Updated: Jul 15, 2020
by Leslie Mark
Every weekend the New Yorker magazine’s editors revisit archival material, including a recently republished 1997 essay by Adam Gopnik introducing readers to a young Frederick Law Olmsted before he had morphed into the famed landscape architect and designer of Central Park. His observations and ideals resonate as clearly today as they did in his time.
Gopnik’s essay offers us Olmsted before he designed an inch of parkland. Indeed, then he was “one of the most famous and articulate men in New York: an inspired and important newspaper reporter, and an influential witness to the reality of slavery and the slave states.”
It is striking to understand that Olmsted was ingrained in American culture and discourse in the 1850’s, but not as we know him. Olmsted’s extensive travel throughout the South spurred deep thinking on Western democracy. This “liberal democracy,” as he referred to it, was characterized by a written constitution delineating powers of government and enshrining the social contract of a new American society.
“…the basis of democracy lies in what we now call civil society, but which [Olmsted] called ‘commonplace civilization.’ The pressure that drove him from one career to the other was the pressure of this discovery. When we walk in [Central] Park, what we are seeing is not a protected bit of nature but something more original: a democratic playground, a liberal common, the ideal anti-plantation.”
Olmsted argued that “only government could organize [citizens] to provide the means … for [everyone] to pursue happiness...” He was saying that a liberal democratic society couldn’t tell people what games to play, but it could build a park where they could play them. Thus, his transition from writer to landscape architect.
Olmsted’s designs weren’t meant to simply preserve nature but were to be democratic playgrounds, or “the ideal anti-plantation.” Human endeavors and play didn’t interfere with the ‘park-ness’ and the park didn’t interfere with their play. Central Park’s design showcased liberal virtues and the limitations of liberalism: “…you are never alienated, but you are often disoriented. It adapts itself to you, but it never remembers you.”
It is a little jarring to realize that things in which we have made emotional investment might be things in which society has made only a passing or practical investment. Once, we may have cared more about institutions than we do today, or than the institutions have ever cared about us, but what Olmsted was offering was the idea that Western liberalism “didn’t mean a level, featureless playing field, but an adaptable, absent-minded park setting where everybody can go to play, and nobody leaves a footprint.” That element of “commonplace civilization” is a gift worth guarding especially today.
Read the essay here.