Day 3: Buffalo (Part iii: Delaware Park, Parkside / Olmsted’s Park Psychology)

I have just visited South Park (in South Buffalo) with poet Robin Brox.  Robin drives me up to Delaware Park, for my final Buffalo Olmsted rendezvous.  Buffalo is the first stop on a ten-city journey across the country.  “Instant Everything,” a billboard reads, next to the General Mills elevator–responsible under certain meteorological conditions for making the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve (and most of downtown Buffalo) redolent of Cheerios.

On our way to Delaware Park we turn right off Niagara Street onto Lafayette, past Santasiero’s.  The best Pasta Fasoola in town.  My favorite dish is the Pasta Santanesca (garlic, anyone?)  I remember having dinner here with Susan Howe and fellow grad students, back in the late 1990s.

A couple of blocks down Lafayette

we pass the house where Anya Lewin and Lara Odell lived.  This was Cornershop: an amazing, “ground up” space for art, poetry, film and other media that Anya ran when I moved to Buffalo.  Many of us gave our first Buffalo readings here.  My partner Isabelle had her first Buffalo show at Cornershop.  I remember poets Robert Creeley and Susan Howe in attendance for several of those events (and heard Howe herself read in this space, from Pierce Arrow).  The Ronald Johnson symposium that Joel Bettridge organized kicked off at Cornershop.  Graham Foust ran his Scratch & Dent reading series out of Cornershop, inviting many now illustrious writers.  Tony Conrad made music at Cornershop.  Cornershop was Creeley’s favorite cultural space in Buffalo; he would later write a beautiful poem, “For Anya,” published in his book, If I Were Writing This. It may be my favorite poem in that volume.

“An ‘outside’ was always what I wanted / to get to, the proverbial opening / in the clearing, plain church with massed, / seated persons, the bright water / dense with white caps and happy children . . .”

(I should note that Creeley was NOT a fan of Olmsted, but I will return to his thoughts on proverbial openings.)  If you want to learn more about Cornershop, check out the beautiful website Anya constructed for it:

We drive through Colonial Circle

and along Bidwell Parkway, one of the green arteries that made Olmsted call Buffalo his “best-planned city.”

Olmsted’s notion was that no neighborhood should be more than “many minutes’ walk” from one of these parkways, “so that in necessarily passing through them, whether in going to or from the park, or to and from business, some substantial recreative advantage may be incidentally gained” (Civilizing American Cities [hereafter CW] 83).  Here we approach Soldier’s Place, at the conjunction of Bidwell, Chapin, and Lincoln Parkways.

Soldier’s Place is the hub of the three spokes near the center of the following map of Olmsted’s Buffalo plan, which demonstrates how the parks were conceived as part of a connected network, the arteries as much a part of the system as its lungs or heart: “It is a common error to regard a park as something to be produced complete in itself, as a picture to be painted on a canvas.  It should rather be planned as one to be done in fresco, with constant consideration of exterior objects, some of them quite at a distance and even existing as yet only in the imagination of the painter” (CW 83).

After the incidental recreation of the parkways, Robin drops me off at Delaware Park.  It has been hard to approach this park in the context of this project; for seven years it was my park, my neighborhood, my workout.  I didn’t really treat it as a park in Olmsted’s sense of the word, which indicates either my blindness or what has changed, or some combination.  Here is Olmsted’s “park”:

“Practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade.  This we want as a central feature.  We want depth of wood enough about it not only for comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.  The word park, in town nomenclature, should, I think, be reserved for grounds of the character and purpose thus described.”

(“Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” CW 81; see also Olmsted’s encyclopedia entry, “Park”)

I remember Isabelle’s and my first exploration of Buffalo, from the foothold of the Red Roof Inn near the North Campus.  By chance, we found ourselves driving around the Parkside neighborhood, a neighborhood Olmsted planned.  “Hey, this doesn’t look so bad!”  But I would end up living further south in Allentown, on College Street, thanks to the poet Mike Kelleher, who found me an apartment in the house where he himself was living.

Isabelle stayed in New Mexico to complete a welding apprenticeship.  A year later, when she came to Buffalo, we found an apartment inside the northern edge of Parkside, on a street that essentially made a “backside” to the big houses on Starin.  These houses were about half the size of the big houses, packed more closely together, and split into apartments.  We had the upper flat at 106 Huntington Avenue, a lovely apartment, with a big backyard.

