

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Christian Science Monitor

An English professor unwittingly made his students even more reluctant to provide him with compositions. He told us our writing enabled him to know each of us intimately.

By a greater order of magnitude, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers freely allows her readers to know her intimately. Ms. Barlow’s new book, Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir, is a detailed and moving account of her love affair with urban America’s most renowned green place.

At the end of the 1970s Central Park was a post-apocalyptic mess.  Far from being a refuge in nature for city people, it famously had become a scary place where headline-making crimes happened.  Its lawns had become urban deserts; its woodsy paths eroded, its buildings and other structural elements dramatically vandalized.  Barlow writes: “Probably the most glaring symptom of the park’s neglect in 1980 was the estimated fifty thousand square feet of graffiti covering every conceivable hard surface....”

And yet it was all still there, the essence of this 840-acre park, this mammoth manmade project built between 1858 and 1873 following the designs of pioneer landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. And Barlow, along with other visionaries like New York Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, recognized this. 

A watershed event – for Central Park, New York City, and Barlow – happened in 1979 when Davis named Barlow to the office of Central Park Administrator. The next year, he forwarded the creation of the Central Park Conservancy, a public-private partnership Barlow had proposed. Barlow served as Conservancy president until 1996.

At this point, Barlow’s love for Central Park could be fully expressed, along with her “unwavering allegiance to a vision of restoring the park in the spirit of Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward plan."

Barlow writes, “What Olmsted and Vaux accomplished was an extraordinary feat. They combined complex engineering with naturalistic scenery so skillfully that visitors today are barely aware of the park’s intricate infrastructure."
Today, the rebirth of Central Park, and the Conservancy’s role in this, seems a given. Something had to be done and city government wasn’t doing it. Central Park is now managed and maintained by the Conservancy, which provides most of its budget and 90 percent of its employees.

But the idea of city government ceding responsibility for Central Park to a nonprofit organization struck some people as wrong. There also was the issue of raising many millions of dollars – of necessity relying heavily on wealthy individuals – for restoring countless elements of the park to beauty and soundness and keeping them maintained.

Nonetheless, Barlow and her supporters set to work winning over detractors, wooing contributors, building an organization, and, during the course of her 15 years at the helm, transforming Central Park. The work continues today.

As a memoir, “Saving Central Park” is largely about Barlow, who is an extraordinary and fascinating woman. There’s a lot here about her private life, her public life, and what she thinks, including and especially about Central Park.

It’s clear she doesn’t approve of many of public uses the city has made of Central Park, uses as distasteful to her as marking a museum cafeteria menu in the corner of a Monet painting would be. She shares some unhappy words, for example, about Robert Moses, New York’s “master builder.”

As parks commissioner from 1934 to 1960, Moses greatly altered Central Park to enable and encourage more active public use, often ignoring the Olmsted/Vaux vision. Barlow “deplore[d] Moses’s autocratic manner and ruthless efficiency.” She further comments, “Central Park was not vacant land [freely available for creating new playgrounds, baseball fields, and recreation centers such as Moses built into it] but a landscape with already established forms of recreation and a historic design of signal beauty.”

Barlow’s powerful words – like these – demonstrate that she is not just an astonishingly accomplished and inspired motivator of people who helped create a new paradigm for public-private partnerships. She’s also an accomplished and convincing author. And this book abundantly demonstrates this. Earlier in her professional career, she worked as a writer, and she’s authored other major texts, including books about nature in New York City, about Frederick Law Olmsted, and about landscape design.

Some readers may skip over details she provides of Central Park’s restoration. Nonetheless, most will be inspired by this absorbing self-told story of a life dedicated to recreating a Central Park worthy of its name – this magical-again big green space amidst the crowded blocks of tall buildings in one of the world’s greatest cities.

