Paved Paradise

Like with much of what is spewed out of New York’s over-hyped, PR-industrial complex, a closer look at Central Park reveals a thin green veneer covering a hollow and tired system.

One soon grows tired of being just.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Central Park is the most famous, popular, influential, iconic, democratic, public park in the history of human civilization. And we need to destroy it. Not convinced yet? Neither am I.

I know the idea of taking a sledgehammer to the Bethesda Fountain—which captured my imagination as a young gay teen watching Angels in America on HBO—or a chainsaw to one of the last remaining stands of elm trees in North America, may seem a bit dramatic as my pièce de résistance against the forces that be, but a backpage column requires audacious, even ridiculous, thinking. Ideas that lead one to question the very meaning of free speech and its place in our society, or whether we should jail journalists. But before you do that, please know that this is just an opinion piece and that I don’t have room for a wrecking ball in my tiiiiny New York apartment.

To be honest, Central Park is a schlep-and-a-half. It’s far. Only by traveling to the park do I work up the stress that its bucolic landscape purports to relieve. And once I’ve achieved any semblance of peace, it’s time to descend back underground.

My other bone to pick is that I can’t see Central Park. In fact, most New Yorkers can’t see Central Park, which is perhaps why views of the park fetch an estimated 25 percent price premium. I know it exists, but I don’t feel its benefits. Its restorative qualities do not trickle down Sixth Avenue, past the Best Buy on 23rd Street, to my office on 21st, or further still toward the DeKalb L stop, down bedraggled Stanhope Street, and up three floors to my large hallway aka railroad apartment.

Of course, something being far away and hard to see is not really a good rationale for its obliteration. I know that to scream “if I can’t have you, no one will,” appears so comically evil, so resolutely unpopular that numerous times I have asked myself why on earth I proposed this in the first place. Rather than destroying something universally loved, couldn’t I have proposed destroying something universally loathed? Like Hudson Yards? Like Dimes Square? But even after living in New York for upwards of ten years, Central Park has always felt like more of an idea than a place. In some ways suggesting its demise offered me an opportunity to get to know it more. Maybe even to love it.

Embarking on this quixotic quest, I reached for native New Yorker and master of measured Marxist critique Marshall Berman’s 1982 book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, untouched since an urban studies seminar in college. I thought Berman might have something salient to say about Central Park, but he barely mentions it. Still, Berman’s conflicting views of modernity proved helpful. He is enraptured by the psychological portrait of the modern man depicted in the literature of Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire, and Goethe, yet traumatized by the horrors of modern development, specifically the razing of his childhood neighborhood in the Bronx at the hands of Robert Moses to build the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Processing New York’s development, Berman offers a possible justification for my case when he writes that “the city has become not merely a theater but itself a production, a multimedia presentation whose audience is the whole world” and that “a great deal of New York’s construction and development over the past century needs to be seen as symbolic action and communication.” A wrecking ball taken to Central Park, then, could be justified in so far as it communicated something important to the entire world.

In a chapter titled “The Tragedy of Development,” Berman recasts Goethe’s Faust protagonist as a Moses-like figure, a modern developer who has made an irreversible deal with the devil in the name of progress. Emphasizing the totalizing condition of this bargain, Berman suggests that, according to Goethe, “the deepest horrors of Faustian development spring from its most honorable aims and its most authentic achievements,” a clue that something more sinister may lie beneath the picturesque patina of Central Park.

In search of a less measured account of New York’s development, I turned to Rem Koolhaas’s classic 1978 book, Delirious New York. Taking a more detached, hawk’s eye view, Rem refers to Central Park as “a synthetic arcadian carpet” and “taxidermic preservation of nature that exhibits forever the drama of culture outdistancing nature.” To Rem, Central Park is nothing more than an outdated two-hundred-year-old rug, waiting for new owners to rip it up and replace it with something new. Or a taxidermied plot of land, retained as a unit of measurement by which developers track their progress as skyscrapers ascend higher and higher above it, casting ominous shadows deeper and deeper into the park. Not the enduring monument to plebeian pleasure touted by official New York lore, but a retrospective of the rapacious development of city land.

