Ramble Landscape

Catherine Seavitt Nordenson

Reviewed by David L. Hays

05 Jul 2015

Site model of the Central Park Ramble, produced by the City College MLA Studio 1, Fall 2011.
Image courtesy of Liza Trafton.

Some­times there is buried trea­sure in an archive, which for me might be defined as some­thing that no one has real­ly thought about or read in a long time but that per­haps should be re-read today. And I think it’s often use­ful to bring this kind of for­got­ten work out again, for oth­ers to read and reflect upon, at a dif­fer­ent moment in time.

In July 2011, I spent a num­ber of hot after­noons on the sec­ond floor of the Arse­nal in Cen­tral Park, look­ing for any­thing I could find about the Cen­tral Park Ram­ble in the New York City Depart­ment of Parks and Recreation’s Library. This was due dili­gence research for an upcom­ing fall semes­ter design stu­dio, the intro­duc­to­ry course for Mas­ter of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture stu­dents that I teach each fall at the City Col­lege of New York. I didn’t real­ly know exact­ly what I was look­ing for. Sur­pris­ing­ly, the Library’s archive isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive — a pair of fil­ing cab­i­nets in a hall­way and a few stacked card­board box­es main­tained by Kaitilin Grif­fin, the Parks Department’s Librar­i­an. Like many at the Parks Depart­ment, Kaitilin wears many hats; for exam­ple, she is also respon­si­ble for the imple­men­ta­tion of a sedum green roof and gar­den on the Arsenal’s rooftop. Respond­ing to my phone call, Kaitilin gave me an appoint­ment time and pulled out a stack of mani­la envelopes filled with arti­cles and news­pa­per clip­pings about the Ramble.

Among the doc­u­ments put into my hands was a gem: a July 1979 report enti­tled Cen­tral Park Ram­ble: A Study of Vis­i­tors’ Eval­u­a­tion of Land­scape,” by Don S. Cook. The research for this report, con­sist­ing most­ly of on-site inter­views of peo­ple in the Ram­ble, was con­duct­ed by Cook under con­tract to the Cen­tral Park Task Force as part of the prepara­to­ry work for a pro­posed restora­tion of the Ram­ble. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, there was a fun­ny con­nec­tion to City Col­lege: Cook wrote the study as part of his work as an ethno­sci­en­tist with the Cen­ter for Human Envi­ron­ments (pro­duc­ing the won­der­ful acronym CHE), a research arm of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York’s Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. Thir­ty-six years lat­er, CHE is still active with­in the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, and its mis­sion is to unite researchers who exam­ine rela­tion­ships between peo­ple and their phys­i­cal set­tings. CHE is now orga­nized as a con­sor­tium of eight spe­cial­ized sub-groups, each exam­in­ing top­ics such as children’s envi­ron­ments, pub­lic space, hous­ing, and health.

The dis­cov­ery of Cook’s Study” was a won­der­ful plea­sure. It’s quite unusu­al to find an archival text that feels so per­ti­nent and fresh — and since this one includes tran­scrip­tions of con­ver­sa­tions, it real­ly felt like the doc­u­ment was speak­ing to me. I was imme­di­ate­ly hooked. Study” is some­thing of a peri­od piece, a doc­u­ment in which the author thanks his typ­ist in the acknowl­edg­ments, along with the Cen­tral Park Task Force that com­mis­sioned the work. Inter­est­ing­ly, I had just re-read Robert Smithson’s bril­liant essay on Cen­tral Park, Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed and the Dialec­ti­cal Land­scape,” also writ­ten in the 1970s and includ­ing Smithson’s impres­sions of the park’s latent geol­o­gy, as well as his expres­sions of ner­vous­ness as he ducks a poten­tial mug­ger by enter­ing the Ram­ble. Of course, dur­ing the 1970s, New York City was bank­rupt, crime was ram­pant, and Cen­tral Park was look­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly neglect­ed. Smith­son cap­tured that moment well with his pho­tographs and impres­sions, as did Cook with his tran­scribed interviews.

