One hundred and fifty years ago, the New York State Legislature passed a bill designating land in the heart of Manhattan as a great central park. Today, the 843 acres that was saved from being swallowed up by developers is now treasured public landscape used as a respite from the feverish pace of the metropolis by over 25 million visitors and residents each year.
Many European cities have had public green spaces for centuries; the concept really didn't take root in New York until the mid-1800's, when the population of the city began to explode, thanks to rising birth rates and the huge influx of immigrants from around the world. By 1853, New Yorkers needed a respite from the crowded, dirty streets, bleak row houses, and grimy alleyways that characterized their city. Ironically enough, it was wealthy industrialists and landowners who initially proposed the establishment of a public park that would in time become the one truly egalitarian space in the city, where the poor and rich alike would gather to enjoy some greenery and get a break from the pace of their lives.
In 1857, the Central Park Commission selected Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux's so-called "Greensward Plan" as the original blueprint for Central Park. Since it settled into its current 843 acres of rolling, pastoral space, Central Park has faced an uphill battle; fending off developers who would whittle the park away to take advantage of what would be hugely valuable real estate, vandals and criminals who used the park's lush foliage as a cover for wrongdoing, and just the everyday wear and tear that millions of tromping feet, bike tires, baby carriages, rollerblades, and pet paws inflict on the park's paths and open spaces.
Caring for this immense national historic treasure is the responsibility of the Central Park Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1980 by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. The Conservancy manages Central Park under a contract with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Through the support of individuals, corporations, foundations, and volunteers, the Conservancy has raised nearly $300 million since its founding, and has rescued and restored Central Park's landscapes from the deterioration that set in during the city's 1970's fiscal crisis.
In addition to aerating and seeding lawns, raking leaves, planting shrubs, maintaining ball fields and playgrounds, and protecting over 150 acres of lakes and streams from pollution and algae, the Conservancy has spent nearly $70 million to restore and revitalize park landscapes. Some recent projects include the restoration of the Great Lawn, creation of the Naturalists' Walk, the rebuilding of the 79th Street Maintenance Yard, and the construction of a public plaza at Merchant's Gate - the park's entrance at Columbus Circle.