This time last year, I was in New York. Naturally, I made a beeline for Central Park, of which I’d read much but had never visited. What a jewel!
Besides expanses of lawn on which children played, dogs raced and sunlovers basked, there were beautiful wild areas buzzing with pollinators. The plantings include lots of goldenrods, lots of asters, spikes of Bottlebrush Grass, graceful curves of Canada Wild Rye, fluffy white clusters of Boneset, tall stems of Joe Pye Weed, drifts of Anise Hyssop, ladders of White Turtlehead and, very effectively, the pale pink sepals of Spotted Beebalm. Also an aromatic bed of Sweetfern, a native shrub used for many medicinal purposes that flourishes in dry rocky or sandy conditions. Old friends, as the vegetation of New York State is much the same as ours.
A striking aspect of Central Park is the huge outcroppings of bedrock that shaped the 1850s design by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. Thank goodness for the vision of those who designated the original 778 acres on Manhattan! Let's remember their names, as well as those who sacrificed, but whose names were never recorded. I find it instructive to recall how Central Park was born as, in our own time, efforts to set aside and preserve urban green space continue to be met with obstinate political opposition. The prime movers were American landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, Croton Aqueduct Board president Nicholas Dean (a reservoir in Central Park was to be an essential element of the city’s drinking water supply system) and poet and New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant (the delightful Bryant Park, next to the main branch of the New York City Library, is named after him).
In July 1853, the New York State Legislature passed the Central Park Act. Over the next couple of years political opposition sprung up and a board of land commissioners voted to downsize the plan. This was vetoed by Mayor Fernando Wood, a not-very-nice man - a Tammany Hall politician and opponent of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery. Some 1,600 residents were evicted to make way for the park. Seneca Village, made up of free black people, Irish and German immigrants, and possibly some Native Americans, was one of the communities to be obliterated. The cost of the 'jewel' was heartbreak for some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable. Still, as is the American way, money was made, with the price of the Central Park project ballooning from $1.7 million to $7.39 million (more than the United States paid for Alaska a few years later).
Let's celebrate the achievement and learn from the mistakes.
Another striking Central Park feature: the trees. A New York guidebook notes that Olmstead championed a natural look (albeit enhanced for human enjoyment, with the swampy terrain drained and the bedrock blasted to make the park’s four sunken transverse roads). A 55-acre woodland in the northwest corner is much as it was before the park was created and the shoreline of the Meer (Dutch for lake), in the northeast corner, also remains mostly as Olmstead conceived it, with groupings of Black Locusts, and willows spreading along the shoreline. Going south, the trees are largely native - American Elms, Kentucky Coffee Trees, Honey Locusts and White Pines. Near the centre of the Ramble, a candelabra-like Black Tupelo (Sourgum) has been honoured as a Great Tree of the City. But as has been the custom in modern parks, there are trees from around the world, for instance the Yoshino cherry trees, a gift of the Japanese government in 1912, and most popular at blossom time.
Central Park went through some rough patches at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Pollution (hello, car), soil compaction and erosion took their toll. A restoration in the 1930s was short-lived and the decline continued into the ‘60s and ‘70s. Wikipedia states: “The 1975 New York City fiscal crisis left Central Park a virtually abandoned dustbowl that residents came to view as a dangerous, crime-ridden space.” Enter the Central Park Conservancy that started raising funds for reconstruction of park features and in 1998 took over park management. In this century, invasive species like Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, and jetbead are being removed and volunteers and high school students participate in ecological restoration with the planting of native grasses, wildflowers and shrubs.
I didn’t see many birds when I visited - just pigeons, house sparrows and a few ducks in various water features - but that was because I didn’t linger. In fact, some 270 species are either resident or migrate through Central Park, which is an important waystation on the Atlantic Flyway. There’s a charming book, Red-Tails in Love, by Marie Winn (Vintage) that focuses on the trials and tribulations of a red-tailed hawk family in the park. One wouldn’t think that this simple tale (first published in 1998 but recently updated) of nests built, nests dismantled, property managers trounced and celebrities enrolled in the defence of the hawks would be such a page-turner. It testifies to Winn’s skill in portraying an eclectic band of naturalists who observe and protect the park’s birdlife, the kind of group that exists all over these days, speaking for those species whose voice is usually ignored.
Great though Central Park is, for me, true excitement came with a visit to a wonderful linear park that runs down the west side of the island of Manhattan. I knew nothing of the High Line - now I think of it with great affection as an example of how nature can reclaim the most devastated industrial spaces, and how garden artists can unleash unsuspected forces of beauty and ecological life. The High Line has grown on a viaduct section of a railway line that was abandoned in 1980. In the following decade, struggles ensued between railway enthusiasts who wanted it preserved and a city administration that wanted it demolished. Meanwhile, tough grasses, drought-resistant shrubs and hardy trees were busy colonizing the space. A photographer captured the beauty, a book was published, support grew for a project that would build on what nature had wrought, Friends of the High Line was formed, funds were raised and the first phase of the gardens - filled with plants both native and introduced, as well as art and people, many many people - opened in 2009.
There’s a lavishly illustrated coffee-table paperback book about this, Gardens of the High Line - Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes (Timber Press - 2017) by the well-known Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudof and Rick Darke, a Pennsylvania landscape consultant, who were among the many who brought the project to life. In the introduction, Richard Hammond, a co-founder of Friends of the High Line, quotes from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “Everything must change so everything can stay the same.” It’s this paradox that we gardeners must come to terms with as we make difficult decisions about which species will play a positive role in our landscape and which should be discouraged.
As our season moves towards fall, it’s worth looking at what Oudof and Darke do - and don’t do - at this time of year to address density and promote balance in the plantings on the High Line. From their book:
“The cutback is the single most significant annual event in the life cycle of the High Line’s gardens… the most admirable aspect is its timing. Contrary to the long-established horticultural custom of ‘putting the garden to bed for winter,’ the High Line delays the cutback of herbaceous plants until March and the horticultural, ecological and aesthetic benefits of this approach are profound.
“When allowed to remain, dry foliage from the previous year’s growth helps protect plants from raw desiccating and freezing effects of winter winds. It also offers shelter for wildlife, including birds, hibernating butterflies and other beneficial insects. Stalks standing through winter provide perches for avian life and are necessary for the effective wind dispersal of seeds.
“Looking beyond mere functionality, the lines, forms, textures and patterns of last season’s dried life contribute a world of beauty to the winter landscape that is readily accessible to anyone taking the time to observe closely.”
New ways of seeing, new ways of being. Urban parks can be powerful educators.