In New York City recently, I was stunned by the majestic beauty of Central Park. In fact, it’s overwhelming when scrutinized. Therefore, it has become something like a giant dynamo of the city’s unconscious. It reminded me of Norman O. Brown’s comment about how we are unconscious of our bodies, how that distinguishes being human. As I walked in and around Central Park for several hours, I noticed that very few people seemed to be aware of it.
Central Park has an extraordinary history: it was built quite recently (the 1860s and 1870s), as these things go, and the dream child of an unusual pair of men, one a self-taught novice and ex-journalist and the other a budding genius in the field of landscape architecture. It was laid out on democratic principles of easy and free access by the public, which was novel at the time, and in a weird way, still is. We suffer an epidemic of gated communities and parental playground paranoia. Life was dangerous then, too, much more than today, but folks were tougher, in private and public.
But I digress. The sheer majesty of the trees and the massive scale of the various greens and meadows places Central Park on a par with any of the urban gardens of Europe. Paris, London, Berlin and Munich have some that rival, but none are so stunning in their landscape artistry.
What Vaux and Olmstead achieved was to place the idea of nature ahead of the consideration of the public’s access to it. Central Park possesses aspects of both the wilderness as well as the human world. It’s an astonishing accomplishment to have pulled off in the middle of one of the world’s largest and certainly, its most sophisticated city. It is like a goddess that tames and quells the beasts surrounding it.
One of the curious comments I heard from friends with whom I spoke about it was “Well, it’s a work of art, you know”. I’m not the one to address about gardens being works of art, a bit raw as I am about the subject vis-a-vis Heronswood Gardens, which, while not Venusian, I assert will always be an extraordinary work of great art. (Please see Family Values, Magic Hats, West Coast Layers of Meaning and Kingston Tide.) But I nodded and sipped my drink. I always naively thought Central Park was a type of public works project.
My hostess was needling me a bit. She’s well aware of the grief we took about it. She made up for her indulgence by pointing out that the governing body of the park is The Central Park Conservancy, “and they call it a work of art too, George”. Sure enough, they do, on their website, in fact calling it “one of America’s greatest works of art”. Very true! We’ll have to work on getting a Cleopatra’s Needle out in Kingston.