The Legacy of Olmsted

Dear Islanders;

Frederick Olmsted

In the last several months I have heard the name Olmsted thrown around a lot. Several people have actually told me that he designed West River Parkway and thus it must be preserved. Did he? And who was Frederick Law Olmsted really?  What did he want? And what was his relationship to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Grand Island? 

Olmsted designed many of America’s greatest public parks, including Central Park in New York City. And when I say design, I mean design. Central Park used to be a swamp, not a series of pastoral fields, hills, and groves. Olmsted engineered the park, rather than preserve its natural state. He believed in manicuring nature to reflect the sort of visions you might find in great works of romanticism. And he did this for a purpose: to create spaces where we can reflect on the purpose of life, goodness, and greatness. 

Parks like Churches

Olmsted wrote in his piece “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns” that parks could be like churches, meaning places for spiritual regeneration. He was also a man of the people. He had visited England and witnessed firsthand the glorious estates of British aristocrats, which were so well maintained and beautiful. Olmsted believed every man should have equal access to such places for the betterment of society. 

 

It took some time for Olmsted to find his vision. He started off a bit of a lost soul, raised after his mother died mostly by a series of ministers.  He wandered. And like many of us, he tried (and often failed) many things before finding success. He was a writer who traveled in the southern states and wrote one of the most detailed, first-hand, contemporaneous accounts of slavery, including “Cotton Kingdom.” He was a publisher. And he even traveled to China as a sailor, catching scurvy and almost succumbing to it. 

Olmsted was saddened by what he saw at Niagara Falls

After experiencing the great American West and helping to preserve Yosemite in California, Olmsted visited Niagara Falls. He was disheartened by what he saw as the “repulsive” condition of the falls. On both sides it was covered in a collage of small hotels, mills, carpentry shops, bath houses, burlesque shows, large hotels, and fences. It was a cluttered mess of ruin and confusion. Sound familiar? 

Olmsted discussed the matter with his contemporary, the great painter Frederick Edwin Church, who painted one of the most dramatic and beautiful pictures of Niagara ever created. Both men were members of the famed Century Club in New York City. That club was an eclectic and elite mix of some of America’s most influential captains of industry and artists. Together—over brandy and cigars, likely—they developed a movement to “free Niagara.” They called themselves the “reservationists.” As Olmsted as their chief instigator, he began a multi-year letter writing campaign to convince the public that Niagara must be “reserved” as a natural sanctuary for all mankind, and not a circus of carnal delight. 

Olmsted's rules

Olmsted eventually designed the parks around the falls. In doing so, he adhered to a few simple rules. He wanted carriages kept far from the water, so as to avoid perfunctory glances of the river and the falls. He believed that you must “get into” nature, not just coast by it. He was most disturbed that tourists to Niagara Falls far too often just drove by, looked out of their carriage, and then moved on quickly to watch the freak shows and dancing girls. Thus, in his design, the area around the falls featured winding trails and benches for contemplation. Further, he did not want concessions near the falls, no more than Jesus wanted merchants in the temple. 

 

Today, Niagara is not what Olmsted imagined. Having recently visited, it’s more beautiful than it has been in years. Luna Island in particular is amazing. You can walk right up to the falls and look straight down into the overpowering cascade. But concessions remain, as do parking lots of cars. In my opinion, wouldn’t it make sense to move some of that into the city, where it could help invigorate the city? 

Moses vs. Olmsted

As anyone who knows Olmsted can quickly figure out, Olmsted did not build the Parkway. It is completely against his view of nature. The Parkway is the work of Robert Moses who believed in commercial traffic as the paramount goal of industrial projects and had little regard for natural preservation or the preservation of neighborhoods. Moses worshipped at a different alter, featuring a golden piston. To him, automobiles over all of us, was the key to America’s future. 

 

Olmsted remains one of the most revered artists and thinkers in American history. His foresight and vision helped preserve who define what we believe public spaces should be: places like Central Park, an oasis meant to help us commune with nature even in the most complex and demanding urban settings. This is also like our own Delaware Park (also designed by Olmsted), which is a place full of all manner of people flowing in and out from all walks of life right in front of Buffalo’s most prime real estate. While we now seek to reinvest and restore the works of Olmsted, the works of Moses lie cracking and decaying, forgotten and abandoned. The legacy of Moses and Olmsted is set. Grand Island’s is not.

Update on Fall Fest:

What a wonderful event!!  Vendors, live music, pumpkins, cider, face painting and bounce houses—fun for everyone.  All at the historical and locally famous Kelly’s Country Store. I look forward to our next community event. Embrace Grand Island events – especially our local farming movement – and events like Kids Biz, Gus Macker, Taste of Grand Island, Fall Fest, Light up the Boulevard and more….  let’s support each other.  Without your involvement, store fronts stay empty, gas stations stay closed and nothing ever happens. 

 

With highest regards,

Nate