In the mid 1800’s advocates, consisting primarily of wealthy merchants and landowners, called for the creation of a park like the public grounds they admired in London and Paris. By 1857, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and designer Calvert Vaux won the competition to construct the park we know as Central Park.
While designing the park, a “naturalistic” style of design, admired from the English, was incorporated. Several circulation systems such as pedestrian walks, carriage drives and equestrian paths were weaved into the park allowing for slow meandering without risk of traffic between either users. This consideration allows those circulating throughout the park the chance to stop and at their own pace capture the scenic views and landscape of the park. These views can be seen in areas of the park such as the Mall, where several species of trees, that were brought over from different places, can be seen as you walk down it’s lengths. While some of these views/ landscapes were man-made, there are aspects of the park that naturally occurred such as the bedrock shooting up from glaciers long ago. Left intact perhaps to further enforce the idea that the whole park and all of its features are “natural.” Another design of the park that impacts its visitors are the grand open spaces of grass such as the Great Lawn and the Sheep Meadow. These areas help create spots where, as intended, people can relax while being there.
Several of Central Park’s features are remarkable however there are a few in particular which I believe to be notable— the terrace that leads into the Bethesda Fountain and the pond behind it. The episodic moment that occurs from these three areas being so close to one another creates the perfect getaway from the urban world and its everyday things. The fountain is centered right beyond the terrace, standing twenty-six feet tall catching the eyes and attention of anyone coming through. Just being under the enclosed part of the terrace, exposes users to a different design/style than that which is experienced/ seen at the Belvedere Castle and the Dairy. Even though the pond and all the staged waterfalls within Central Park were man-made, they still replicate scenic elements that can only be observed in far rural areas successfully. This integration of views found within nature, along with areas for leisure, makes Central Park a grand green space that victoriously provides an escape from the urban world.
During the late eighteen hundreds, the population increased rapidly and almost half the population was being made up of immigrants. Landowners took advantage of this influx of people, seeing the provision of housing as an opportunity to make a lot of money. Due to this greed, several problems began to surface for immigrants and the working poor who couldn’t offered better housing and had to put up with horrid conditions.
Many factors gave rise to the housing crisis for immigrants and the working poor. One reason being that the homeowners would cramp up far too many people into one building and still have tenants living in basements and cellars. Most of the time these owners had maxed out how many people they could fit in one piece of land only to gain as much money as they possibly could from their tenants. This resulted in a degradation of air quality. Another reason was sanitation problems persisting not only within the immigrants houses but also on the streets. For example, horse manure and even the bodies of deceased horses could be found on the sides of streets/roads and nobody would clean it off the streets for days or even weeks at a time. Another sanitation issue was that if the house had a bathroom inside, most of the time a large number of people, if not all the tenants, shared that same bathroom. If the bathroom was located outside the house, all there was to it was a hole dug on the ground which after a while would fill up creating the need for a new hole and in turn creating several areas where human waste was buried. That along with the manure of horse and their carcasses created intolerable stenches that were unsanitary for the people near it. Another major issue was the lack of ambient light due to the fact that houses would take up almost the entire lot of land. Houses were being built back to back and side to side all for the profit of homeowners and to the ruin of their tenants.
A lot was needed to be done to fix the horrid conditions in which tenants in the eighteen hundreds were expected to live in. For example, the amount of people to a house and even a room needed to be regulated in order to prevent overcrowding and improve air quality within houses. Not only that but also to restrict homeowners from placing tenants in cellars and basements because those areas of the house provided little to no fenestration or fresh air. Regulations for sanitation also had to be implemented because the streets were really dirty to the point that some became inaccessible or just too disgusting for someone to even want to pass through.
This crisis mirrors current conditions of housing in New York in that although it’s illegal unless approved by DOB, homeowners still rent basements/ cellars for people to live in. Not only that but the sense of over-crowdedness is still present, people with low income struggle to make rent and find themselves sharing one bedroom apartments. Over-crowdedness also in the sense that spaces are becoming smaller, in order to make more apartments/ spaces to house more people and collect more money. In that aspect, I don’t believe much has changed.
