IF YOU GROW UP IN RURAL VERMONT as I did, you really can only love it or leave it. I grew up in a remote corner called the Northeast Kingdom, and though I have a distant appreciation for its isolated beauty, I couldn’t get myself to a city fast enough after university. I left my rural identity behind with my Bean boots and puffy down jacket.
Now. after living in NYC for nearly 20 years, I have a much better appreciation for the rural, since I don’t have to contend with it every day. And after speaking with Charles Beveridge, a scholar in all things urbanely rural and rustic, for my story on Prospect Park’s renovation, I have some enlightenment.
Mr. Beveridge is the series editor for the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, a 19th century landscape architect, who along with Calvert Vaux, designed Prospect Park (and earlier, Central Park). I spent a rainy morning tromping around the muddy grounds of the newly restored section, so when Mr. Beveridge spoke to me about the designers’ vision for the park, I had a pretty good visual on that.
What was fascinating to me (and which ended up on the editorial cutting room floor) was Olmsted’s deliberation on not only how the park was to be used, but why. This got sort of shriveled down to a sentence in the story about man’s organic relationship to nature … but Mr. Beveridge explained the experience of the park was intentionally psychological, sociological and even theological.
“Every city needed to have one large park where you would have a removal—not just from the city— but an immersion below the level of consciousness and to a more powerful experience. … a necessary and universal experience based on human psychology in the urbanization of that period.”
On the surface, the intention was restorative: a respite among greenery and water features. But the designers were the community organizers of their day, believing in the power of the people to restore each other through shared experiences. They created places where diverse populations could gather, leaving their egos, occupations and troubles behind. And quite a lot of that happened at the restored area, the most formal part of the park, which includes the cove, concert grove and promenade.
It was a deliberate setting that gave visitors a democratic outdoor salon of sorts, leaving the rest of the park as a meditation between man and nature.
“It was designed for a political purpose—the creation of community in shared place—[and] the formality of the Concert Grove was inserted as a place where that kind of plural display could take place without imposing on the rest of the park,” said Mr. Beveridge.
But it’s the other, wild landscape that’s quite individualistic. This is where Olmsted, “took the picturesque and added psychology to it.” In Central Park, it’s the darkness and mystery of the Ramble, perhaps a reflection of the challenging and isolating urban environment.
In Prospect Park, it’s sublime pastoral landscapes and graceful long terrain of the Long Meadow, a natural shaping of the land and flow of paths. What this says about 19th century Manhattanites vs. Brooklynites, I don’t know, but Olmsted’s vision for these two types of parks, serving their respective communities has uncannily endured. My story is online at the WSJ here, or you may see the PDF with glorious photos here.