Frederick Law Olmsted
To the Editor:
In his review of Alfred Kazin’s book, An American Procession [Books in Review, July], Kenneth S. Lynn characterizes Frederick Law Olmsted as elitist and racist, claims which are inaccurate and defamatory. I agree with Mr. Lynn that Andrew Jackson Downing, a persuasive figure who promoted landscape architecture and urban parks, should be credited with practicing landscape architecture in America before Olmsted. However, Olmsted, and his more experienced partner Calvert Vaux, were the first to design and direct construction of a major urban park in America.
Mr. Lynn implies that Downing and Walt Whitman and others received no credit for their efforts to promote the establishment of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, but this is not true. Downing was in fact Olmsted’s hero. Olmsted greatly admired Downing for his writings on architecture and horticulture, and also for his concerns about matters relating to public welfare. Downing traveled to England in 1850 to find an architectural assistant and hired Calvert Vaux. Vaux met Olmsted for the first time at Downing’s house. All three men agreed on many social and political issues, particularly the need for a major urban park, perhaps modeled after Birkenhead Park in Liverpool, which Olmsted admired as a “people’s garden.” Olmsted and Vaux were in part able to succeed in planning Central Park through the aggressive efforts of Downing and others like William Cullen Bryant, who publicized the need for a major urban park in New York.—
It is perhaps debatable whether Olmsted was “the most practical of democratic visionaries,” as Kazin claims, but clearly Olmsted was a humanitarian and forward democratic thinker. It is outrageous to claim, as Mr. Lynn does, that Olmsted and Vaux built into their plans for Central Park an “elitist disdain for the tastes of the common man.” Olmsted embraced the program of social reform through art that Downing supported. In Central Park, Olmsted wanted to expose everyone—most specifically those people too poor to travel to the country—to the civilizing effects of beautiful scenery. Olmsted’s and Vaux’s Greensward Plan incorporated the required elements (playgrounds, parade ground, etc.) of the competition into the design by juxtaposing them in such a way as to promote social interaction, to encourage people to mingle, to “see and be seen.”
Olmsted specifically thought of Central Park as a democratic development because it was an opportunity to disprove the claims of conservatives that there was no point in creating parks and other facilities open to all citizens instead of just the upper classes. Certainly he proved his point. In the years after the opening of the park, Olmsted argued forcefully and usually with success for keeping Central Park an open space to be used by everyone, and avoiding the fencing off of areas for private, elitist groups or even as display areas for monuments.
Olmsted was personally responsible for organizing the 3,000-man labor force that constructed the park and the park keepers (precursors of our park rangers) who educated people about the proper use of the park. Olmsted hired many desperately poor, unemployed, and unskilled people and molded them into an effective work force. . . .
Before his association with Central Park which began his career in landscape architecture, Olmsted traveled widely. In the turbulent decade before the Civil War, he was commissioned by Henry Raymond of the New York Daily Times to write about the “production, industry, and resources of the slave states,” where he was to travel for several years wandering and roaming across the whole South. Olmsted promised to be sensible and unemotional in tone, in contrast to the impassioned abolitionist diatribes so common in his day. From the “yeoman” letters he sent the newspapers were assembled three books and The Cotton Kingdom, a condensation of the three. Even today they are valuable historical documents providing a vivid account of life in the South: portraits of diverse people from slaves to slaveowners, and analyses of Southern conditions and problems, including slavery.
Olmsted’s arguments against slavery are particularly forceful, not only because they are so straightforward and unemotional in style, but also because they embrace the whole fabric of life and work in the South. He refers specifically to slaves as men, contradicting the practice in both North and South at that time of considering a slave not to be a full person. . . .
Today people might feel resentful or patronized by an attitude that exposure to an elevated class or beautiful scenery will improve their lot, but for his time Olmsted was an advanced, democratic thinker. To call him racist is just not verified by his writings and his achievements.
My sources for this letter are Park Maker, A Life of F. L. Olmsted, the biography by Elizabeth Stevenson; excerpts from the Papers of F. L. Olmsted; and other writings by him. Mr. Lynn should do his homework just as he claims Alfred Kazin should have done. Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
Steven L. Cantor
University of Georgia
School of Environmental Design
Kenneth S. Lynn writes:
Steven L. Cantor’s curious letter doesn’t bear much relation to my review, as I will try to indicate by three brief comments.
- Alfred Kazin’s An American Procession calls Olmsted “the creator of the first public parks in America.” This is an erroneous statement, as I made clear by pointing to the earlier achievements of A.J. Downing and Walt Whitman.
- Olmsted was a social reformer, all right, but there is no question that his ideas were elitist. Thus, the Central Park of his conception was designed not to gratify the taste of the common man, but rather to elevate it by persuading him to enjoy the same things that men of breeding like Olmsted did.
- Olmsted’s wonderful books on the antebellum South have nothing to do with the despairing views about American civilization as a whole which overcame him at the turn of the century.