During the nineteenth century, large, naturalistic urban parks began to appear in cities around the world. These parks, as Melodramatic Landscapes engagingly demonstrates, offered the opportunity for visitors to assert their social status in performances suited to the theatrical age in which they flourished. How and why did prototypical park landscapes— characterized by groves of trees, expanses of mowed meadow, man-made lakes artfully designed to emulate their natural counterparts, and meandering paths— become the norm in the midst of modernizing industrial cities?

Focusing on iconic parks in Paris, New York, and Mexico City, Heath Schenker explores the cultural and social meanings embedded in these elaborate stage sets. Schenker teases out the goals and ambitions of park proponents and describes the singular ways in which the public received and used the parks in each city. The book showcases some of the trademark features of these parks, ranging from the soaring, rocky cliffs of Buttes-Chaumont in Paris to the mythic Aztec springs of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City to the secluded Dairy in Central Park.

Drawing on a wealth of historical sources, including original plans and drawings, descriptions in guidebooks, newspaper articles, and even representations in novels, Schenker reveals how civic leaders adapted the park ideal to serve their particular political, social, and economic agendas. The narrative boasts a number of first-person accounts by nineteenth-century visitors, populating the picturesque scenery with a lively cast of characters worthy of the age of melodrama.

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