— David Hugh Smith

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New York Times

Soon after I moved to Manhattan in the late 1970s, an old friend taught me to roller-skate. It feels like a lifetime ago now. We would go dancing at clubs — those disco nights — and then, as a new day dawned, lace up our boots and roll into Central Park. We had the place to ourselves, though getting any speed was tricky since the roads were pocked and potted. On all sides, the lawns were filthy and tattered. But as I looped through it, I fell in love with Central Park.

Luckily, at about the same time another woman felt the same way. Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir (Knopf, $30) is Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’s inspiring story of how, in the face of considerable resistance, she created a partnership to privately augment the funding and management of the park. Rogers attended the Yale School of Architecture’s city planning program while her husband was at law school. By the time they moved to New York, she had a daughter. But Rogers remembers how deeply resonant were the words she read in Betty Friedan’s 1963 volume, “The Feminine Mystique”: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.”

Rogers’s inadvertent municipal revolution proceeded in quiet stages. She joined a group called the Central Park Task Force and in 1976 created what turned out to be a clever marketing campaign with a magazine article called “32 Ways Your Time and Money Can Rescue Central Park.” In one week, she raised $25,000, along with many volunteers. This led to her formation of the Central Park Conservancy, which, with a handshake from Mayor Koch, eventually became an auxiliary of the city government.

New Yorkers may not appreciate how fragile a hold this public space has always had. Rogers swiftly reprises its history, beginning with the landscape firm of Olmsted and Vaux turning “a ragged 843-acre wasteland” into an area for scenic recreation. By 1872, 10 million visitors had ridden carriages along the drives, strolled the Mall, hiked the Ramble and boated and skated on the park’s lakes and ponds. “Think, then, of the Olmstedian experience of Central Park as one of articulated movement,” Rogers writes — exactly as it felt to this skater.

Boss Tweed inflicted the first era of depredation on the romantic grounds, destroying thousands of trees as a prelude to creating grandiose public works. As time passed, the park’s commissioners saw increasing opportunities for development. By the early 1900s, as sheep were grazing on Sheep Meadow, the park was becoming a recreational arena, dotted with playing fields and tennis courts. But the person who had the greatest impact was Robert Moses. On becoming parks commissioner in 1934, he ordered the paving of paths with asphalt, lined the shores of ponds and lakes with riprap embankments, reordered portions of the drives to accommodate cars and parking lots, built a new zoo and added playgrounds and skating rinks. Moses’ iron-fisted rule ended in 1960. After that, the park took a pounding. Rock concerts, be-ins, happenings, antiwar demonstrations, kite-flying contests and circus parades filled the meadows, which became dust bowls. A thriving drug trade took hold.

By the time Rogers retired in 1995, the Conservancy had put more than $100 million of private money into the park; today, she says, the figure has grown to $1 billion. All that money went into the refurbishment of hardscapes and the restoration of gardens, as well as planting and pruning. Rogers doesn’t address the controversy that eventually attended that fund-raising, as other parks in poorer neighborhoods remained neglected. Slowly but, we hope, surely, that disparity is being addressed.

— Dominique Browning

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Wall Street Journal

People take parks for granted. After all, they’re just natural landscape, grass and trees, and maybe some water. In truth, parks are complex man-made creations. Their design involves no less artifice than buildings, and like buildings they require constant attention – arguably greater attention, since their fabric is natural, and left unattended nature rapidly regresses to its wild and untamed state. Parks appear solid and unchanging, yet they are actually fragile. Made with great effort, they are easily unmade, easily altered and easily wrecked.

Consider the fortunes of New York’s Central Park. The 19th-century park was the brainchild of the poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant and Andrew Jackson Downing, a prominent horticulturist and landscape designer. Civic leaders supported the idea, the city acquired the land, and Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux provided the plan. Construction started in 1858 and was substantially complete by 1873. The south end, with the Mall, the Bethesda Fountain and the Lake, was finished first and was immensely popular with the public. But once it was built, the Tammany Hall politicians who ran the city lost interest, and the funds for maintaining the more than 800 acres of parkland dried up. Trees went unpruned, lawns unseeded, ponds untended. By the early 1900s, the park was an abandoned ruin.

