The term "concession" encompasses a remarkably broad range of businesses, mostly food and recreation, from the humble hot-dog cart to the city's major ballparks. At their best, these businesses manage the delicate balancing act of augmenting parks' use while harmonizing with the landscape. The additional monies raised provide a steady, and ever-increasing revenue stream to the City's coffers; rising from $2.5 million in 1978 to more than $98.5 million for fiscal year 2008.
Early successful ventures included a spectacular mineral springs spa in Central Park, the Camera Obscura photographic house in Prospect Park; beach cabins in Pelham Bay Park; historic carousels in Central Park, Prospect Park, Forest Park, and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park; the Van Cortlandt Golf Course (dating to 1895, the oldest municipal golf course in the country); and even Coney Island amusement rides. The boating operations in Central Park expanded so rapidly that by 1870 nearly 40 boats accommodated several hundred thousand riders each year. Prominent facilities such as Central Park's Ladies Refreshment Pavilion and the Prospect Park Boathouse exemplified the finest architecture of their eras.
During the administration of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (1934-1960) concessions were expanded and restructured, along with the parks system as a whole. New guidelines sought to rid the system of cronyism and patronage. A licensing policy replaced leasing agreements, dictating that "The Parks... should be operated for public pleasure and recreation, and not for commercial exploitation or the relief of individuals." Auguring more modern concepts of parks management, the Parks Department also stated that "park maintenance should be made at least partially self-supporting."
As diverse as are park concessions, so are the concessionaires. From major corporations to solitary entrepreneurs they bring to parks enormous dedication and creativity. Recent immigrants have comprised the majority of the operators, using park concessions as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the local economy.
As with all public works, making concessions is a risky business, and concessions have not been without controversy. Over the years the best efforts of urban planners and cultural arbiters to impose uniform design standards for concessions have often fallen short. Certain speculative projects such as the Huntington Hartford Pavilion—a two-story restaurant slated for Central Park's southeast pond—or a ski-jump at Randall's Island, never advanced beyond the drafting table. Yet whether an upscale restaurant or a curbside bootblack, parks concessions have added to the richness of New York City parks and the urban experience.
The Standardization of Concessions Under Robert Moses
In March 1934 the Parks Department announced a sweeping plan to overhaul the design and placement of its outdoor concessions. Towards that end, a team of architects and engineers, funded by the federal Civil Works Administration developed two basic designs.
To the newly reorganized city-wide Parks Department, concessions such as this represented a lack of coherent concession design. Places such as this busy pedestrian crossroads remained places where the agency sought to place commercial amenities, but the in-house design team began to develop at that time more compact, clean and uniform vendor designs.
Though this proposal remained on the drawing board, it intriguingly unites food services with waterfront access. Taking its cue from the upper East River traffic at Hell Gate, the design of the park concession uses nautical motifs including a boat-like prow, mast and yardarm.
This design relates to one of two standard concession types developed in 1934 to replace the hodgepodge of open-air vending booths. The oblong version was conceived to stand against a wall or fence. Made of metal, wood and formica, it had steel shutters which could be pulled down to protect merchandise when not in use. The influence of Art Deco is clearly apparent in this sturdy but attractive design.