Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Cultured Wilderness and Wild Culture: The Olmsted Legacy in Rochester and Graffiti in the Grove

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Cultured Wilderness and Wild Culture: The Olmsted Legacy in Rochester and Graffiti in the Grove

Article excerpt

At least on the map, the Genesee River dominates the city and region of Rochester, New York, as it cuts northward to bisect downtown before entering a deep gorge and joining its waters to Lake Ontario (see Figure 1). On the ground, certainly, the river is less evident and, in much of the city, it is the cluster of antennas on Pinnacle Hill that catch the eye. The antennas draw attention to an ancient "hummocky ridge," formed by glacial deposits, that runs roughly perpendicular to the river, just to the south of downtown (Grasso 1993, 112). The more prominent section of the ridge extends to the west of the river and is known locally as the Pinnacle Range; it has played a key role in the lives of Rochesterians for a century and a half. Where the Range meets the river on the western side, the glaciated, picturesque terrain is taken up by Mount Hope Cemetery, one of the great Victorian commemorative landscapes dedicated to the memory of the affluent and important (including Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass), and filled with solemn marble monuments among mighty trees (Reisem and Gillespie 1994; Chaisson 2004). Also adjoining the river is the campus of the University of Rochester, established in 1930 on the site (formerly "Oak Hill") of a section of the Pinnacle Range that had been previously removed to accommodate the fairways and bunkers of a golf course.

On the ridge, to the east of the cemetery, the noted landscape architect and urban planner Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., laid out Highland Park, part of one of four park systems that he designed and implemented in the US (the others are in Boston, Buffalo, and Louisville) (Comeau 2013). (1) Olmsted took the Highland Park commission with reluctance; the park was founded as an arboretum for the display of a collection of exotic--as well as native--trees and shrubs donated by the nursery firm of Ellwanger and Barry, then perhaps the most prominent nursery in the nation and which was located nearby. Throughout his career Olmsted's preference was for an appearance of natural landscape, including meadows, glades, and water features that gave harassed urbanites respite from the noise, stress, and pollution of their daily lives. Certainly, Olmsted used exotic plants in his landscapes, but he consistently opposed fussy but popular garden features, like the flowerbeds that have subsequently intruded into many of his parks (Beveridge and Rocheleau 1998; Spirn 1996). During his career, indeed, Olmsted especially admired and fought to preserve large-scale "wild" landscapes, notably Yosemite and Niagara Falls, where he allied a democratic concern with public access to the concealment, wherever possible, of human presence (Beveridge and Rocheleau 1998, 166-177). (2)

Olmsted is, of course, best known for an almost entirely artificial landscape, New York's Central Park, where tree-fringed pastoral meadows alternate with formal elements (like the Mall), highly informal planting (like the Ramble), and lakes and water features, all constructed by human hand. Central Park was Olmsted's earliest park, and it remains his most famous achievement as a park planner, perhaps in part because of his increasing interest in park systems, with diverse elements connected by parkways or other links, rather than stand-alone parks. This ambitious expansion of the scope of landscape architecture to embrace urban planning produced impressive results, most famously in Boston and Buffalo, (3) but all Olmsted's park systems suffered from later changes in transportation, economic, and demographic conditions; ideas about the functions of parks; and sheer neglect. Of course, the current fame of Central Park is a corollary of the relatively recent recovery of New York and the availability of resources for park restoration and urban development that are simply not available in Buffalo, say, or Rochester.

The parks that Olmsted designed for Rochester are markedly diverse in character. As we noted, Highland Park is an arboretum, with contrasted ornamental plantings and an encyclopedic ambition. …

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