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“Poor People's Parks: Fighting for Nature in Nineteenth-Century New York City" recovers the green spaces where impoverished and working-class people of European, African, and Asian descent spent their scraps of free time. In local parks and a series of commercial gardens on the shifting edges of the city, these working people learned to love nature in their own way. Historians remember wealthier urbanites, who traveled long distances for somber and contemplative communion with seeming wildernesses or created heavily policed urban parks that echoed rural landscapes. But working people could feel that they were escaping into nature in small and rowdy urban green spaces that were far from wild. As members of the lower classes appreciated the scenery while socializing, playing, peddling, and protesting, urban elites cast these landscapes as unnatural wasted space, ripe for development.


As the leafy grounds of urban green spaces began to fill with buildings and infrastructure after midcentury, coalitions of immigrant leaders and working-class community members formed to defend beloved local parks. At the very same time as better remembered nature enthusiasts worked to conserve and preserve faraway wildernesses as state and national parks, these advocates proposed a powerful new environmental idea. They framed access to nature as a right for city people, rather than a privilege. Desire for the particular kind of escape found at working-class green spaces, I argue, fueled the rise of this “downtown environmentalism.”

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