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Gary Younge
Big Apple's core

On Monday Central Park celebrates its 150th birthday - marking the dramatic evolution from the "filthy, squalid and disgusting" suburb that one of the park's first board of commissioners described, to the 341-hectare (843-acre) patch of tranquillity framed by skyscrapers, sometimes referred to as "the lungs of the city".

Throughout its life the park has acted as something of a metaphor for the city. Be it race, crime, class division, wealth, poverty, protest or privatisation, if it has been affecting New York it has been played out in the park.

This is the place where John F Kennedy was mugged as a child, Holden Caulfield came to feed the ducks in Catcher in the Rye, and Ella Fitzgerald stole her first kiss in the song Manhattan.

Yet it was born not so much from New World confidence as an inferiority complex that without a large park New York would never gain an international reputation as a major world city. And so the planners chose a tract of land between 59th street and 106th street (later extended to 110th) because its terrain was unsuitable for commercial building.

It was by no means empty.

What is now Central Park West was then home to New York's most established black community in what was known as Seneca Village. Many European immigrants also lived in the area, but all were cleared out.

On July 21 1853 the state legislature authorised the city to buy the land, which cost $5m - almost three times the original budget.

Once the land had been paid for there was only one decision left - what kind of park did they want. Some favoured a playground for the elite while others wanted something more democratic and in keeping with the still-young nation's founding principles.

To settle the dispute the commissioners held a design competition. After a year reviewing 33 entries the commissioners opted for the Greensward plan by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmsted. Their notion for the park fell somewhere between the elite and the popular - they wanted large numbers of people to enjoy it but only if they observed what Olmsted regarded as appropriate "decorum".

And so the building began. Swamps were drained, 10 million cartloads of soil brought in and bedrock 450m years old was moved or blasted with gunpowder.

With transport costly there was initially little chance of the poor from Lower Manhattan making it up that far and so for the first few years it was the wealthy who benefited most from it. But as immigration grew and the city of New York expanded to the four boroughs beyond Manhattan, the park's clientele became less elitist.

During the 1930s it used New Deal money to build 19 new playgrounds and 12 baseball fields. In the 1960s, it hosted events including love-ins and antiwar protests.

By the late 60s the city's budget crisis and social division were all too evident in the park's maintenance. New York was becoming synonymous with crime and poverty and an underfunded Central Park was its hotspot. By the time investment banker Trisha Meili set off for her run in April 1989 it seemed its reputation could sink no lower. When she was raped its reputation seemed sealed.

Yet City Hall had a plan in full swing to turn the park around through private investment. With the park being the front garden of the rich and famous they called on everyone from Jackie Onassis to the Sulzberger family, publishers of the New York Times, to contribute. Today the Central Park Conservancy pays for 85% of operating costs, the city the other 15%, again sparking the question: who owns the park?

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