What does it mean to claim a “poetics” from Olmsted’s designs? To oppose a set of facile analogies—rectilinear, orderly, industrial, urban as prosaic; curving, random, green, rural as poetic? Against the stop signs of the city, a landscape without punctuation marks?
Olmsted complicates such distinctions. The plantings and layout of his parks baffle the streets’ commotion, yet the transition from park to city is not meant to be abrupt, as in fact it is, stepping onto Fifth Avenue from Central Park. The grid must have induced migraines, when Olmsted planned to join each park with green arteries, connecting up the different neighborhoods—as in Boston’s “Backbay Fens” or Cleveland’s “Emerald Necklace.” For similar reasons, Olmsted considered Buffalo to be his “best-planned” park system, helped by the accommodating nature of Joseph Ellicott’s radial street design: Delaware Park adjoins Forest Lawn cemetary at the top, The Parade (now Martin Luther King Park) to the southeast, Front Park to the southwest (fronting the head of the Niagara River at Lake Erie), all linked by parkways.
Riverside Park overlooks the Niagara River to the north. Cazenovia and South Parks were added later, in South Buffalo. Olmsted also landscaped Goat Island, at Niagara Falls.
As Olmsted’s parks took shape, owners of the land to the north and east of Delaware Park commissioned the plan of the residential system from his firm. At the time, this neighborhood looked toward country, the edge of town: Olmsted’s designs framed a distant prospect of urban growth.
“Parkside” was Olmsted’s “first opportunity to create a residential neighborhood that would complement the naturalistic landscape of a park”—the most fully realized example of the “sylvan districts” he imagined adjoining parkways within the city (Francis Kowsky).
In his letters to city planners, Olmsted explains how his plans attend to place, honoring curves of hills, placement of boulders, wet and dry, high and low spots, the growth conditions of vegetation; at the same time, he must reassure city officials appalled by the drastic moves—whether an alteration of terrain, or a removal of structures or vegetation—necessary to his design. Olmsted’s Redbook sketches pull up their vegetation, demonstrating the value of removing a stand of trees—to enable a broader prospect. This is no passive making space for “nature. ”
Olmsted makes the case for long-term transformation, urging city planners to see an eventual growth of stately trees, or a softening of the abrupt bank with vegetation. Often he has to compromise, with impatient officials who want to plant quick-growing ornamentals. Thus drawings and letters are integral to the rhetoric of his projects— “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of the Park” (Smithson).
Olmsted’s compositions play to what Leo Marx called the “middle landscape” in American art. He was early to acknowledge industrialism’s inevitable “enlargement of towns”; in his attempts to mediate, has he paid the price of acquiescence to power? Did Olmsted naturalize the class system, working with constraints of industry as though forces of nature? (Olmsted’s plans for Buffalo’s South Park squeezed the project between the proliferation of railroad lines and poor drainage.) The railroad too has a certain point of view.
Buffalo (except for ice fishermen, anglers and summer boaters) seems to have turned its back on the waterfront, and on its commanding position at the outflow of one of the world’s largest bodies of fresh water, at the head of the Niagara River—a strait, really, whose dramatic plunge over the Escarpment gets all the attention. Buffalo, after all, reigns Queen of this Great (if shallow) Lake stretching from the Midwest to the east and defining a large stretch of the Canadian-American border. (Buffalo also reigns as City of Lights, due to its early adoption of hydropower—a title purchased at the price of eternal fiefdom to Niagara Mohawk, in fact, selling the power downstream.) The paving over of the old path of the Erie Canal to create the 190 Thruway (whose toll the New York State Thruway Authority collects, one of the legacies of Robert Moses) separates downtown Buffalo from its waterfront, reinforcing the indifference. Many transient residents limit their comments to, “What lake?”
It turns out Olmsted had a similar experience in the 1860s:
“It was said that the lake brought to their minds, more prominently than anything else, harsh winds, wrecks and other disasters, dreary fields of ice and a tedious holding back of spring . . . More than once it was said to me, ‘We hate the lake’”.
Urging city officials to acquire the land between Front Park and the lake for an extension of the park, Olmsted observed that “the site commands a river effect such as can be seen, I believe, nowhere else—a certain quivering of the surface and a rare tone of color, the result of the crowding upward of the lake waters as they enter the deep portal of the Niagara.”