This changed when the reformer Fiorello La Guardia, who became mayor in 1934, appointed Robert Moses parks commissioner. In his almost 30-year reign – and it was a reign – Moses effectively rebuilt the park. With Depression-era federal funds, he created the Great Lawn on the site of an old reservoir, introducing new roads and playgrounds, baseball diamonds, handball courts and ice-skating rinks, one doubling as a swimming pool. The autocratic Moses was no conservator, and some of these recreational facilities compromised the original artistry of the park, but he understood that management and maintenance were key ingredients in a successful park. By 1960, when he left his post, the revived Central Park was functioning effectively again.

In 1966 the newly elected mayor, John Lindsay, appointed Thomas Hoving as parks commissioner. Hoving initiated what is sometimes called the Events Era of Central Park. The Great Lawn and Sheep Meadow became the site of assorted musical concerts (symphonic, operatic, rock ’n’ roll, folk) as well as an assortment of mass rallies, political demonstrations and so-called happenings. This was “Central Park à Go Go” in Hoving’s showy phrase. The problem for him and his successors was that this intense public use coincided with a period of economic decline; by 1975 the city was on the brink of bankruptcy. Park budgets were slashed, maintenance and oversight reduced, and the much used – and much abused – landscape was left to its own devices.

The results were predictable. Structures deteriorated, ponds silted over, fountains dried up, the trampled Great Lawn became a great dust bowl. Walls, benches, even rock outcroppings were covered in graffiti. The lack of effective upkeep and policing encouraged a lawless atmosphere characterized by heavy drinking, vandalism, drug-dealing and other illicit activities. Some parts of the park, such as the Ramble and the North End above the Reservoir, were considered so dangerous that they became no-go zones, even for park workers.

This is where Elizabeth Barlow Rogers comes in. “At a time when Central Park was on the brink of collapse, I became, though a combination of zeal and luck, the leader of the cause to save it from destruction,” she writes in her compelling memoir, “Saving Central Park.” “Becoming the torchbearer for this cause was even more improbable given my gender, generation, and class.” Ms. Rogers was born in San Antonio. She had a privileged childhood. She was raised in a verdant garden suburb of the city; the family’s weekend retreat was a ranch in the Texas Hill Country. “Nature was my actual playground, not its digital representation in an adventure game computer application,” she writes. She was sent east to Wellesley College, where she majored in art history. She did not return to Texas but instead married, had a child and, while her husband was studying law at Yale, enrolled in that university’s graduate program in city planning. In 1964, the couple settled down on East End Avenue, on the edge of New York’s Upper East Side.

While raising a family, Ms. Rogers pursued a part-time writing career. Her first book, “The Forests and Wetlands of New York City” (1971), won the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing. Her second accompanied an exhibition on Frederick Law Olmsted at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was the Olmsted book that led in 1974 to an invitation to run the Central Park Task Force youth-employment program, a privately supported philanthropic initiative. With characteristic energy and imagination, Ms. Rogers organized summer interns and volunteers to work on restoring the park’s ravaged landscape.

These activities came to the attention of Gordon Davis, parks commissioner for the newly elected Mayor Edward I. Koch. In 1979 Koch appointed Ms. Rogers “Administrator of Central Park,” an unpaid position with yet-to-be defined responsibilities. “I broached the idea of founding a private organization to work in concert with his administration to arrest the further decline of Central Park,” she recalls. The following year the Central Park Conservancy was born.
During Ms. Rogers’s 16-year tenure, the Conservancy raised more than $100 million of private money for the park. (Today that total has grown to $1 billion.) But under her spirited leadership the Conservancy was much more than simply a successful fund-raising machine. Its mission statement was to “make Central Park clean, safe, and beautiful.” That required preparing plans, managing resources and setting priorities. The Koch administration had its hands full with the city’s economic recovery, so much of this work was done by the Conservancy, whose staff included landscape architects, horticulturists, historians and planners, aided by scores of volunteers and outside consultants: soil scientists, hydrologists, architects and sociologists. During the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, the arrangement remained much the same.

