Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Future of Public Parks

The Emerald Necklace in Boston. Marcus Baker / Alamy.

The landscape architect Sara Zewde met me at the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Central Park North, a busy intersection that overlooks both the Harlem Meer and a Dunkin’ Donuts, the park and the city. Her home and her office are nearby, but there’s a deeper meaning in this location for Zewde, who is one of a small number of Black women licensed in landscape architecture in the United States. Glancing at Central Park, which is considered the crowning achievement of Frederick Law Olmsted (and his collaborator Calvert Vaux), Zewde told me how Olmsted’s writing had been “formational” for Malcolm X during his time in prison, when the civil-rights leader was searching, as he later recounted, for texts that spoke “the truth about the black man’s role.” He found part of that truth in Olmsted’s account of his travels through the South before the Civil War, collected in “The Cotton Kingdom.” “Books like the one by Frederick Olmstead,” Malcolm X said, “opened my eyes to the horrors suffered when the slave was landed in the United States.”

In 2019, Zewde, a native of the South, embarked on a four-month-long project retracing Olmsted’s journey from D.C. to Louisiana. She regards Olmsted’s Southern travels and, indeed, his way with words, as a core yet understudied aspect of his career. “Obviously, Olmsted could not have seen the future and his influence on Malcolm X, but I reflect on this intersection a lot,” Zewde said. “Olmsted did talk about the value of Black people gathering,” she continued. “He didn’t foresee Harlem becoming the mecca that it is for the global Black diaspora, but here we are.”