Like Riverside (Illinois), which Olmsted had started four years earlier, Parkside invents the suburbs.  As I visit Riverside on this trip (a bit later), I remember Parkside’s green islands and finally recognize their purpose: a green commons.  In Parkside they now serve to show off ornamental fountains and flower plantations, almost like traffic circle plantings.  At Riverside, however, the extensive open concept islands, with their greenswards, tree-shaded niches and obliquely placed benches, continue to invite the walker in, as spaces in their own right.  These islands also partly screen the houses on either side of the street from each other; the big houses on Parkside’s avenues face off quite nakedly, in open competition.

Parkside is the area to the northeast of Delaware Park in this map, the section between Hertel Avenue (the red line) and the railway crescent (the curving black line), bounded on the west by Parkside Avenue and on the east by Main Street (at two o’clock):

To reach Delaware Park I would bicycle or run through the Parkside neighborhood, past the big houses.  Once at the park, I was ready to get into lap mode and would immediately join the perambulation on the loop road.  (“A Promenade may, with great advantage, be carried along the outer part of the surrounding groves of a park,” CW 81).  Like so many others, I approached Delaware Park as a giant treadmill.

With its ersatz open space, the 18-hole golf course.

Here is the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s description of the site:

“Delaware Park, originally called simply The Park, is the centerpiece of the Buffalo park system—the city’s own Central Park.  In its original state, it was one of the purest expressions of Olmsted’s vision in the United States.  He hand-picked the site, and, because he conceived of it as one element of a larger park system, he made no compromises as to its character.  Other parks could hold stages, parade grounds, formal gardens, and other amenities.  The Park would be entirely devoted to a natural landscape of wide rolling meadows, wooded thickets penetrated by winding paths, and a large lake full of islands and inlets—perfect for leisurely boat rides. . . .  Planning for The Park began in August 1868, when Olmsted toured the countryside north of Buffalo looking for large park sites.  He ultimately chose an undeveloped, sloping landscape traversed by the peacefully meandering Scajaquada Creek.  This mixture of elements—wide, sloping, grassy areas with water and stands of mature trees—seemed the perfect place for Olmsted to realize his dream of creating a natural oasis within the city” (Olmsted Conservancy Master Plan 40-41).

The “large lake full of islands and inlets” (sans islands) I covered in Day 2, Part ii of this blog.  These “wide, sloping, grassy areas with water and stands of mature trees” lie on the other side of the Scajaquada from the golf course.  The Scajaquada was once  a creek that peacefully meandered, but that has since been replaced by an expressway, dividing the park in two and imposing its sound of rushing traffic.

I had always been aware of an inner ring of trees around the golf course, which some paths encouraged visiting, but today I was free to approach them as destinations in themselves, rather than detours.  The Master Plan makes note of “wooded thickets that once fully enveloped the park”: many of those that had not been removed over the years were damaged in the 2007 freak October snow storm (the “treepocalypse”).  Now a few groups of stately oaks stand out in the middle of the golf course.

What has happened to Delaware Park since it was completed in 1876 and “four to five hundred carriages visited the park on an average day” (1000 on summer Sundays) exposes the tensions at the heart of Olmsted’s approach to park design.  In his first major exposition of that approach, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns” (1870), Olmsted says there are two forms of recreation:

“One will include all of which the predominating influence is to stimulate exertion of any part or parts needing it; the other, all which cause us to receive pleasure without conscious exertion.  Games chiefly of mental skill, as chess, or athletic sports, as baseball, are examples of means of recreation of the first class, which may be termed that of exertive recreation; music and the fine arts generally of the second or receptive division” (CW 73).

Olmsted’s park designs aimed chiefly to affect, beyond the body or the faculty of reason, the imagination: “A great object of all that is done in a park, of all the art of a park, is to influence the mind of men through their imagination” (82).

Olmsted saw his parks as settings for “unconscious or indirect recreation.”  In his designs, he sought an effect on the human organism by “an action of what [the park] presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words” (“Notes on the Plan of Franklin Park and Related Matters”; Boston, 1886, p. 107).  He frequently resorted to musical metaphors when describing the effects of his park designs.