Much can be said about the architecture and streetscape of Brooklyn Heights, the Promenade and some of Early New York. Learning more about the history surrounding these areas speaks to the facts around the way structures and streets were designed and laid out.
Our walk began in the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, which in comparison to Early New York (at the time) was nothing. In the beginning people were mostly settling and developing the land of Early New York. So, in order to make people move out to Brooklyn, the land (in lots) was offered at lesser values than the cost of land in Early New York. This definitely appealed to many people and to others it was a chance to make tons of money. Some of these people who bought land would buy a couple lots and build houses on them so that they could later sell those houses to make a profit. This is the reason why some of the houses in Brooklyn Heights look identical. Meanwhile in Early New York, the buildings are all different in appearance. The value of land in Early New York was greater than land in Brooklyn so buying lots of land in Manhattan wasn’t as plausible and required a greater sum of money.
The structures going up in Early New York and Brooklyn had different purposes and this can be seen through the height of buildings. For Brooklyn, the structures going up were homes and they stayed at small scales because no one needed a living room that’s twenty or more feet tall. The houses in Brooklyn weren’t tall in general either and would be at most two to three levels only. However, the structures in Early New York had ground floors that were tall and the reason for that was because these buildings were warehouses/storage areas. All the commercial action was centered in Early New York, all its trading and importation happened there so they had to build to accommodate for this. This accommodation can also be seen in the streetscape, where compared to Brooklyn, the streets in Early New York are much wider. This was done for the purpose of vehicular transportation of goods. Also, the structures here that weren’t residential ones went up several levels.
People settling down in Brooklyn had front row seats to the development of Early New York and so that area became a place of residence. Even though Brooklyn and Early New York had different uses for their buildings, there were some similarities in the designing of their buildings. Some houses in Brooklyn Heights and some commercial buildings in Early Manhattan have pilasters on their façades. Not only that but the material used in the beginning was the same for both areas. Wood, which was later replaced with brick in both areas, was the cheapest building material and so it was greatly used until too many fires consumed buildings on both sides causing them to look towards another building material.
Urban development doesn’t always occur in the same way and at the same exact time. Factors such as topography and population growth can greatly affect or influence the development of land. Such is the case for the lands we now call Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Before any development or planning began, European settlers weren’t exactly too concerned with how and where they settled down. The Dutch were the first to set foot in Early Manhattan and it was only until the British claimed the land that any development began. The only thing guiding them was the memory of street layouts like those from the city of London. The need for a better layout and more land to settle on was met when many more settlers began to arrive at a progressive rate. At this moment the state appointed three commissioners to plan Manhattan’s development. A man named John Randal Jr, was hired to draft the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan. It can be said that the layout of Early Manhattan was strict in the sense that any home or other building that stood in the way of a proposed road would be taken out in order to keep the land in accordance to the grid they had adapted.
Even though Brooklyn wasn’t located too far from Manhattan, the rate at which Manhattan’s urban growth took place and the amount of planning that went into developing it was completely different than what happened when Brooklyn’s development occurred. Not only did Brooklyn develop after Manhattan, it also didn’t receive any master plan. When Brooklyn was being developed the goal only seemed to be to fix any heavy congestion of roads, while working around any already built structures. This, added to the fact that Brooklyn’s typography consisted of several hills prevented the same strict development that took place in Manhattan from occurring in Brooklyn.
Everyone wanted to be in Manhattan, where all the commerce was happening and due to that Early Manhattan’s development occurred because more space/ land to provide for their growing population was needed. This resulted in narrow lots to provide those space and organized streets. Brooklyn, at a distance from Manhattan and all the commercial action, never saw that same need. Brooklyn was treated as an area to vacation/relax on or watch the action in Manhattan at a distance and that is reflected on it’s grid.