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Tom O’Malley: Olmsted’s imagination still enriching our lives

“The true artist has the planet for his pedestal …”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The early morning sky was bright and clear. Overhead, a luminous moon seemed impossibly bright as it accompanied me from above. I welcomed even this light in these otherwise dark days.

As I headed toward McKinley Parkway, it was odd to think that I was stepping all over a work of art. Earlier in the week, I had ridden my bike along the canvas. Think that’s bad?

Soon there will be a steady line of cars and trucks, smearing mud and dirt all over this beautiful creation – a sure violation of the aesthetic book of etiquette. Barbaric? Actually as I walked on to the walkway, I, too, became part of this ever-changing work. And so does everyone else who goes by this way. It is a true populist aesthetic.

Of course, the original artist was Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the parkways in Buffalo back in the 1890s. Olmsted was putting into practice the philosophy of the Transcendentalists, who included both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

These writers saw the first ravages of the Industrial Revolution. Near their homes in Concord, Mass., factories were sprouting up faster than fields of corn and wheat. The Fitchburg Railroad was steaming toward Boston, churning along beneath the dark clouds of steam-powered engines. All in the name of progress.

The Transcendentalists never rebelled against modern progress, they simply fought to protect the natural world, which they saw as elemental to our human being. They tried to redefine progress in light of this dynamic.

Olmsted was inspired by Emerson’s seminal essay “Nature” and Thoreau’s classic “Walden.” Olmsted believed that close contact with the natural world is essential for a fully developed humanity. Beginning here in Buffalo, he began to deliver the natural world right to our doorsteps in the form of interlinked parks and parkways.

For Olmsted, the entire City of Buffalo (as well as New York and Chicago) became a vast canvas that would be both experienced and enhanced by the people who interacted with it. In effect, he created these urban masterpieces as organic symbols of his ideas.

His genius allows all of us who use the parkways to contribute to the natural aesthetic of our lives. Every work of art has a similar dynamic.

Consider such simple, ordinary activities: raking leaves, shoveling snow, even going for a walk. They all become part of the artistic landscape. This is the truest form of art, alive and evolving organically. In this way, our daily lives are elevated by the aesthetic imagination of Olmsted.

As Thoreau pointed out in his Journal in 1857: “Our stock in life, our real estate, is that amount of thought which we have had, which we have thought out.” Our true wealth is in our ideas. His abstract ideas were put into practice at Walden Pond and later transformed by Olmsted into reality right here in the Queen City.

And the citizens of Buffalo continue to develop these ideas as we walk, ride, work and play all over this amazing work of art. It’s living and growing right before our eyes. Try to imagine how it will look in the next century. Then make it happen.