I eventually got my hands on the definitive history of the park itself, Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig’s 1992 book, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, in which they make clear that “the decision to build the park, although clothed in democratic rhetoric, was fundamentally rooted in the interests of New York’s wealthiest citizens” and that “the park plans sparked a speculative boom in surrounding real estate.” Their book also brought to light the forceful displacement of Seneca Village, one of the most prominent free black settlements in the United States, as well as the scattering of other poor German and Irish immigrant communities. A tale then, not of benevolent gentlemen with “honorable aims,” but of self-interested businessmen and unraveled communities.

Observed from the penthouses surrounding it, Central Park serves as a physical wealth management fund to the interests of the financial and real estate industries that profit from the value the park cultivates and preserves. Like with much of what is spewed out of New York’s over-hyped, PR-industrial complex, a closer look reveals a thin green veneer covering a hollow and tired system. Central Park is the crowning emerald jewel of a city with the highest income inequality in the country, of a struggling renter class facing inflating costs and housing shortages, and a thriving billionaire class facing, well, Central Park.

What bothers me is the perceived permanence of Central Park as an eternal well-spring of good, that its manufactured landscape and homeowners association-esque management is uniquely deserving of preservation. So set in stone is Central Park’s existence, that a 2018 competition to rethink the park sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania premised the need for its redesign as the result of a fictional “eco-terrorist attack.” The conjecture that only an act of terror could warrant changing Central Park shows just how reactive progress has become, how we only act on the threat of something being taken away from us. We need drastic solutions to fight the wealth inequality that has turned a park for everyone into a real estate engine for the monied landowning class. Rather than a forward-thinking urbanist wet dream, Central Park could—perhaps should— be seen as a nostalgic and inward-looking monument to what has been lost, a void representing our dwindling agency and capacity for change.

So what if we did take a wrecking ball to the park? Or more accurately a bulldozer. What if we sullied the views that command some of the highest rents in the world? What if we poured resources into underserved and underfunded streets, creating an interstitial network of park space for all New Yorkers? Parks that weren’t a schlep? Parks that weren’t tourist magnets? What if we redistributed those 18,000 trees around the city? What if we protected streets for runners and bikers, not only in one obscenely oversize park, but everywhere? What if a high quality of life wasn’t an invisible idea but a lived reality? What if we decentralized Central Park?

And what then to do with the 840-acre blank canvas left behind by the bulldozers? Just as Olmsted’s design was an aesthetic expression of his time, perhaps the most contemporary expression of a park would not be a physical space at all but an upload, coded into the metaverse, accessible to people around the globe, without wasting carbon emissions to pay a visit.

Imagining the disappearance of the park, I recalled a gay meetup some might call a “sex party” in the Ramble during the pandemic. I had never been to the Ramble, though I knew its reputation, and as I followed my phone toward the Google coordinates, I was surprised by how quiet and dark it was here in the center of the city. I continued along the winding pathways, my senses adjusting to the new landscape, led by the contradictory feelings of excitement and dread that constitute cruising. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a dark mass of bodies, writhing energetically yet quietly. It was an incredible feat for so many strangers to be so active and so silent, an acquired skill for a subset of the population driven to the edges of society to engage in their primal urges. A perfect, horny storm of nurture and nature.

At some point I remember looking up and seeing the towering sycamore trees swaying in the breeze, silhouetted against the perpetually lit New York night sky. I could hear the leaves rustle in the wind and for a moment I felt like I could be somewhere else, far away. And for just a moment, Central Park was gone. And so was I.

Eric Schwartau is a former class clown and emerging cultural figure, currently masquerading as an academic administrator and self-rated 4.5 NTRP level tennis player. He does not have a podcast.