In addi­tion to the library in the Arse­nal, the New York City Depart­ment of Parks and Recre­ation main­tains a pho­to­graph­ic archive at its rather mar­gin­al­ized design head­quar­ters, the Olm­st­ed Cen­ter, in Flush­ing Mead­ows-Coro­na Park, Queens. Arriv­ing there after a long ride on the 7 train, once again search­ing for an unknown some­thing for the upcom­ing stu­dio, I flipped through thick, black, three-ring binders packed with pho­tographs in archivist Christi­na Benson’s tiny, over air-con­di­tioned office. The binders were orga­nized by park num­ber and decade, and the M‑10 (Cen­tral Park) set revealed a cul­tur­al time­line: 1950s, pho­tographs of par­ties and mas­quer­ade gon­do­la races on the lake; 1960s, beat­niks and hip­pies hang­ing out around the Bethes­da Foun­tain and par­tic­i­pat­ing in Hap­pen­ings and Be-ins. And then there was the 1970s binder: detailed close-up pho­tos of dam­age and decay — bro­ken steps, crum­bling stone bridges, graf­fi­ti — and mud­dy-bot­tomed lakes. The city (and there­fore, Cen­tral Park) was broke.

Cook describes his doc­u­ment as a behav­ioral study, the aim of which was con­veyed by its sub­ti­tle: to under­stand how peo­ple per­ceived the land­scape of the Ram­ble. After analy­sis and inter­pre­ta­tion of the field inter­views, Cook orga­nized his data into six themes, which he called domains,” reveal­ing aspects of the expe­ri­ence of the Ram­ble which were mean­ing­ful to vis­i­tors: Nat­ur­al, Run Down, Seclud­ed, Gath­er­ing, Lost, and Safe­ty. As a self-described ethno­sci­en­tist, Cook was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the rela­tion­ship between qual­i­ties of the land­scape and the behav­ior of vis­i­tors. He explained that the six themes were not mere descrip­tions of the land­scape but pri­or­i­tized impres­sions deliv­ered through vis­i­tors’ par­tic­u­lar frames of reference.

Per­haps what is so com­pelling about Cook’s study — excerpts of which are repro­duced below, along with con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous pho­tographs from the NYC Parks Depart­ment archive — is the snap­shot of the peo­ple he encoun­ters in the Ram­ble over a few days in May and June 1979, peo­ple who real­ly engage with the park. No mat­ter its run down” qual­i­ties, Cook’s inter­vie­wees love Cen­tral Park and are par­tic­u­lar­ly insight­ful when dis­cussing the place” of the Ram­ble. As a land­scape archi­tect, it is delight­ful to read their answers to Cook’s repeat­ed ques­tion: What kind of place is this?” Indeed, Cook is some­how remind­ing us that we should ask our­selves that ques­tion over and over — of the spaces we love, the places we wish to cre­ate, the envi­ron­ments and nich­es we carve out from our city. We should ask this of our­selves as well as oth­ers, ques­tion­ing our own per­cep­tions of place. What kind of places do we want to cre­ate, to extract or insert into our city, and per­haps one day ram­ble through, semi-lost? And what are our new domains?” Per­haps we could start con­sid­er­ing our city’s pub­lic spaces through some of these con­tem­po­rary cat­e­gories: Nov­el, Queer, Occu­py, Zone 1, Nar­cis­stick, Hash­tag, Stop and Frisk. What pri­or­i­ties would be revealed by inter­views with Ram­ble occu­pants now?

Spe­cial thanks to both Kaitilin Grif­fin and Christi­na Ben­son of the New York City Depart­ment of Parks and Recreation.

Note on the for­mat of the tran­scribed inter­views: Q, the ques­tion­er, is always Don S. Cook. M and F refer respec­tive­ly to male or female inter­vie­wees. A and B are inter­vie­wees of the same gen­der. The date of each inter­view and descrip­tions of the inter­vie­wees were pro­vid­ed by Cook.

Ram­ble Domain #1


Norman arch at the western entrance to the Ramble, c. 1973.
Image courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

Q What kind of place is this?

A … right here I feel like it’s a chance to get back to some­thing wild and nat­ur­al. I like these parts of the park a lot where there’re paths wind­ing through and the trees are pour­ing over and it’s sort of dis­or­ga­nized and real, you know.

B That’s what, it’s a chance to get to some­thing that’s sort of real after spend­ing all week in the not very real environment.

