Central Parkhistory

Central Park opened in 1857 as a response to the need for public green spaces within New York City. The Board of Commissioners of Central Park had held a design competition for a park on a sparsely developed plot of land that ran up the spine of Manhattan from 59 th to 110 th streets. [1] The winners, Central Park Superintendent for Construction Frederick Law Olmsted and English architect Calvert Vaux, incorporated in their Greensward plan an innovative system of footpaths, bridle paths and carriage roads separated by bridges and four sunken transverse roads, which accommodated city traffic while maintaining scenic views. This provided the city’s inhabitants with a rustic enclave, punctuated by formal elements, in an urban setting. Construction began in 1858 and was finally completed in 1873.

In 1934, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia chose Robert Moses as parks commissioner and head of a newly consolidated Department of Parks and Recreation. Like many other green spaces in the city, Central Park had fallen into decay. Moses and his team replanted trees, flowers, and bushes, and rebuilt broken bridges. Over the next decades—Moses served until 1960—dozens of playgrounds, ball fields, and courts were constructed as part of his vision to reinvent Central Park as a recreational space. He also supervised the landscaping of the famous “Great Lawn.”

The facelift did not last. Though the park was designated a national historic landmark in 1963, it suffered serious neglect over the following two decades. In 1975, the city nearly went bankrupt , thanks to theerosion of its manufacturing base, urban flight, and a national recession. The city budget tended to favor public safety, education, housing and welfare over parks at the best of times. The crisis left the Parks Department severely short of money and personnel.

Central Park was first among the casualties. The elegant mall, carefully composed naturalistic landscapes and charming secluded areas had degenerated into untended, ugly and dangerous places. Its public events were chaotic; its fields strewn with trash. While intended as a recreational space, the park’s reputation for drug abuse and crime, particularly at night, drove citizens and tourists away.

An aerial view of a neglected Central Park.

Savas Report . Concerned about its condition, civic-minded neighbors organized to reverse the decline of the park by raising money, organizing youth programs and coordinating volunteers. In 1975, a Central Park Task Force was formed. The same year, finance mogul George Soros and investor Richard Gilder co-founded the Central Park Community Fund, which commissioned chemist-turned-urban administrator and Columbia University management Professor E.S. Savas to study the park and make recommendations.

The Savas report, published in 1976, called for centralized control of Central Park. At the time, 12 foremen in 12 districts managed varying aspects of the park. Different crews handled maintenance, landscaping and equipment repair. Some were based in the park, others had responsibilities throughout the city or all five boroughs. It was nearly impossible to coordinate personnel, schedule work efficiently, or track costs.

The report recommended a single Central Park administrator, overseeing a separate unit within the city park system. “Central Park should be managed by a Park Executive, as should each of the other major parks in New York City,” it said. [2] The report also called for a “Board of Guardians” for strategic planning and policy to replace the ad hoc system in operation. Finally, it recommended a return to the 19-century model of civic engagement that had created Central Park—a citizen-led organization that would devise a master plan and raise the funds to realize it. [3]

Reorg 78-79 . In 1978, incoming Mayor Edward Koch tapped Gordon Davis , a Harvard-trained attorney, as his parks commissioner. The Parks and Recreation department was down to 2,500 fulltime employees from a high of 8,000. Morale was at rock bottom. As for Central Park, notes Davis:

Most people forget that Central Park is manmade. It requires constant maintenance, capital improvements and restorations. And none of that had been going on for basically a decade. As a physical piece of infrastructure, as a managed piece of public space, it was a mess. It had very low levels of staffing [and] almost no capital budget to speak of. [4]

Davis knew the city and, from his days in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay (1966-73), had a grasp of conditions throughout the five boroughs. As parks commissioner, he set about decentralizing the bureaucracy that his legendary predecessor Moses had created. As Davis recalls:

Moses created a park system that required 5,000 civil service employees year in, year out, 3,000 seasonal. No way I was going to have that. So you had to find other ways to manage the place.

Davis found ways. He created the position of borough parks commissioner. These new executives brought business management, public policy, and municipal operations experience to parks administration. He also appointed an administrator and a superintendent for each major park. Faced with severe budget constraints, Davis augmented his workforce using a federal job training program—18-month positions created under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).

He also created an Urban Park Rangers program of young, uniformed park workers to provide a visible presence, respond to visitors and monitor conditions. (A number of the original ranger cohort rose to senior positions in the Parks Department, including Adrian Benepe, commissioner from 2002-12.) As a bureaucratic, personnel tactic, it caused some friction. Davis recalls, ”it was a way of circumventing the usual civil service categories—and yeah, there were clashes.”

As Savas had recommended, Davis embraced a more active role for community groups and philanthropies. He worked to harness community support and private sector resources to bolster limited public funds and inadequate staff. It was “survival instinct,” says Davis. He was receptive to the idea of parks conservancies and trusts and encouraged the well-connected Central Park activists to merge and form a board, along the lines of Savas’ Guardians.

[1] The northern boundary was initially 106 th Street. The park was extended to 110 th Street in 1863.

[2] E.S. Savas et al, “A Study of Central Park,” Columbia University, 1976, pp. 3-20 and 3-28.

[3] Ibid, pp.3-44 and 3-45.

[4] Authors’ interview with Gordon Davis on February 12, 2014 in New York City. All further quotes from Davis, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.