The question of green space is not a contemporary one. New York has been struggling with it for more than 150 years. By the mid-1800s, while the rich retreated to their uptown mansions, and downtown tenements and factories overflowed, landscape architects re-envisioned city life for the coming century—they dreamed in green. First, Central Park was completed in 1857 by the prolific Frederick Law Olmstead, whose work includes the U.S. Capitol and the White City of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, who then turned his gaze to Brooklyn. By 1880, Kings County had become the third largest American city but continued to be advertised as an escape from Manhattan and its corrupting modernity, as a return to nature. And as such, it needed a park and that park needed a grand entrance.
Eastern Parkway was designed to be revolutionary, an American Champs-Élysées. By 1866, Eastern Parkway was in the works as the world’s first parkway, meant to mirror the far-stretching, spacious boulevards of Western European cities by urban planners like Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who ordered the demolition of medieval Paris and the construction of an iconic modern one in its place. These Parisian boulevards had a two-fold goal: riot prevention and to convey hegemonic power in aesthetic form.
Not surprisingly, the Americans made their own. The parkway became the American boulevard, defined as the scenic drive linking city and suburb. Eastern Parkway was supposed to be the first of many boulevards, ultimately connecting Prospect Park to series of parks and parkways in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Unlike the boulevard, the parkway had the primary goal of beautifying. “It is to be fifty-five feet wide,” it was written in the 1878 book Eastern Parkway and Boulevards in the City of Brooklyn, and devoted exclusively to pleasure driving. On each side will be a walk twenty feet wide, which will be curbed, sodded, and flagged, and along which are to be double rows of shade trees.”
“Within twenty minutes time from City Hall,” the land that became Eastern Parkway itself was undesirable for other purposes—too rocky for farming, but had its perks as the highest point in Brooklyn, not the least bit swampy, and stable for building. Starting at Grand Army Plaza, (called Prospect Park Plaza until 1926) it stretched two miles west toward Manhattan. The big three were built in conjunction: first Prospect Park, in 1867, then Grand Army Plaza in 1869, and finally Eastern Parkway completed in 1874.
While the park and the boulevard leading up to it have retained much of their original character, the plaza has changed drastically overtime. Olmstead originally designed Grand Army as a humble square meant to physically separate the park from the chaotic city outside its gates. Now, the grand entrance pays homage to American deities like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy in statue. The 1892 addition of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, celebrating the Union victory in the Civil War, adds to the Parisian feel. Designed by John H. Duncan, who also planned Grant’s Tomb, it mirrors the Arc de Triomphe. Today, the space is perhaps best known for its open air, farmers markets on Saturday— the second largest in the five boroughs.
The Solders’ and Sailors’ Arch at the turn of the 20th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons
“What artist is noble,” Olmstead wrote, “as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty…directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations.” In carving out a green space free from commerce strictly for beauty, Olmstead set a precedent we continue to struggle with and strive for more than a century later. Although the City of Brooklyn was absorbed into New York, Kings County maintains a distinct charm. Today, Eastern Parkway is Brooklyn’s busiest street whose tree-lined landscape has stood the test of time. Almost 150 years ago, designers who have come to define American landscape and governmental architecture created the world’s first parkway, providing a grand promenade and a true pleasure drive to Prospect Park.