Q You mean the city?

B In the city, yeah…

A … The trees and stuff just the way it is is fine. Just fine… I know things were planned, I know this park was very care­ful­ly planned, and prob­a­bly more care­ful­ly planned than Ver­sailles was planned, but now that it’s been a peri­od of time it doesn’t look it was planned…

[20 May 1979, #3. Two women, strolling.]


A … I like these out­crop­pings of rocks and the much big­ger ones all over, to me this is what nature should look like.

[20 May 1979, #4. Elder­ly man sit­ting on bench.]

Ram­ble Domain #2


The Lake and the Ramble, Central Park, ca. late 1970s.
Image courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

A And this is a real­ly nice area in here, but it’s always shit­ty, it’s always yucky and stag­nant and rats and just yuck.

Q It seems, that seems to kind of con­tra­dict itself. Why is it a nice area if it’s always yucky?

A Because you can see that it could be a real­ly nice area, I mean, just the way it is, just the topog­ra­phy of the place, it’s real­ly beau­ti­ful. It’s just that the water is what’s yucky.

[17 May 1979, #3. Two men, strollers.]

Ram­ble Domain #3


Robert Moses-era concrete bridge and steel railing over the Ramble waterfall, 1973.
Image courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

Q Is this kind of place like River­side Park? Is it the same kind of place?

M No. It serves the same func­tions sort of, but it’s dif­fer­ent because it’s a big­ger area and it has more place to walk that’s secluded.

W River­side is open.

M Well, it has two basic trail­ways to walk, you know, one side of the high­way and the oth­er, down by the riv­er. Which is dif­fer­ent and, you know, nice. Like here we’re walk­ing through the trees.

W You can kind of ramble.

M It gives you a sense of seclusion.

Q The trees do?

M Well yeah. The seclud­ed places.

F Yeah, and the wandering.

M And the wan­der­ing… I remem­ber we used to play on the rocks.

Q Do you know if this part of the park has a name?

M I’m sure it does… I don’t know. What is it?

Q I ask lots of peo­ple that ques­tion and I get dif­fer­ent names. So I’m just ask­ing peo­ple to see what names I get.

M Cen­tral cen­tral park.

[15 May 1979, #5. Cou­ple, late twen­ties, strolling.]

Ram­ble Domain #4


Marchers and onlookers at the Gay Pride Rally, Central Park, July 1975.
Image courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

Q Tell me, what kind of place is this?

A Well it’s a place where peo­ple come when they don’t have any­thing to do, you know. Like in the sum­mer­time. Like they come down here, you know, to get some air, walk around.

B I even go jog­ging through here.

Q You do?

[15 May 1979, #4. Span­ish girls.]


Q You say you know some of the peo­ple [in the Bram­bles,” a gay gath­er­ing place] and you go there too…

A I think everybody’s out on Fire Island today.

Q Oh yeah. Do you ever meet new peo­ple there in the meadow?

A Oh yeah. That’s where I met most of the peo­ple I know in the neighborhood.

Q Is meet­ing some­one like in that mead­ow some­what the same as meet­ing some­one in a bar?

A No. I think they go to bars for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Over here it’s just like a fem­i­nine kind of thing.

[26 May 1979, #3. Two men strolling.]

Ram­ble Domain #5


Foot of the Angel of the Waters, Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, 1971.
Image courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

Q Do you mind being lost like that?

M Oh no. I mean I know I’m going to find my way out of here. I mean, if I had def­i­nite plans of going in a cer­tain direc­tion, you know, hey, I’m lost, which way am I going to go. But as far as get­ting lost, you know you can’t get lost. If you go to one end then you go to the oth­er one. You’re either going to come out on the East Side or the West Side, you know.

Q So you’ve been wan­der­ing through the park.

M Yeah. Look­ing for our favorite tree.


Q Where is your favorite tree?

M We don’t know or else we would be there. (Laugh­ter.) It’s by the roller rink some­where. We can’t find it. We’re just lost and we’re just enjoy­ing the view around here.


M Where does this go? Do you know where this goes?

Q I’m not sure.

M That looks nice. Let’s go down there.

[5 May 1979, #3. Cou­ple strolling.]