Like the poet, the artist or the composer, the park-maker works with materials of the unconscious, and in particular with what we now might call the environmental unconscious (ecocritic Lawrence Buell coined this phrase).  In an essay on trees, Olmsted compares a wild flower on a grassy bank to an imported flower blooming under glass in an enameled vase: “the former, while we have passed it by without stopping, and while it has not interrupted our conversation or called for remark, may possibly . . . have had a more soothing and refreshing sanitary influence” (“Trees in Streets and Parks,” The Sanitarian X, No. 114; September, 1882: 518).  What touches our senses peripherally most affects our health—for good or for ill?  Fleurs du mal aside, Olmsted’s might be an ambient poetics.

The “scenery” Olmsted sought was not clear and well defined in outline.  It had to contain either “considerable complexity of light and shadow near the eye” (picturesque, dark, entangled foreground) or “obscurity of detail father away” (clumps) (Draft of “Address to Civil Engineers”).

Olmsted’s work with the Sanitary Commission, a wartime relief effort he headed 1861-1863, put him into contact with the asylum reform movement and psychiatric theories associated with “moral treatment.”  As Robert Hewitt recounts, William Tuke’s concept of moral treatment “was largely synonymous with the creation of specific environments that would promote recovery through the use of environmental settings promoting productive activity, rural beauty and edifying pastimes” (“The Influence of Somatic and Psychiatric Medical Theory on the Design of Nineteenth Century American Cities”).  The aim of the asylum is to present a “class of objects agreeable as possible and at the same time entirely different from the objects connected to tasked faculties”: the old “change of scenery” cure.  In America, Thomas Story Kirkebride’s reformed asylums would enact Tuke’s settings-based theories.

For the park maker, treatment entails designs that “withdraw the mind to an infinite distance” from all “objects associated with streets and walls of the city,” and “the constant suggestion to the imagination of an unlimited range of rural conditions.”  At work here is a kind of environmental and somatic allopathy—in response to the physical toll of city living, as miasma theory understood it, and to the psychological cost, evident through a supposed increase of “urban insanity.”  Olmsted loved cities but unlike Whitman found sidewalk contact stressful.

Hewitt notes that this “separation and antithetical visual differentiation of therapeutic environments from pathogenic environments” is a notion derived from period “Lockean” conceptual models of the mind.  Olmsted followed Locke in his belief that the imagination was a faculty directly (physically) acted upon by visual stimulation, and that the imagination would in turn affect the body:

“tending, more than any single form of medication we can use, to establish sound minds in sound bodies – the foundation of all wealth.  But to this process of recuperation a condition is necessary, known . . . as the unbending of the faculties which have been tasked, and this unbending of the faculties we find is impossible, except by the occupation of the imagination with objects and reflections of quite different character from those which are associated with their bent condition” (“A Classic Park Plan,” 1866 Report on Prospect Park).

The park, which “unbends the faculties,” was Olmsted’s prescription for neurasthenic stress: “men who have been breaking down frequently recover tone rapidly and are able to retain an active and controlling influence in an important business, from which they would have otherwise been forced to retire.  I direct school-girls, under certain circumstances, to be taken wholly, or in part, from their studies, and sent to spend several hours a day rambling on foot in the Park” (CW 93).  The utilitarian tone of Olmsted’s argument is part and parcel of a rhetoric inseparable from the design and aim of his parks.  At the same time, critics of Olmsted will read phrases like “sound minds in sound bodies – the foundation of all wealth” as reflective of Olmsted’s “own” values, rather than in their rhetorical context, directed at the moneyed classes Olmsted lobbied for material support.  The gendered prescriptions may, or may not, be more contingent.

The difference between the park and the asylum, for Olmsted, is that the park makes therapeutic atmosphere available to the masses:  “It is thus, in medical phrase, a prophylactic and therapeutic agent of vital value. . . .  And to the mass of people it is practically available only through such means as are provided through parks”  (Olmsted 1881).  (This was well before Big Pharma.)  The title of the collection of Olmsted writings I have with me, edited by E.B. Sutton, is Civilizing American Cities.

While Olmsted was not insensible to the therapeutic aims of exertive recreation, he did not think such recreation needed a beautiful, composed setting.  His park designs all include exertive facilities but subordinated to the principal, passive recreational design, and often as a compromise with civic demands.

The fact that his greenswards have largely been preserved as golf courses is one of the great ironies of Olmsted’s country landscape legacy.

The tension between the exertive and the passive, or “rambling,” uses of Olmsted’s parks has affected their evolution over time and remains an index of the success (or failure) of particular Olmsted parks.  The extent to which they happily coexist in many of the parks is often surprising.

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