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Part 3 of 10: Deep Pockets

Thomas R. Proctor advocates for, and takes on the challenge of, creating a modern parks system.

Steuben Park, covering approximately 1 acre, was the second largest of the three parks that existed in Utica prior to 1897, when the Proctors became interested in park-building.

Central Park was built in 1857-76, and many other cities followed New York's lead by building similar public parks, often hiring Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., to design them.   And in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, Olmsted, Sr., and his business partner Calvert Vaux created the country's first integrated park and parkway system, in Buffalo, New York.

Meanwhile, Utica had proportionally less parkland than other cities in New York State, and in 1896, is was home to only 3 public parks; the largest and oldest, Chancellor, was a mere 3.5 acres (the other two, Steuben and Johnson parks, were 1 acre or less).  In 1897, Maria and Rachel Proctor built a fourth park, Watson Williams, on James Street, which covered almost 7 acres.  All of this is a far cry from Utica's later 550-acre Olmsted system.

Thomas R. Proctor began to speak publicly in the late 1890s about the need for Utica to build parks and tree-lined boulevards.  He said he didn't care about people who belonged to country clubs and could afford to take their carriages or automobiles to the countryside.

Instead, Proctor said he was inspired by a factory worker he met who said he had spent more than a day and a half of wages taking his family 8-10 miles by streetcar to Summit Park for an afternoon.  "It occurred to me," Proctor concluded, "that it was not a good thing to say about a city, that there was no place for the poor people, the children, and the invalids to go without great cost."  He also presented evidence from other cities suggesting that real estate prices rose near such parks, as did overall municipal tax revenues.

Proctor's words persuaded some but not most influential Uticans.  Evidence and reasoned argument proved to be insufficient.  Fortunately for Utica, the Proctors didn't need to persuade anyone if they really wanted something to happen:  they needed only to reach into their own very deep pockets to create whatever they desired.