“Saving Central Park” is enlivened by extracts from Ms. Rogers’s personal journal, which add a sense of immediacy to her narrative. There are also two lengthy personal interludes, one describing her own gardening efforts improving a weekend property in the Hamptons, and another describing visits to various famous parks and gardens abroad – the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, the Tiergarten in Berlin, a moss garden in Kyoto. Both remind the reader that Ms. Rogers’s educated eye was as important as her historical intelligence, her organizational abilities and her people skills.

A large part of the author’s success on Central Park was due to her understanding that in a public-private partnership whatever power the private partner exercised came chiefly from winning the support of the public, not only in terms of raising funds and enlisting volunteers but also in terms of realizing programs. Thus among the Conservancy’s first restoration projects were the park’s most visible architectural features: the Mall and the Bethesda Fountain. Among the less glamorous but no less important maintenance programs were removing the estimated 50,000 square feet of graffiti that marred the park, repairing damaged benches and replacing smashed historic lampposts—more than 900 of them.

The first grassy area to be restored was Sheep Meadow; the Great Lawn followed. Reseeding required that the greensward be temporarily fenced off, and Ms. Rogers described the delicate negotiations that were required to keep such areas off limits to a public that had grown accustomed to roaming the park at will. The book’s useful “before” and “after” photographs will remind younger readers, who have never experienced the park except in its current state, of the challenging work that needed to be done.

Not all Conservancy initiatives went smoothly. Removing invasive tree species from the Ramble raised the ire of birdwatchers. A long and well-publicized lawsuit sank a proposal to demolish the virtually abandoned Naumburg Bandshell – an unsightly relic of the 1920s – and replace it with a new music pavilion on the site of the original Victorian Bandstand. A plan to build a new Tennis House was blocked by public opposition, which unfairly saw this as an elitist move to benefit the wealthy neighbors of the park.

Some of the controversies arose out of the Conservancy’s delicate relationship with the city’s park bureaucracy. “Simply put, a public park is government property, and its private-sector partner must operate at the behest of city officials as well as that of the body politic,” writes Ms. Rogers, who as city-appointed administrator, had a foot in both camps. Remarkably, during her entire tenure there was no formal agreement between the Conservancy and the city (that did not occur until 1998). This meant that everything had to be negotiated.

“Saving Central Park” is not only the story of the recovery of 800 acres of parkland; it is also the story of the rebirth of an idea – Olmsted’s idea that public parks are vital to the American city, not only as recreational retreats but also as democratic public spaces. This Victorian conceit has proved remarkably durable, as the more recent success of Manhattan’s High Line park has demonstrated. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the modern revitalization of New York City taking place without the simultaneous revival of its great parks.

The author’s reasonable voice rings clear in this beautifully written memoir, steely resolve beneath old-fashioned courtesy. Reading between the lines one senses her periodic frustration with a sometimes hide-bound bureaucracy. The cause of the tension between Ms. Rogers and the city was ultimately philosophical. The city bureaucrats saw the park as a collection of individual recreational amenities, whereas for her Central Park was a great work of landscape art that demanded to be treated as a unified canvas.

That vital distinction seems obvious today, but in 1980 Olmsted and Vaux’s Arcadian vision of the park was not well understood, and it is thanks to the Conservancy’s efforts that we came to appreciate Olmsted as a great American artist. Ms. Rogers’s position was not that of an elitist aesthete, however, as some critics have maintained. She understood history too well for that. “Public taste and popular opinion have always governed the fate of Central Park,” she writes. “Taking this historical perspective, one realizes that the park has had many lives and will continue to reflect the cultural values of each period in its history in the same way it has in the past.”

One can only hope that Central Park’s future will include individuals as committed and caring as Betsy Barlow Rogers.

— Witold Rybczynski

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