Central Park: Black Bodies Green Spaces, White Minds

The historical and contemporary use of white privilege for the exclusion of black bodies from green spaces in the United States

Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, may not have envisioned black bodies, like Christian Cooper, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery, enjoying a leisure day in New York City’s bucolic Central Park when he designed the space in 1857 to allow people “access to fresh air and sunlight”. While Olmstead embodied egalitarianism in his approach and believed “that common green space must always be accessible to all citizens”, the idea of “all citizens” was, and is still not, politically, socially or economically inclusive.

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(Photo): New York City’s Central Park

As an active living scholar, I examine the relationship between man-made spaces, such as the presence of sidewalks in our neighborhoods, and physical activity, either for play or transport, like walking to school or work. I had sidewalks to run and play when I was a little girl growing up in Buffalo, NY. However, as a black child born to a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood on the heels of the 1960s civil rights movement, I did not always have the freedom to play on “any” sidewalk. My hometown is one of the most persistently racially segregated areas in the country and the black-white, east-west divide along Buffalo’s Main Street represents the interrelationship between racial privilege and place. This interrelationship was further emphasized when the east side of Buffalo was cut in half with construction of the Route 33 expressway during the urban renewal period of the 1960s to support white flight. Urban renewal, or using James Baldwin’s idiom, “negro removal”, not only displaced Buffalo’s east side black residents and businesses, it also destroyed one of the city’s green space treasures, a Frederick Law Olmsted park, the Humboldt Parkway.

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(Left Photo): Humbolt Parkway in 1953. (Right Photo): Route33 — Kensington Expressway

All humans are entitled and have the right to spend time in “nature-made” spaces. I cannot tell you how many times I have had the perplexed white gazed retort, “you like to hike too”, or the self-imposed anti-nature indoctrination from some black communities. Yes, a main rationale for public parks was to incorporate exclusionary policies that separated people of color from wealthier white city residents, but before black bodies were stereotypically and exclusively associated with urban, concrete jungles, the land of green space served both as an exploitation of slave labor and as a benefact to escape and seek freedom up north. Regardless, black bodies were and have always been connected to nature in this country. And last week, Christian Cooper, a black man, had just as much right to spend time, and ask Amy Cooper, a white woman, to leash her dog, in the Ramble, a birdwatching area of New York’s Central Park and place where leashes are required. In the most recognizable and well-practiced way, Amy used a dramatized tone to tell Christian that she was “calling the cops” and that she was “going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life”. Thankfully, the police did not show up.

All humans are entitled and have the right to spend time in “nature-made” spaces.

New York City’s Central Park is not unfamiliar in its discrimination and annihilation of black lives, all in the name of protecting white womanhood. Many of us may have watched Ava DuVernay’s film “When They See Us” or even remember in 1989, the Central Park Five, when five black and brown teenagers from Harlem were wrongly convicted of the brutal beating and rape of a white woman in Central Park. As a teenager myself, I remember the public outrage and dehumanizing headlines, “Wolf Pack’s Prey”, of these five boys and felt angry and helpless. While these boys would serve full prison sentences and eventually be exonerated as men, today we still see the protection of white woman virtue, often ignited by the power of white woman tears, used as a justification for black body oppression, brutality and elimination.

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(Photo): Central Park Five

Thirty years later, I am no longer that young girl feeling helpless. I am still enraged when I see this modern day dynamic of presumed white innocence and the weaponization of white privilege. I am equally incensed by the notion of privilege as it relates to whiteness and green space. Again, and again, we have been reminded that white privilege is not just about the physical body, but also about the physical space. The implicit biases which seem to anchor and uphold all forms of white privilege must be recognized and impugned. The visceral provocation to “police brutality white privilege” has been seen with massive city protests and the nation’s state of agitation throughout this week. I argue that the notion of “nature white privilege”, which has been actively constructed in the geographic localization of green space, whether that be parks, playgrounds or even public plazas, needs also to be challenged and debunked. While the destruction and devastation of all forms of white privilege cannot be reversed overnight or en masse, a change can come one person at a time, one act at a time. For now, during this time of our country’s unrest, my black body will continue to enjoy and seek peace in the beauty and serenity of public greenspaces and I hope you do too.

Written by

Assistant Professor, PHOEBE Laboratory Director @UMDPublicHealth • Co-Director @NatureRxUMD • Alum @BrownUniversity, @EmoryRollins, @JohnsHopkinsSPH • 🏃🏾‍♀️

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