We’ve recently been hearing the futile stirrings from the dark side with their famous quotes of, “parks are wasted space” and calls for “pretty parking lots” and “buildings that generate revenue”. These unknowing minions of the Massachusetts Home Builders Association would coat our landscape from the New York border to the Atlantic with structures and when they were done, they’d tear it all down and restart the process again.
Americans created the concept of city parks. And it was as a direct result from the Industrial Revolution. Many observers of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America—residents, visitors, and expatriates alike—believed that its cities were ugly. The shapelessness of American urban centers was due in large measure to the extraordinary speed with which they had developed: between 1860 and 1910, the number of American cities with more than 100,000 residents rose from 8 to 50. By 1910, several cities had passed the one million mark. In Henry Blake Fuller’s 1895 novel, With the Procession, the artistic young Truesdale Marshall, just returned home from a prolonged grand tour, looked upon his native Chicago as a “hideous monster, a piteous, floundering monster too. It almost called for tears. Nowhere a more tireless activity, yet nowhere a result so pitifully grotesque, gruesome, appalling.”
City planners seeing this situation began to seek a way to make urban living a beneficial and healthy experience. Coming out of this desire the birth of the city park began to emerge with the writings of
A.J. Downing (1815 – 1852) one of the most important pre-Civil War designers and writers in America. In 1842 Downing collaborated with Alexander Jackson Davis on the book Cottage Residences, which mixed romantic architecture with the pastoral picturesque architecture of the English country side.
Most of Downing’s theories about housing advocated the cleansing of the soul through living in a rural, uncomplicated way. Downing was also influenced by his democratic desire to create places that would be enjoyed by all classes of society.
This desire lead Downing to begin to advocate LARGE inner city parks. Downing, saw a civilizing aspect of open spaces, and wanted to bring one to nearby New York City. Finally, after many years, New York City set aside land for Central Park. Downing and his partner Calvert Vaux devised preliminary plans for the park. Unfortunately, in 1852, he died suddenly in a steamboat accident and Frederick Law Olmstead, inspired by Downing took over. He also was driven by a desire to improve American society. He had visions of vast recreational and cultural achievements in the hearts of cities.
He did not see parks as just vast meadows, but rather he saw them as places of harmony; places where people would go to escape life and regain their sanity. He wanted these parks to be available to all people no matter what walk of life the person followed.
Olmsted had high expectations for his design’s psychology and visual effects on people. He believed that the perfect antidote to the stress and artificialness of urban life was a nice stroll through a pastoral park.
Later, Daniel Hudson Burnham who resided in Chicago became the prophet of this idea and founded the City Beautiful Movement that spread these concepts to major cities across America.
Indeed, if you watch carefully during our Newburyport downtown festivals, there is a natural flow of visitors and locals who after visiting all the booths and shows go and mingle at the Waterfront Park and experience the natural combination of flowers, landscape and the harbor activities. I recently went with the Custom House Friends Group that was visiting the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. With all the factories and tool shops crammed on the tiny island, when break came. the workers would take their sandwiches and they would stream toward the tiny common parks. It was like watching a magnet drawing them all in. The park became a place of mingling and recharging before they returned to their heavy industrial workload.
As Newburyport Development builds up on the west and east of the central waterfront, the expanded park will be a powerful recharging place for all to mingle and enjoy nature amongst the commercialism and the hubbub of our little city. It would be foolish to go against the proven history of the need for a LARGE central park. We have towering examples of the Boston Common, Prescott Park and the great waterfront park in Charleston. We can not allow dark siders to cheat our entire community with a congestion of privately-owned buildings.
The American Way is for us to have a dynamic Central Maritime Park that recharges the batteries of the entire downtown populace. Don’t let them replace our park with a collection of lawns.