- Melodramatic Landscapes: Urban Parks in the Nineteenth Century
Heath Schenker’s highly readable comparative study of nineteenth-century parks in Paris, Mexico City, and New York brings together a wealth of information concerning why and how these parks were created. Schenker finds that in all three cities, plans for massive new parks were informed by notions of melodrama, with the landscape designed to communicate clear moral messages about social harmony and the benefits of contact with nature for the edification of the lower classes. Drawing on primary sources such as contemporary guidebooks and published memoirs written by park planners, together with a range of secondary material, Schenker constructs a convincing case for the reformist intentions of park planners and government officials. However, the book also promises to investigate “how the public received and responded to those messages” of moral reform (19), and on this point of great social historical interest, the book is ultimately more suggestive than conclusive.
The book’s three main chapters take each city and its parks in turn, beginning with the Parisian parks of the Second Empire. In Schenker’s analysis, Napoleon III was motivated to create or renovate large parks throughout Paris in order to placate various political constituencies, whom Schenker identifies by their class status rather than their political views. While members of the bourgeoisie profited immensely through real estate speculation and enjoyed displaying their wealth on promenades in the parks, the working people of Paris were pushed to the [End Page 114] periphery of the city, far from the nicest of the new parks. Schenker agrees with Zola’s assessment in his 1872 novel La Curée, in which the parks are nothing more than a false backdrop for the empty ideals of the regime. The political spectrum of the Third Empire was far more nuanced than Schenker indicates, however, and the commitment of Napoleon III to improving the lives of the workers in his capital city was more sincere. The discussion of the Haussmannization of Paris would have been enriched by engagement with more recent scholarship as well as now-classic works dealing with Third Empire Paris by authors like François Loyer and David Jordan, not to mention the field of social history, which is represented here by outdated texts from the mid-twentieth century.
How the parks of Haussmann’s Paris inspired the renovation of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City is an intriguing story outlined in chapter 2. The location of this park to the west of the city is rich in historical significance. Having once been a sacred site for the Aztecs, in 1530 it was designated as public property and a key source for Mexico City’s water supply. By the nineteenth century, its springs were running dry, and the viceroy’s former pleasure villa had been converted into a military academy. The Castle of Chapultepec saw a major battle in the Mexican-American War, where in 1847 the young cadets sacrificed themselves in a suicidal action against the invading Americans and became immortalized in the nationalist legend of los niños héroes. Thus the site of Chapultepec was already infused with political meaning when Emperor Maximilian I came to power in 1864 and dreamed of recreating Mexico City in the image of Paris. Though his regime was short-lived, his vision for Mexico City was not, and the new boulevard he cut from the city to Chapultepec would become “the spine of modern Mexico City” (85). The Porfiriato continued Maximilian’s efforts to make Mexico City a European-style showplace in the last decades of the nineteenth century. As Schenker recounts, Chapultepec performed much the same theatrical function as the Bois de Boulogne in Paris: the backdrop to a scene where well-to-do citizens enacted their social status and the state demonstrated its aspirations to modernize the city. Doubtless the wealthy citizens of Mexico City did use the park for this purpose, but the author’s reliance on guidebooks as...