Friday, January 10, 2014

The Annotated Lungs

In the course of writing Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes, my co-author Robin Lynn had the idea of including James Huneker's essay "The Lungs" as a kind of foreword (to accompany the proper foreword by Pete Hamill). "The Lungs" originally appeared in the New York Times of August 2, 1914, and was reprinted in 1915 in Huneker's book New Cosmopolis (Internet Archive), a collection of essays about cities that Huneker had visited or lived in.

James Gibbons Huneker (1857-1921) was his generation's foremost music critic and "arts journalist." He was a flâneur and a prolific writer (22 books). "Today," writes the computer and cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter, a fan of Huneker, "many people would find Huneker's prose overblown, but...I still love his style of writing and his rich metaphors," and his "unrestrained emotionality." There is indeed a learnedness, a passion, what maybe can only be called soulfulness in Huneker's prose that is very far from the kind of self-effacing, New Yorker-style prose that those of my generation were taught was the standard of proper writing, and even further from the snarky, faux knowingness of so much of what appears on the internet. As an antidote to both, sometimes I need to read a few pages of Huneker in the same way some people need a stiff drink.

Robin had no idea when she suggested including "The Lungs" that Huneker is one of my favorite writers. (To learn more about him, you may wish to read this piece I wrote about him.) In what follows, I have made what I hope are apposite and clarifying comments on Huneker's essay. My comments are set off by brackets and are in italics. Huneker divided his essay into two parts. I here present part one, with part two to follow soon.

The Lungs (1914)

A broad chest usually means healthy lungs. Now, Manhattan Island is notoriously narrow-chested. Her scanty space across is not redeemed by greater length. Crowded with humans and their houses, there is consequently little space for the expansion of her normal breathing powers. Her lungs, i.e., her parks, are contracted and not enough of them; there never will be. But more than some people think.

New Yorkers, even the most convinced cockneys, know little of their city, or of its lungs. Not only provincial, but parochial, they are only acquainted with the square or little park that adorns—it’s a poor park that doesn’t bring a sense of adornment—their native ward. Imagine my amazement when I learned after nearly thirty years’ residence here that there were one hundred and eighty-two parks in the five boroughs. [To the question "How many parks are there in New York City?" the FAQ on the web site of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 2014 gives as the answer "more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities." Only God knows what they can possibly mean by this. Are "recreation facilities" located within parks counted as separate entities for purposes of arriving at "more than 1,700"? I assume so. Is each one of Central Park's perimeter playgrounds included in this number? Again, I assume so. Wikipedia lists 189 parks in the five boroughs. Clearly, we've added more than seven parks to the net total since Huneker wrote "The Lungs." But just as we today are not sure what to count as a "park," so neither were people in Huneker's day.] I read it in a newspaper and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t discovered the fact, for I’ve always been a rambler and my happy hunting-ground usually has been the East Side.

However, seeing is believing, and last summer, with my eyes made innocent by several years’ residence in Germany, Austria, Holland, Belgium, France, and England, I determined to verify certain vague suspicions that had been assailing my consciousness: that perhaps New York was not inferior in attractiveness to London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, or Brussels. Perhaps many who go down to the sea in steamers, their pockets filled with letters of credit, might be equally shocked when confronted by the sights and sounds of Manhattan. Perhaps—but let us start on a little tour into intimate New York, without a megaphone or a ready-made enthusiasm; above all, let us be meek and avoid boastful rhetoric; also dodge statistics. Go to the guide-books, thou sluggard, for the latter!

When a writer tackles such a big theme as New York he as a rule fetches a deep breath in the lower bay, steams as far as Staten Island, and then lets loose the flood-gate of adjectives. How the city looks as you enter it is the conventional point of attack. I am sorry to say that whenever I have returned from Europe, the first peep of lower Manhattan, with its craggy battlements, its spires splintering the very firmament, and the horrid Statue of Liberty, all these do so work on my spirit that I feel like repining. Not because I am home again—not, my friend, because the spectacle is an uplifting one, but, shame that I must confess the truth, because my return means back to toil, back to the newspaper forge, there to resume my old job of wordsmith. Why, the very symbol of liberty, that stupid giant female, with her illuminating torch, becomes a monster of hated mien, her torch a club that ominously threatens us: Get to work! Get to work!

Therefore I’ll begin at Battery Park, leaving the waterways, the arteries and veins of the city, for a future disquisition.

The image stamped on my memory is the reverse of the immobile. A plastic picture. The elevated roads debouching here are ugly, but characteristic. I’m afraid I can’t see in our city anything downright ugly—it is never an absolute for me; as Dostoievsky said, there are no ugly women. The elevated road structure is hideous if aesthetically considered, and that is precisely the way it should not be considered. It rolls thousands daily to this end of the town; they usually take the ferries or subways, a few stroll under the scanty trees, or visit the Aquarium, so we must be critically charitable, too. [All four of the Manhattan elevated lines--Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues--had their southern termini at Battery Park, the inland rim of which was a vast ganglion of elevated platforms and stairs, with the attendant cacophony of trains. By the 1950s, when Battery Park had been remade by Robert Moses, all this was gone.]

