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The Big Decline: Public Parks in the 1950s and 1960s

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

(Enjoying the lawn by the pond, south end of Central Park, photo by Charlie McCabe)

So, let's talk about different periods of decline for public parks in big U.S. cities. We're going to focus on the last 75 years in the next several posts. This combination of the 20th and 21st centuries saw severe fiscal challenges that many U.S. cities faced. It also created opportunities for public/nonprofit partnerships to emerge. We'll start with the 1950s and 1960s in this post and cover the recessions of 2001 and 2008 in future posts, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic that we're still dealing with.

Following the end of the Second World War, a new building boom took place on the edges of many American cities. It was driven by the creation of thousands of miles of freeways into and out of our largest cities, as well as the widespread increase in automobile ownership. It drove the suburban, single-family housing model.(1) Cities saw a flight of largely white, middle-class residents to these new suburbs. Restrictive home mortgage loan practices kept non-white middle class city residents from joining them, driven by a practice called “redlining” that was instituted by the Home Owners Loan Corporation.(2) Meanwhile, back in northern city neighborhoods, African Americans arrived in large numbers, moving from the southern United States seeking more gainful employment and a better life.

At the same time, the focus of parks departments shifted to supporting more active recreation. In the Politics of Park Design, Galen Cranz explains the rise of the recreation era, spurred in large part by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses constructing facilities in New York parks, thanks to federal funding starting during the Great Depression, obtained through multiple New Deal programs. (3) During Moses’ lengthy term as commissioner, he "built 15 huge swimming pools, created 658 playgrounds, and added 17 miles of public beaches to the one mile the city owned when he came to office."(4)

No spending boom in parks lasts long, however, and that was true of the 1930s and 1940s. Not long after the start of World War II, parks began to lose funding as the focus turned to the suburbs and highways at the height of the commuter lifestyle in many cities. While recreation facilities continued to be built in urban parks, there were fewer people using them. (5)

By 1965, American cities were seeing dramatically shrinking populations and thus, lower tax revenues, resulting in smaller budgets due to the continued “white flight” to the suburbs. As Cranz states: “The middle class was no longer seeking park services; to the contrary, they conspicuously avoided parks, now considered so unsafe that they were part of the urban crisis rather than its cure. This was because the city needed more from the parks than their customary “safety valve” function (place where people could congregate, protest, and blow off steam, among other things)—for these were the years of riots, demonstrations, and ‘long, hot summers.'"(5)

With less money to spend, many parks departments “responded to these conditions with talk of self-examination, experimentation, and innovation. Behind this talk was a philosophical vacuum: The old models of operating and maintaining parks did not apply, and the new one—open space—was not much more than a gesture embracing the indefinite future. At its best, though, the rhetorical posture could lead to an unprecedented openness to new ideas and possibilities."(6)

With the arrival of Republican Mayor John Lindsay in 1965, New York City’s new parks commissioner, Thomas Hoving, introduced some inexpensive efforts, primarily a “new” concept called programming, that would draw people back to the parks. The term “Hoving’s Happenings” was coined to describe everything from concerts and performances to tournaments, festivals, and nearly anything people wanted to propose. Dogs, long banned from public parks, could return, and the practice of closing the Central Park and Prospect Park carriageways (roads) to cars on weekends began. Residents and visitors could now ride bicycles, run, or walk along the temporarily closed roads, returning a big symbol back to the people, even if only for a few short hours each week. The bottom line for these efforts in programming was to bring activity and people into parks to make them feel safer and to combat the abandonment elsewhere in the City of New York. (7)

But Hoving soon departed, and the reduction in restrictions and funding resulted in greatly degraded conditions in Central and Prospect Parks in New York City, with similar challenges in many other cities seeing reduced revenue due to shrinking populations. Suburban communities, exploding with increased populations, single family housing, and private yards, and resulting increases in tax-based funding, saw an increase in development of recreation facilities and parks, with a focus on sport courts, athletic fields, and playgrounds. Driving to parks—versus walking or taking a bus or train—became the accepted mode. The dawn of the 1970s revealed a distinct split in public parks, with cities struggling to keep up with increased, laissez-faire usage and greatly decreased maintenance and replacement of key park features.

I'll tackle the 1970s in my next post.

(1) Caro, Robert A. Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 516-517. (2) Fullilove, Mindy Thompson. Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-out Cities (New York: New Village Press, 2013) 46, 48.

(3) Cranz, Galen. The Politics of Park Design: a history of urban parks in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), 139. (4) Garvin, Alexander. Public Parks – the key to livable communities. (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011) 57. (5) Cranz, Galen. The Politics of Park Design: 137. (6) Cranz, Galen. The Politics of Park Design: 137.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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