Cherokee Park | Photo courtesy of Metro Parks

Every day, thousands of people run or bike, walk their dogs or play golf in Louisville’s chain of parks, and likely never wonder how they came to be.

They might assume that parks in general are simply a natural part of every urban landscape. But just like the buildings that populate a city, parks must be planned and designed, approved, funded and then constructed.

Louisville’s parks were the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, the preeminent park designer of all-time, probably best-known for his design of New York’s Central Park. But Olmsted was much more prolific than simply that green space in the middle of Manhattan. By the time he came to Louisville, he’d already developed park systems for Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Milwaukee, Montreal, Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco — the list truly goes on and on — plus private projects for the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, and numerous college campuses.

His vision, probably a revelation for all those dog-walkers and tennis players, was that city parks should be a retreat from the dreary urban life of the 19th century, for recreation, health and natural enjoyment. They should also be for everyone, the day laborer as well as the Gilded Age’s baron of industry.

Author Eric Burnette

But much has been written about Olmsted and his legacy. Eric Burnette’s new book, “Parks for the People” (Holland Brown Books, 113 pages, $15.99), tells the story from the Louisville point of view. And more than that, he takes us back — way back — to when the park was just a glimmer in someone’s eye.

Olmsted designed and built Louisville’s parks, but Andrew Cowan, a well-connected local businessman, was the one who saw the need. It was probably hard not to see, and smell, the need.

In the book, Burnette — who has a law degree and a master’s degree in urban planning from University of Louisville — describes a city in 1880 in which “the streets were filthy, the air was filthy, the water was filthy, the people were diseased.

“Coal dust filled the air and dirtied everything it landed on. Sewage poured out onto Beargrass Creek, which, the city’s health office complained, could ‘annoy the air with [its] thousand stenches.’”

Cowan wanted a park system similar to the one in New York, which meant getting the city to approve and fund it.

And if you’re interested in how urban government worked 150 years ago, this book lays it all out in detail. It was a cesspool of greed, commercial interests, political power battles, personal feuds, family feuds, dirty tricks, vote fraud, some bad decision-making — similar to today in many ways, but a good deal less sophisticated and certainly less subtle.

It was around 1890 when the stars finally aligned to move the park project along. Still, when you read Burnette’s book, you become amazed that anything ever happened at all. Even after city leaders got behind the idea and hired Olmsted’s firm, Olmsted spent much of his time dealing with one infirmity after another.

Olmsted was about 70 when the Louisville parks project finally began taking shape. Seventy was a much more advanced age in 1890 than it is today, even if a man were of vibrant health, which Olmsted most definitely was not.

He had been sickly from youth. He bounced around professionally for much of his young adulthood and didn’t begin his park development work until he was nearly 40. So Louisville was definitely an end-of-life project for him.

However, his much younger colleague, Henry Sargent Codman, was ill and unavailable nearly as often as Olmsted. In fact, he died suddenly — in 1893, at age 30 — from the effects of an appendectomy, right in the middle of the project.

Louisville-based Hound Dog Press designed and letterpressed the cover of the book.

And then there was frequent interference from the Parks Commission, which proposed a number of ideas in Olmsted’s and Codman’s absences. Ideas like a tall rail bridge. And bordering the parks with hedges rather than the thick groves of hardy trees that were intended to “screen out the outside world.” Ideas that ran completely counter to Olmsted’s vision and ultimately were rejected.

The vision presented to the city, when all the distraction were dealt with, was thus:

“Iroquois was ‘great natural forest’; Cherokee — with its ‘moderately gently rolling country, with somewhat scattered, broad-spreading trees and a picturesque, small river … But Shawnee — the western park — wasn’t like the other two parks. It was flat, it was smaller, it was along the river. It could offer things the other parks could not. Shawnee could be the ‘great public common’ and ‘the central play-ground’ of the city, where children could play ball in the meadows, where military parades could traipse about and large public gatherings could assemble. The plantings could be more formal, more ornamental, principally used to screen out the outside world and to highlight the views of the river.”

One of the remarkable aspects of all this is that when the park was created, in 1890, it was a very, very different time. Horses and carriages plodded along mostly dirt paths. Much of the commerce of the city was agricultural-related. Residential neighborhoods were here-and-there affairs. Farms still dominated the landscape.

Times changed, and many of the innovations of the park designers have since disappeared under concrete, asphalt and cast iron. Grassy boulevards along some of Louisville’s main thoroughfares, miniature parks themselves with fountains and shaded benches, ultimately were replaced by streetcar lines.

And, of course, nobody could account for technological, cultural, economic and demographic changes that would occur over the next 125 years.

And yet, the parks themselves — Olmsted’s vision of an “emerald necklace” — remain. The paths now accommodate automobiles and bicycles, and the open spaces accommodate golfers and tennis players. But the leafy canopies, the meandering walkways, the suddenly dramatic views, the freshness of nature in the middle of the city are largely unchanged in 125 years.

Olmsted died in 1903, without much opportunity to enjoy what he had wrought in Louisville. But Louisville certainly has enjoyed it, over the last century-plus.

The author writes: “If you live in Miami, you go to the beach. If you live in Denver, you go to the mountains. In Louisville, you go to the parks.”

A city of parks. “Where Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn total 1,428 acres to serve a combined 4.2 million people in those two boroughs, Louisville’s three large Frederick Law Olmsted parks total 1,398 acres to serve just 760,000 people.”

Although not all the people all the time. In 1914, the Board of Park Commissioners segregated the parks’ tennis courts, “reasoning that some [other] provision for negroes in Shawnee, Iroquois and Cherokee Parks” should be made.

And then the board segregated the entire park. A proposal was passed “to build separate ‘negro’ parks for black Louisvillians. Chickasaw Park opened in 1922, a few blocks south of Shawnee, “as a 61-acre consolation prize ‘provided for the use of negroes.’ ”

The parks were re-integrated in the 1950s.

Nor did everything remained pastorally peaceful in the parks’ histories.

“There was an international airport built near Iroquois Park,” writes Burnette. “A sewage overflow system was put through Beargrass Creek, dumping raw effluent when it rains. An interstate highway was also put through Cherokee Park, but public opposition forced transportation officials to tunnel under a hill on the north side. There were tornadoes in 1974, which ripped out many of the original trees of Cherokee Park and laid their hulls to rot on the hillsides.

“Some of the wrongs, such as segregation, have been righted; others, such as the sewage, have simply been endured.”

“But,” the author writes, “the parks are resilient. They are lovely scenery. And if you go to the parks today, you can still forget you are in the middle of a city.”

Just as Olmsted envisioned. Just as Louisville hoped for, 125 years ago.

Steve Kaufman
Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.