Ram­ble Domain #6


Workers repairing a bench, Central Park, ca. late 1970s.
Image courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

Q Are there oth­er kinds of uncrowd­ed places?

M There are many here. And on a qui­et day I would avoid them as a mat­ter of safety.

W … it’s pret­ty safe wher­ev­er you go except it’s best not to go ear­ly in the morn­ing or after a cer­tain time in the night when it gets dark, but oth­er than that it’s safe.

M She thinks it’s safe, but I’m on the alert.

Q Are there some parts of the park where you feel more on the alert than others?

M This part [Bon­fire Rock]. I’m not real­ly wor­ried, but I’m just watchful.

Q Some­body sug­gest­ed to me at one time that they clear out some under­brush so you can see a lit­tle bit far­ther in the area. What do you think about that?

M Well, it would take away part of the park, literally.

W I would hate them to take away the trees. I would like them to take more care of the trees. Some trees look as if they don’t have care.

[26 May 1979, #1. Man and woman, sixties.]

POST­SCRIPT: Ram­ble Domain #7?


New Year’s Party at Bethesda Fountain, 11.00pm, December 31, 1969.
Image courtesy of New York City Parks Photo Archive.

*A theme insuf­fi­cient­ly explored, and there­fore not treat­ed at length in this report, was radios.” The loud play­ing of portable radios was wide­ly deplored as an inva­sion of pri­va­cy,” yet the con­dem­na­tion was not spe­cif­ic to the Ram­ble. A few car­ri­ers of radios were inter­viewed. The terms they gave the Ram­ble were sim­i­lar to those used by oth­ers. We do not yet know enough to dis­crim­i­nate between the per­cep­tion of radio car­ri­ers and radio adversaries.


By David L. Hays 

In an essay on the forms and uses of his­to­ry, Friedrich Niet­zsche described three high­ly diver­gent approach­es: mon­u­men­tal, anti­quar­i­an, and crit­i­cal.1 In mon­u­men­tal his­to­ry, the past is framed as a progress of great achieve­ments. In con­trast, the anti­quar­i­an approach treats his­to­ry as a com­pre­hen­sive record of the past; infor­ma­tion is gath­ered with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion, as if every bit were of equal sig­nif­i­cance. Niet­zsche clear­ly pre­ferred crit­i­cal his­to­ry, which asserts the right of peo­ple to assess the past in terms of con­se­quences and to judge fore­bears accord­ing­ly. Yet, there’s some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing about the anti­quar­i­an impulse to archive every­thing, aspir­ing to objec­tiv­i­ty by sup­press­ing the fil­ters that bias rec­ol­lec­tion. Of course, the form and meth­ods of the archive deter­mine what can be encoun­tered there; the medi­um is part of the mes­sage. Nev­er­the­less, in treat­ing all infor­ma­tion as poten­tial­ly valu­able, the anti­quar­i­an pre­tense of neu­tral­i­ty dove­tails neat­ly with crit­i­cal insis­tence on assess­ment and judg­ment. In oth­er words, both per­tain to mean­ing­ful prac­tice of history. 

His­to­ry is not the past. It is inter­pre­ta­tion of the past through frame­works of the present. His­to­ry is always made in the present. In Ram­ble Land­scape,” Seav­itt Nor­den­son makes his­to­ry by recount­ing her dis­cov­ery of mate­ri­als in two archives, assem­bling a selec­tion for pub­li­ca­tion, and inter­pret­ing their sig­nif­i­cance. Her inquiry began with a ram­ble in an archive, seek­ing an unknown some­thing” about the Ram­ble in Cen­tral Park. Archives are usu­al­ly approached in pur­suit of spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion, but they are also places of serendip­i­tous dis­cov­ery, and they can be explored for plea­sure. For Seav­itt Nor­den­son, find­ing Cook’s report, and lat­er the pho­tographs, was a won­der­ful pleasure.”

Ram­ble” is both a noun and a verb. In either form, it refers to a way of pro­ceed­ing with­out a pre-defined route. A ram­ble may come of con­fu­sion, but it can also occur en route to some pre­con­ceived end, such as plea­sure or search­ing for an unknown some­thing.” Ram­ble” depends on uncer­tain­ty, the immi­nence of the unex­pect­ed. As act and action, it is con­tin­gent on contingency.

