After years of debate over location, construction finally began in 1857. The park’s design was based on the winner of a contest, the “Greensward Plan,” submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted, the park superintendent, and architect Calvert Vaux. The city purchased 840 acres in the center of Manhattan, and those 1,600 residents then living in the rocky, swampy area were evicted. Though the city did pay landowners an average of $700 per lot of land, many estimated this far below the value of what their lives and homes were worth. The location was chosen by the city and park planners because the terrain was not suitable for commercial building, and offered many natural elements that could be refined, enhanced, diminished and eliminated to create a Europeanstyle park. Olmsted and Vaux’s plan included four roads to carry crosstown traffic below park level, with only four architectural structures throughout. Thousands of Irish, German and New England-area laborers worked 10-hour days for $1.00-$1.50 per day, until, in the winter of 1858, the park’s first area was open to the public. That December, New Yorkers skated on the 20-acre lake south of the Ramble. Final stages of park construction began in 1863 in its furthest uptown sections, which were not as meticulously designed, as budgeting was tightened by the new incoming comptroller, Andrew Green.
In the first decade after completion, it was clear for whom the park was built, as it was too far uptown for the working-class population to walk. Trainfare was an unaffordable luxury, as was traveling time, since most worked long six-day workweeks. So throughout the 1860s, the park remained the playground of the rich. By the late 19th century, when workers launched a successful campaign to hold Sunday concerts, they too began to frequent and crowd this desirable city paradise.
Moving into the 20th century, the lower reservoir was drained and turned into the Great Lawn. The first playground was established in 1926, despite opposition by conservationists who argued that the park was simply supposed to be a countryside escape for urban dwellers. The playground, used mostly by children of middle and working-class parents, was a huge success, and by the 1940s, parks commissioner Robert Moses had approved the opening of more than 20 playgrounds.
Central Park’s uses continued to evolve based on the needs of the city’s population, and by the middle of the 20th century, ball clubs were allowed to play there. In the 60s and 70s, the park’s maintenance declined. A 1976 evaluation by Columbia University found many sections in sad disrepair, inspiring the 1980s “You Gotta Have Park” campaign in an attempt to involve New Yorkers in a massive clean-up effort.
The Central Park Conservancy, a private, not-for-profit organization, was formed in 1980 to raise funds for repairs to restore the park to national prominence. In 1998, the city awarded the Conservancy a contract to manage the park. The major site of most every New Yorker’s recreation today, Central Park hosts millions of visitors each year, engaging in every activity, from rollerblading to dining at Tavern on the Green, watching free performances of Shakespeare in the park, or exciting their children at the Zoo and just relaxing on the Great Lawn.
Real beauty transcends beyond the spectacular park, however, and extends into the breathtaking buildings themselves that surround it, all rich with architectural detail and painstaking craftsmanship. When it comes to real estate, just like in sections of the Upper East Side, this is the big leagues. If you can handle possibly waiting years and paying exceptionally high prices for the most desirable and glamorous apartments and condos on the market, then the streets along Central Park, especially Central Park West and South, as well as Fifth Avenue to the East, are where you want to be. While not technically in a neighborhood in and of themselves, these areas are admired for their unique, distinguished character and offer the most magnificent and prestigious addresses in all of New York City. Most apartments along Fifth Avenue and Central Park West were built between the turn of the century and the 1930s, and feature large, elegant units complemented by uniformed doormen and other fine amenities. The area’s population, mainly over 45, is undoubtedly wealthy. The Central Park area offers everything from ice skating and cross country skiing in the winter to bicycling, concerts, and Shakespeare in summer. But living next to Central Park, while most New Yorkers’ wildest dream, also comes with a large price tag. Residents don’t seem to mind the hordes of tourists and city dwellers sharing their neighborhood in fair weather…in fact, they are downright proud of it.