THE leading topic of town gossip and newspaper paragraphs just now in New York is the new park proposed by Mayor Kingsland. Deluded New York has until lately contented itself with the little dooryards of space - mere grass-plats of verdure - which form the squares of the city, in the mistaken idea that they are parks. The fourth city in the world (with a growth that will soon make it the second), the commercial metropolis of a continent spacious enough to border both oceans, has not hitherto been able to afford sufficient land to give its citizens, the majority of whom live there the whole year round, any breathing space for pure air, any recreation ground for healthful exercise, any pleasant roads for riding or driving, or any enjoyment of that lovely and refreshing natural beauty from which they have, in leaving the country, reluctantly expatriated themselves for so many years, perhaps forever. Some few thousands, more fortunate than the rest, are able to escape for a couple of months into the country to find repose for body and soul in its leafy groves and pleasant pastures or to inhale new life on the refreshing seashore. But in the mean time the city is always full. Its steady population of five hundred thousand souls is always there, always on the increase.
Every ship brings a live cargo from over-peopled Europe, to fill up its over-crowded lodging houses; every steamer brings hundreds of strangers to fill its thronged thoroughfares. Crowded hotels, crowded streets, hot summers, business pursued till it becomes a game of excitement, pleasure followed till its votaries are exhausted, where is the quiet reverse side of this picture of town life, intensified almost to distraction?
* Original date of August, 1851.
* It might be said that this essay on "The New York Park" has only a historic interest. Certainly it is of the utmost value from the standpoint of history, but it must seem worth while to everyone to review the development of the city park idea in America. In this development Mr. Downing played an important role. Another essay entitled "A Talk about Public Parks and Gardens," and dated October, 1848, has been omitted from the present edition, but it does not seem proper to neglect altogether the very important connection between the work of Mr. Downing in that time and our present enjoyment of splendid park systems in all American cities. - F. A. W.
Mayor Kingsland spreads it out to the vision of the dwellers in this arid desert of business and dissipation - a green oasis for the refreshment of the city's soul and body. He tells the citizens of that feverish metropolis, as every intelligent man will tell them who knows the cities of the old world, that New York, and American cities generally, are voluntarily and ignorantly living in a state of complete forgetfulness of nature, and her innocent recreations. That, because it is needful in civilized life for men to live in cities, - yes, and unfortunately too, for children to be born and educated without a daily sight of the blessed horizon, - it is not, therefore, needful for them to be so miserly as to live utterly divorced from all pleasant and healthful intercourse with gardens, and green fields. He informs them that cool umbrageous groves have not forsworn themselves, within town limits, and that half a million of people have a right to ask for the greatest happiness of parks and pleasure grounds, as well as for paving stones and gas lights.
Now that public opinion has fairly settled that a park is necessary, the parsimonious declare that the plot of one hundred and sixty acres proposed by Mayor Kingsland is extravagantly large. Shortsighted economists! If the future growth of the city were confined to the boundaries their narrow vision would fix, it would soon cease to be the commercial emporium of the country. If they were the purveyors of the young giant, he would soon present the sorry spectacle of a robust youth magnificently developed but whose extremeties had outgrown every garment that they had provided to cover his nakedness.
These timid tax payers, and men nervous in their private pockets of the municipal expenditures, should take a lesson from some of their number to whose admirable foresight we owe the unity of materials displayed in the New York City Hall. Every one familiar with New York has wondered or smiled at the apparent perversity of taste which gave us a building, in the most conspicuous part of the city, and devoted to the highest municipal uses, three sides of which are pure white marble, and the fourth of coarse brown stone. But few of those who see that incongruity know that it was dictated by the narrow-sighted frugality of the common council who were its building committee, and who determined that it would be useless to waste marble on the rear of the City Hall, "since that side would only be seen by persons living in the suburbs".
Thanking Mayor Kingsland most heartily for his proposed new park, the only objection we make to it is that it is too small. One hundred and sixty acres of park for a city that will soon contain three-quarters of a million of people! It is only a child's playground. Why London has over six thousand acres either within its own limits, or in the accessible suburbs, open to the enjoyment of its population - and six thousand acres composed too, either of the grandest and most lovely park scenery, like Kensington and Richmond, or of luxuriant gardens, filled with rare plants, hot-houses and hardy shrubs and trees, like the National Garden at Kew. Paris has its Garden of the Tuileries, whose alleys are lined with orange trees two hundred years old, whose parterres are gay with the brightest flowers, whose cool grooves of horse-chestnuts, stretching out to the Elysian Fields, are in the very midst of the city. Yes, and on its outskirts are Versailles (three thousand acres of imperial groves and gardens there also), and Fontainbleau, and St. Cloud, with all the rural, scenic, and palatial beauty that the opulence of the most profuse of French monarchs could create, all open to the people of Paris. Vienna has its great Prater, to make which, would swallow up most of the unimproved part of New York city.
Munich has a superb pleasure ground of five hundred acres, which makes the Arcadia of her citizens. Even the smaller towns are provided with public grounds to an extent that would beggar the imagination of our short sighted economists, who would deny a greenery to New York; Frankfort, for example, is skirted by the most beautiful gardens, formed upon the platform which made the old ramparts of the city - gardens filled with the loveliest plants and shrubs, tastefully grouped along walks over two miles in extent.
Looking at the present government of the city as about to provide, in the People's Park, a breathing zone and healthful place for exercise for a city of half a million of souls, we trust they will not be content with the limited number of acres already proposed. Five hundred acres is the smallest area that should be reserved for the future wants of such a city, now, while it may be obtained. Five hundred acres may be selected between Thirty-ninth-street and the Harlem River, including a varied surface of land, a good deal of which is yet waste area, so that the whole may be purchased at something like a million of dollars. In that area there would be space enough to have broad reaches of park and pleasure grounds, with a real feeling of the breadth and beauty of green fields, the perfume and freshness of nature. In its midst would be located the great distributing reservoirs of the Croton aqueduct, formed into lovely lakes of limpid water, covering many acres, and heightening the charm of the sylvan accessories by the finest natural contrast. In such a park the citizens who would take excursions in carriages or on horseback could have the substantial delights of country roads and country scenery and forget for a time the rattle of the pavements and the glare of brick walls.