I’m always amazed by the number of folks who think that most of Central Park is some kind of natural habitat of indigenous plants, a pristine terrain onto which we plunked our bike paths, boathouses and pretzel vendors.
In reality, nearly every square inch of Central Park was painstakingly landscaped back in the mid-nineteenth century to the specifications of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. A massive public works project, it required some 20,000 workers to subvert existing swamps and blow up bluffs to create a soothing pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition.
Oh, and there was the little matter of evicting the Irish pig farmers and German gardeners who’d built shantytowns on the land. And destroying Seneca Village, the “first significant community of African American property owners on Manhattan”. The five acre settlement, which included three churches and a school, was seized through eminent domain and demolished.
All this, so that cooped-up city dwellers could get their fix of “nature”. Our civilized way of life is so removed from the natural world that Central Park’s manicured, manipulated acres are as close to a bit of wilderness as we can hope to get within the borough of Manhattan.
But you can catch a glimpse of what Manhattan was really like before we invaded it and tamed it by watching the fascinating video that architect/educator Fritz Haeg’s created in collaboration with The Mannahatta Project. The video documents Haeg’s Lenape Edible Estate installation, which was designed to “provide a view back to the lives of the native Lenape people, how they lived off the land 400 years ago” on the island that was then called Mannahatta. Read more