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10 Scenic Facts About Central Park

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Aside from Rockefeller Center and Times Square, New York City’s top tourist attraction is Central Park. The tree-filled urban oasis stretches for approximately 2.5 miles, and receives around 42 million visitors per year. Here are a few facts about its iconic grounds.

1. IT WAS AMERICA’S FIRST MAJOR LANDSCAPED PUBLIC PARK.

In the mid-19th century, New York City’s elite—who admired Europe’s well-tended public parks—proposed a similar space in their crowded city that would provide inhabitants with culture, fresh air, and exercise (but rumors abounded at the time that the real purpose was land speculation). After years of debate, the New York Legislature purchased a swath of land between 59th and 106th streets.

A design contest was held in 1858, and a duo named Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won the competition with their "Greensward Plan.” (Greensward is a 19th century term for “lawn.”) Their vision, which called for a harmonious balance between natural and man-made elements, included terraces, bridges, and sunken roadways that would allow carriages to travel through the park without interrupting pedestrians.

Today, Central Park is known as America’s first major landscaped public park. Later, Olmsted and Vaux teamed up to design Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and Olmsted went on to create the U.S. Capitol’s grounds, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Today, he's known as the founder of American landscape architecture.

2. IT WASN’T EASY TO BUILD.

Central Park might look effortlessly beautiful today, but it was once filled with mud, swamps, and rocks. Trees and plants couldn’t grow in its soil, so 500,000 cubic feet of topsoil was imported from New Jersey and dumped onto the grounds (some modern estimates indicate that there’s now a total of 10 million cubic yards of New Jersey topsoil on Central Park). Its swamps were drained, and city water pipes were installed to create its lakes and streams. The park was also strewn with rocks, which had to be blown up with gunpowder and carted out via carriage. In all, the project's 20,000 laborers used more gunpowder to rid Central Park of unwanted rocks than soldiers used while fighting the Battle of Gettysburg.

3. IT ONCE HOUSED A VILLAGE.

Before Central Park was built, about 1600 people lived on the land. Many of them were residents of Seneca Village, a small community that was founded in 1825 by free African-Americans. The territory included three churches, two schools, and three cemeteries. A large Irish population also lived in Seneca Village, as did some German residents.

In 1855, Seneca Village was destroyed to complete the park. Its residents were deemed “squatters,” and they were either paid for their land or forcibly evicted by the city. Seneca Village was all but forgotten until 2011, when the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History was granted permission to excavate the site. Diggers ended up collecting 250 bags of material, which might teach historians more about the individuals who once called the area home.

4. IT FELL INTO DECLINE—BUT IT MADE A COMEBACK.

Despite its grand scale, Central Park eventually fell into disrepair, thanks to bureaucratic struggles with the notorious Tammany Hall political machine, the departure of key park overseers and designers, and a changing urban environment that was dominated by the newly-invented automobile. The park became overgrown and dilapidated until Mayor Fiorello La Guardia instructed urban planner Robert Moses to clean it up in 1934. Moses built brand-new playgrounds, ballparks, and a skating rink; raised funds for sculptures and a carousel; renovated the zoo; and helped restore the Park to its former glory.

In 1970s, the Park entered another rough period thanks to budget cuts and mismanagement. Once again, it became downtrodden, dirty, and filled with criminal activity. In 1980, a private fundraising body called Central Park Conservancy was created. With time, donations, and the help of volunteers, the Park was gradually transformed into the verdant space we enjoy today.

5. IT ONCE HAD SHEEP.

Ever wonder how the large, grassy Sheep Meadow got its name? It was once filled with fuzzy livestock, which grazed there from the 1860s until the years following the Great Depression. Eventually, the animals were relocated to Prospect Park, and their home was transformed into the Tavern on the Green restaurant. Afraid that impoverished city residents would eat the sheep, officials finally moved them to a farm in the Catskill Mountains during the Great Depression.

6. IT YIELDED A SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY.

In 2002, scientists discovered a new animal species in Central Park—a tiny centipede called Nannarrup hoffmani that’s only four-tenths of an inch long. The creature lives in the park’s leaf litter, which is the mixture of twigs, fungi, soil, and rotting plant leaves that builds up over the grounds. Fittingly, the bug is thought to have arrived in potted soil—making it a New York transplant in every sense of the phrase.

7. IT HAS A FAMOUS CAROUSEL.

Central Park’s elegant, 57-horse carousel is one of the nation’s largest—and oldest—merry-go-rounds. Built over 100 years ago, the vintage treasure was found abandoned in an old trolley terminal in Coney Island. It replaced the park’s first three carousels, as fire destroyed two of them and a live mule or horse was said to power the original.

8. IT WAS ONCE COVERED BY GLACIERS.

Ever wonder why Central Park has so many dramatic rocks and boulders? They're there because of glaciers, which melted 12,000 years ago, leaving behind the debris they accumulated during their long journey across New York state.

9. IT’S BEEN FEATURED IN MANY MOVIES.

With its unique blend of natural landscape and urban skyline, it’s no surprise that Central Park is one of the most filmed locations in the entire world. In 1908, the original cinematic version of Romeo & Juliet became the first movie to be shot on its grounds. Over the years, countless blockbusters have followed suit, including Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), When Harry Met Sally (1989), The Avengers (2012), and An Affair to Remember (1957).

10. PEOPLE STILL CALL IT HOME.

The 2010 U.S. Census revealed that 25 mysterious individuals claimed Central Park as their permanent residence. Nobody knows who they are, and park representatives deny that municipal workers live on the grounds. One explanation is that homeless individuals might have mailed in census forms.

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

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Big Questions
Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?
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New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname is “The Big Apple.” So just where did this now-ubiquitous moniker originate?

MAKING A BIG APPLE

Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families who sold apples on the city's streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account posits that the term comes from a famous 19th-century brothel madam named Eve, whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Beginning on February 18, 1924, he began every column with the header, “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.

Fitz Gerald reportedly first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the ‘cooling rings’ of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. ‘Where y'all goin' from here?’ queried one. ‘From here we're headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it quickly took off.

CATCHING ON

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s—who had a habit of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs—helped the nickname spread beyond the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his (somewhat unjust) due, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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