Melodramatic Landscapes: Urban Parks in the Nineteenth Century (Book Review)
What do a citywide slum-clearing project, the renovation of an old Aztec retreat, and a swath of speculated park land in the middle of burgeoning New York City have in common? According to Heath Massey Schenker, a great deal. So much, in fact, that she saw it fit to dedicate an entire book to teasing out their commonalities as representative of a greater trend in urban park design during the 19th century. Melodramatic Landscapes is a concise yet broad, thorough yet digestible survey of public green spaces in Paris, Mexico City, and New York City; a sort of non-fiction novella guaranteed to entertain the academically minded who may never have thought about connections between parks, people, and politics. To me, it is a quintessential seminar piece for book club discussions, graduate school courses, or intellectual café conversation.
From the very beginning, the author is clear and focused in her goals, which are “to explain why these parks were so widespread and so similar around the world; to explore the cultural meanings embodied in the generic park landscape, as well as some of the differences that distinguished one park from another; to analyze the goals and ambitions of park designers; and, particularly, to describe how audiences received these parks in different locations.” Here is how I think she did in accomplishing them:
“To explain why these parks were so widespread and so similar around the world…”
The author’s explanation for the near ubiquity of parks like Central Park, Chapultepec, and Bois de Boulogne is essentially 1) that politicians and rulers wanted monumental projects to be carried out in their name, 2) people of all classes wanted parks, thus instituting them became a perfect way to appease the public while undertaking goal 1, and 3) that because France and England were making these iconic parks, everyone else must have wanted to do so as well. Regarding the points posited about rulers and subject appeasement, I think Massey Schenker is spot on. Such trends are undeniable when one looks across the political spectrum in just about any nation at the time. Concerning, the France and England argument, the explanation holds up if analysis stays in the realm of Western culture or the colonized New World, but might leave something significant to be desired if applied to the East or places that largely shunned the French and English trendiness.
“To explore the cultural meanings embodied in the generic park landscape, as well as some of the differences that distinguished one park from another…”
From the classical references of Parisian parks to the follies of Central Park to the multi-layered palimpsest of Chapultepec to the borrowings of the picturesque style across all of the parks in question, the author highlights, compares, contrasts, and synthesizes the information soundly and in a way that engages the reader without data dumping.
“To analyze the goals and ambitions of park designers…”
Taken at face value, a true fanatic of design history would conclude that the author is missing substantial details behind the design process for each of the parks. Though, I bias this way as well—it would have been delightful to see something like a comparative analysis of Haussmann’s, Olmsted’s, and Diaz’s journal entries—it is also important to understand that the author is not trying to hone in specifically on the park designers but rather see their ambitions in the greater context of politics, artistic movements, and social changes. In that respect, the author delivers just enough information for understanding without distracting from the goal at hand.
“To describe how audiences received these parks in different locations…”
The author generates a beautiful discussion about how each park is animated in the sense of being a melodramatic landscape—the idea of melodrama largely culminating in the Central Park chapter—where social reform, showing class or race distinction, being seen for the sake of being seen, or arousing the senses are all taking place on the grand stage of green space. Again, I would say this goal is realized in the general sense but is probably missing some extra analysis of how the parks matured socially; the Chapultepec chapter in particular has a striking exclusion of how the park was received in the years following the Porfiriato, some of the most important in Mexico’s modern history, especially in the arts. I understand that this was largely a look at parks in the 19th century, but in order to best describe how audiences received Chapultepec, to at least include some details from the decade following the Mexican Revolution is merited.
For the most part, I believe Massey Schenker accomplished what she set out to do and that she did so gracefully. Her goals were fulfilled, especially as a collective whole; exceptions ensue only when each goal is dissected individually and the complaints are rather minor in the scope of the book. As she herself states, “this book cannot claim to be a comprehensive history of urban parks in the nineteenth century.” My final rating: four stars.