Frederick Law Olmsted reportedly preferred the designations of “park-maker” or “scenery-maker” to the title of “landscape architect” that most often describes him. Yet, he is perhaps the most identifiable landscape architect in the world, based primarily on his work with Calvert Vaux on New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Other notable Olmsted landscapes include the Biltmore Estate and the U.S. Capitol grounds, among many high-profile commissions.
Because of Central Park, Olmsted’s considerable work and influence on landscape and park creation has been exaggerated to super-natural proportions. It seems that everywhere one travels, one has Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs pointed out. Truth is, they’re usually not.
It’s an understandable mistake. So many communities and public spaces incorporate Olmsted’s technique of creating natural-seeming fluidity to create landscapes that look like they were always there. It is stunning to compare photographs of the rocky and swampy Manhattan terrain that ultimately became Central Park with the well-engineered “natural” environment by Olmsted and Vaux that millions enjoy annually.
Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood is an Olmsted-designed environment; Montgomery’s Cloverdale is not documented as an Olmsted design, although some claim it. Cloverdale is attributed to Joseph Forsyth Johnson. The shared influence is easy to see as both neighborhoods follow very similar principles. Also, Olmsted definitely advised on the landscape design of the Capitol grounds in Montgomery.
Olmsted did not design the campus of Alabama A&M University, north of Huntsville, but the firm founded by his sons, Olmsted Brothers, did documented consultation on that campus into the 1950s as well as designing and advising on numerous other familiar college campuses, public spaces, residential environments, and national parks throughout the country.
These musings on Olmsted are prompted by a recent reading of a new book inspired by Olmsted’s travels in the American South in the decade prior to the Civil War. Spying on the South: An Odyssey across the American Divide (Penguin Press, 2019) documents author journalist Tony Horwitz’s efforts to gauge the politics of the South in the months leading up to the 2016 election while retracing Olmsted’s 1850s Southern journey.
Frederick Law Olmsted spent over a year traveling in the South, writing dispatches for the fledgling New York Times under the pen name of “Yeoman.” Olmsted began his trek as a curious observer but came away as an avid abolitionist and carried those passions throughout and beyond the Civil War that would soon come. Olmsted, whose early career was checkered at best, did not find his calling of landscape design until after his Southern foray. It is suggested, by Horwitz and others, that much of his later landscape design was influenced by what Olmsted observed on his Southern travels and, after the War, he returned to the South throughout his career.
Olmsted was committed to creating democratic public spaces that were accessible to everyone and would encourage the mingling and interactions of all.
As fervently as I love the South, and, as much as I plan to live out the rest of my life here, I am not a fan of most Southern politicians; however, as a student of political science, much entertaining fodder has been supplied by that too despicable breed of the Southern politician. If I ever decide to abandon my homeland, it will be because of its wretched and draconian politics. However, I am determined to stay and continue to work for change and progress from within.
As much as I cherish the spread of Southern foodways and life styles, music, art, and culture to a broader national and world audience, I have never wanted the politics of the South to become “mainstream.” Yet, it seems that Nixon and Reagan’s Republican “Southern Strategy” from decades past has permeated the country beyond the South in the present day and that Southern politics and politicians now sound more and more like politicians throughout the land – from the Executive level to the county commissioner.
I oppose and regret this trend. The last thing I would want to export from my region is its politics.
Tony Horwitz’s always entertaining book purports to explore Southern ideologies and attitudes at a breaking point in American culture, but it is really more of a Southern frolic to explore the (often lunatic) fringe. Horwitz meets many of his subjects in dive bars, so the conversations are animated, loose, and, too often, predictably cringe-worthy.
Horwitz boards a towboat pushing coal barges along the Ohio, takes a riverboat down the Mississippi, rents a Kia through Louisiana, and rides a mule under the direction of an alleged sadist named “Buck” through the Texas hill country. While on the border in Texas, he frequently crosses the Rio Grande with locals from Eagle Pass, Texas, into Piedras Negras, Mexico.
After a negligible foray into New Orleans, highlighted by Horwitz’s descriptions of a transformative experience in a predominantly black Baptist church and a disappointing visit to Audubon Park, Horwitz and his Australian pal, Andrew Denton, venture deeper into Louisiana bayous, Cajun country, and what Horwitz describes as the “unreconstructed South.” Andrew is of weak stomach and is quickly sidetracked by the local cuisine, which puts a damper on one of the most enticing elements of that part of the country.
Horwitz and Denton alight for a while in Colfax, Louisiana, the site of the bloodiest massacre of freed blacks in the decade after the Civil War. On a tip from a Colfax bartender, Horwitz and Denton attend the “Louisiana Mudfest,” the setting for one of the most vivid and, for me, distasteful episodes of Horwitz’s contemporary narrative. Horwitz, Andrew, and the Kia (“Killed in Action,” quips Andrew) travel into the heart of darkness of the plowed and mud-covered fields of a former plantation waiting to do battle with monster trucks helmed by drunks and rednecks. For me, and for most people I know, the “White Trash Only” sign at the entrance gate would be all that was needed to keep me away. It’s a colorful and entertaining chapter, but hardly representative of the region.
Horwitz spends a major part of his journey of discovery in Texas – which I consider only peripherally Southern – and he devotes about half of his book to adventures in Texas. He seems fascinated by all of the incarnations of Texans that he meets along the way, especially the descendants of Germans. He sees through the forced Chamber of Commerce “weirdness” of Austin and seems to be overwhelmed by Houston’s formidable girth and lack of zoning laws. When I lived in the Houston area, one of the things I actually liked was the lack of rational zoning and the way that one might, for example, find great Mexican food in a cozy restaurant in the middle of what was otherwise a residential neighborhood.
However, as someone who lived on an island off the coast of Texas (Galveston) for two years, my primary impression was that Texans are mighty proud of something, but I’m hard-pressed to tell you what.
Horwitz effectively picks and chooses his examples of the “American Divide” – an idea I find as distasteful as the simple-minded notion of “red” and “blue” states. He masterfully presents a raucous and highly readable trek through a part of the country that is probably more mainstream than he or I would care to admit. Occasionally, he finds flaws in the reasoning of his hero, Olmsted. It’s a book I recommend, but don’t expect it to draw any credible conclusions; it provides a lot to ponder.
I finished Spying on the South on May 26. The next day, I read that Tony Horwitz had died, unexpectedly, at age 60. He will be remembered for his witty and probing examinations in books such as Baghdad without a Map, One for the Road: An Outback Adventure, and Confederates in the Attic. And now, Spying on the South. He will be remembered as a writer who tried to make connections and connect the dots in an increasingly baffling world.
Postscript: Even though Horwitz’s recent book does not venture into Alabama, the dust cover features a photograph of the Webb-Bonds-Bamberg house, an ante-bellum home off Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama. It is familiar to me.