<b>The Forgotten New Yorker</b>
Who was Andrew Haswell Green? A park could refresh the city's memory.
Story by Cate Lineberry / Sept. 24, 2004
Most New Yorkers have never heard of Andrew Haswell Green, the man largely responsible for the creation of Central Park and the consolidation of New York City into a five-borough metropolis. That could change this fall if the city's department of parks and recreation goes through with its plans to rename a park in honor of the 19th-century urban planner and preservationist whose efforts transformed Gotham into a city five times its original size.
The idea came after Michael Miscione, a television producer who wrote and directed a documentary on New York City's history, lobbied for six years to get Green's contributions as a civic visionary recognized.
"I'd never heard the name before I worked on this project, and he's one of the most influential people in the city's history," Miscione says. "The justice of it all really bothered me. He deserves more than a neglected bench," referring to the only monument ever constructed for Green within the city.
Dedicated 75 years ago, the stone bench originally rested on the site of the Academy of Mount St. Vincent at the northern end of Central Park and was surrounded by five trees, one for each borough. The bench was moved in the early 1980s to make room for the park's chief composting operation. It now sits on an obscure hill at the site of Fort Fish, surrounded by five maple trees the city planted six years ago. "Lesser men have gotten much more," Miscione says.
In a letter to Miscione this spring, Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the city's department of parks and recreation, said he would look for "an appropriate park" to be renamed for Green.
"It's a fitting tribute because he was a champion of parks," says Miscione, who had proposed renaming the Washington Bridge after Green—a bridge conceived by the civic-minded man himself.
Miscione does not stand alone in his admiration for Green. Kenneth Jackson, president of the New-York Historical Society, calls Green "arguably the most important leader in Gotham's long history." And historian Thomas Kessner wrote in the New York Observer last year, "It took Robert Moses, Fiorello La Guardia, and Franklin Roosevelt, drawing upon the combined resources of the federal, state and city governments, to exceed Green's accomplishment."
So why don't more New Yorkers know who he is? "Robert Moses cast a large shadow over the 20th century, which tended to obscure the people who came before him, like Green," says Randall Mason, associate professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. "But he was a political genius with many talents who used his connections and force of will to get things done."
A prolific civic leader, Green spent most of his life in public office and achieved a laundry list of accomplishments, including helping to create the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Central Park Menagerie (its zoo), and the New York Public Library.
Born in 1820 into one of Worcester, Massachusetts' most prominent families, Green moved to New York when he was 15. After working as a store clerk and a lawyer, Green became a member of Central Park's board of commissioners, the city's first planning agency, during its existence from 1857 through 1871 and served as president and comptroller. Although he had serious disagreements with the park's designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, over the financing of the park's construction, he protected their vision when other commissioners tried to dismiss it, making him largely responsible for maintaining the park's original design. It was Green who proposed extending the park's northern boundary from 106th to 110th Street.
"Central Park owes a lot to Olmstead and Vaux, but it owes as much to Andrew Haswell Green," Mason says. "He understood the importance of preserving urban green space."
Green also spent several years on the board of education, including three years as president, and was asked in 1871 to become New York City's comptroller after William "Boss" Tweed and his cronies swindled millions from the city. To help restore the depleted Gotham, Green used his own money to pay police salaries, denied phony claims, trimmed the number of workers, and reduced public works.
Always an ardent conservationist, he also established and became the president of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society in 1895, which fought to save threatened historic and scenic sites and worked to create numerous parks, including Riverside, Morningside, and Ft. Washington.
But arguably his greatest accomplishment came in 1898 with the consolidation of three cities and nearly 40 municipalities into today's city. Green had advocated since 1868 to unite areas in lower Westchester, Kings, Queens, and Richmond counties with Manahttan to form New York City, which had consisted solely of the island of Manhattan since 1686. After more than 20 years of fighting, Green was appointed president of the Consolidation Inquiry Committee and helped draft the Consolidation Law in 1895, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1898, earning him the title "Father of Greater New York." The New York Tribune called the consolidation "the greatest experiment in municipal government the world has ever known."
Although few New Yorkers remember Green, he led an extraordinary life that ended under extraordinary circumstances. On Nov. 13, 1903, after returning from his office, the distinguished 83-year-old Green was shot five times and killed outside his Park Avenue brownstone. A deranged man had mistaken Green for someone else.