Dic­tio­nar­ies define ram­bling as a way of walk­ing, talk­ing, or writ­ing, but it is also a way of read­ing. A text is not a ram­ble, but any text can become one through read­ing. Sim­i­lar­ly, any land­scape can sup­port ram­bling, though some are more con­ducive to unex­pect­ed encoun­ters. Cook reg­is­tered that con­di­tion through his expe­ri­ences in the Ram­ble. In tran­scrib­ing vis­i­tors’ speech, he gave them voice, and they offer impres­sions some­what dif­fer­ent from the famil­iar nar­ra­tive. From that, Cook out­lined a set of domains,” pri­or­i­ties and con­cerns par­tic­u­lar to that moment, and Seav­itt Nor­den­son in turn sug­gests domains for our own moment. In both cas­es, the work points to the val­ue ram­bling — of pro­ceed­ing with­out a pre-defined route — as a pro­duc­tive aspect of his­tor­i­cal method.



Friedrich Wil­helm Niet­zsche, On the Advan­tage and Dis­ad­van­tage of His­to­ry for Life [Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der His­to­rie für das Leben], trans. Peter Preuss (Indi­anapo­lis, IN: Hack­ett Pub­lish­ing Co., 1980; 1st Ger­man edi­tion, 1874).



Cather­ine Seav­itt Nor­den­son is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of land­scape archi­tec­ture at City Col­lege of New York and prin­ci­pal of Cather­ine Seav­itt Stu­dio. In both capac­i­ties, her research and writ­ing dur­ing the past decade have focused on adap­tive design relat­ed to cli­mate change, with spe­cial empha­sis on ris­ing sea-lev­els. With engi­neer Guy Nor­den­son and archi­tect Adam Yarin­sky, she co-authored the 2007 Latrobe Prize study On the Water: Pal­isade Bay, a project that led to the MoMA work­shop and exhi­bi­tion Ris­ing Cur­rents: Projects for New York’s Water­fronts (2010), with On the Water pub­lished as a corol­lary book (Hat­je Cantz Verlag/​MoMA, 2010). Seav­itt Nor­den­son and her col­lab­o­ra­tors have since extend­ed their inquiry to the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er and Yangtze Riv­er deltas. Also, as the prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor at City Col­lege for Struc­tures of Coastal Resilience,” a research project fund­ed by the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, Seav­itt Nor­den­son has devel­oped an analy­sis and set of pro­pos­als for Jamaica Bay, an estu­ary at the south­west end of Long Island and adja­cent to Brook­lyn and Queens, NY. Email: cseavitt@​seavitt.​com

David L. Hays is co-edi­tor of Forty-Five, Asso­ciate Head of the Depart­ment of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign, and found­ing prin­ci­pal of Ana­log Media Lab. Trained in archi­tec­ture and his­to­ry of art, his schol­ar­ly research explores con­tem­po­rary land­scape the­o­ry and prac­tice, the his­to­ry of gar­den and land­scape design in ear­ly mod­ern Europe, inter­faces between archi­tec­ture and land­scape, and ped­a­go­gies of his­to­ry and design. Hays is the edi­tor of Land­scape with­in Archi­tec­ture (2004) and (Non-)Essential Knowl­edge for (New) Archi­tec­ture (2013), both by 306090/​Princeton Archi­tec­tur­al Press. His essays have appeared in a wide range of jour­nals — includ­ing Har­vard Design Mag­a­zine, PLOT (City Col­lege of New York), Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Stud­ies, The Sens­es and Soci­ety (Oxford), Matéri­cos Per­iferi­cos (Rosario, Argenti­na), Tek­ton (Mum­bai), and Feng jin yuan lin and Land­scape Archi­tec­ture Chi­na (Bei­jing) — and as chap­ters in numer­ous books. As a design­er, Hays’s work explores the pro­duc­tion of envi­ron­men­tal­ly respon­sive objects using low-cost, low-tech mate­ri­als. With par­tic­u­lar inter­ests in dynam­ic sys­tems, envi­ron­men­tal phe­nom­e­na, and craft, his process cross­es lat­er­al think­ing and intu­ition with ground­ed exper­i­ment. Email: dlhays@​forty-​five.​com