Oh, how tired I am of being told that Jenny Lind made her debut in this same Castle Garden, “presented” by the late Phineas T. Barnum! [It's amazing how the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind's September 11, 1850, concert at Castle Garden became such a part of the city's lore, not much less so today than when Huneker wrote. And yet, upon closer inspection, it seems no more remarkable  a musical event than any one of a hundred others that took place at what by all accounts was the charming offshore, al fresco venue of Castle Garden (not yet connected by landfill to the Battery). Both Walt Whitman and George Templeton Strong, indefatigable concertgoers in antebellum New York, left records of their experiences at Castle Garden, where the likes of Marietta Alboni, Henrietta Sontag, and Adelina Patti surely shone as bright as or brighter than Jenny Lind.] Wasn’t it a historical fort before it became a hall of immigrants and the abode of the fishes? This much may be said for the latter—it is a real aquarium, and, excepting the absence of an octopus or two, the collection rivals those at Brighton, England (where there are octopi); Naples, Hamburg, and elsewhere. More exciting than the fish, the seal, or the porpoises are the people. Thousands elbow through the rather narrow aisles and stare as solemnly at the finny inhabitants as they are stared at in return. The sightseeing coaches give their passengers a quarter of an hour’s grace to “do” the show, while ragged boys dance about them, obsequiously pilot them, mock them, quite after the manner of the ragged boy on the Marina at Naples. [The New York Aquarium occupied Castle Clinton, which had been remodeled for the purpose by McKim, Mead & White, from 1896 to 1941. Moses--punitively, it is said, after he'd been thwarted in his effort to build a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge (which would have destroyed much of Battery Park)--sent the New York Aquarium, which had once been as great an attraction as the city boasted, to Coney Island in 1957.]

The New York Aquarium in Battery Park, 1917.

A veritable boon is this open Battery Park when the gang of wage-earners have fled the lower reaches of the city, when the dishes have been washed, when the janitors and caretakers of the tall buildings bring their wives and children to catch the breeze from the bay. On moonlit nights there are few situations more romantic. Here is freedom for the eye, for the lungs. There are not enough benches, but the walking is good, and to stand on the edge of the "wharf" and watch the bright eyes of ferries, the blazing eyes of the Jersey and Brooklyn shores, and the eyes of Staten Island as the unstable floor of the water mirrors (a cracked mirror) the moonlight and distorts the tiny flames about it, is to enjoy a spectacle fit for men and women who are not afraid to love their birthplace. I like it better when the weather has a nipping freshness and the day is grey-coloured and full of the noises of broken waters, and the cry of birds.

[Seventy-two years before New Cosmopolis, Huneker's peripatetic equal, the writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis, wrote, in his Open-Air Musings in the City, of the Battery:

The Battery on Sunday is the Champs-Elysées of foreigners. I heard nothing spoken around me but French and German. Wrapped in my cloak and seated on a bench, I watched the children and the poodle-dogs at their gambols, and it seemed to me as if I were in some public resort over the water. They bring such happiness to a day of idleness--these foreigners--laughing, talking nonsense, totally unconscious of observation, and delighted as much with the passing of a rowboat, or a steamer, as an American with the arrival of his own 'argosy' from sea. They are not the better class of foreigners who frequent the Battery on Sunday. They are the newly arrived, the artisans, the German toymakers and the French bootmakers--people who still wear the spacious-hipped trowsers and scant coats, the gold rings in the ears, and the ruffled shirts of the lands of undandyfied poverty….They sit and smoke on the long benches. They run hither and thither with their children, and behave as they would in their own garden, using it and enjoying it just as if it were their own. And an enviable power they have of it!]
The Battery by C.F.W. Mielatz.

The seamy side of Battery Park is the poor castaway who has sought its coolness after a hot day of panhandling. But—given a certain amount of leeway—he is harmless. When a woman, the case assumes the pathetic. Begging is semisecretly indulged in. You drop your nickel and escape. If it be daytime you make for South Street to pay that long-deferred visit to Coenties Slip and Jeannette Park.

Perhaps you have seen C.F.W. Mielatz’s coloured etching of the slip; if you have, the optical repercussion will be all the stronger when looking at the place itself. The fine old musty flavour of the slip, the canal-boats near the little Jeannette Park—a backwater with its stranded humanity stolidly waiting for something to turn up—and the lofty, lowering warehouses bring memories of London docks; docks where slunk Rogue Riderhood in search of rum after he had landed his dead cargo; docks from which sailed, still sail, wooden ships with real wooden masts, canvas sails, and sailors of flesh and blood, bound on some secret errand to southern seas where under the large few stars they may mutiny and cut the captain’s throat; or else return to live immortally in fascinating legends of Joseph Conrad. I almost became sentimental over Coenties Slip, probably because Mielatz had etched it, and also because I had been reading Conrad. Art always reacts on nature, and the reactions may be perfectly sincere.

Coenties Slip, 1909, by C.F.W. Mielatz. The tall structure in the rear is the tower of the Produce Exchange, which stood at 2 Broadway.

[Charles Frederick William Mielatz was born in Brandenburg, Germany, in 1864, grew up in Chicago, and died in New York in 1919--a very close contemporary of Huneker. Mielatz was a fine etcher of, mostly, New York City scenes. The New York Herald (June 4, 1919) called him "Perhaps the best known etcher in the country"--though to date very little has been written about him. His last years overlap with the early years of John Sloan, whose etchings of the New York scene may be said to follow in a line from Mielatz's. His New York images are immensely evocative, as Huneker suggests.

By the time of Huneker and Mielatz there was no longer a slip at Coenties Slip. It had been filled in 1835. The fill became, in 1884, Jeannette Park.

Jeanette Park in 1915, the year of New Cosmopolis. (From Museum of the City of New York.)

Coenties Slip and Jeannette Park today are rather different from the way they were in Huneker's time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s most of the old waterfront buildings familiar to Huneker and Mielatz were pulled down for massive modern office complexes. On the south rose Four New York Plaza (1968) on the Water Street side of the block, and Two New York Plaza (1970) on the South Street side of the block. On the north rose 55 Water Street (1972) which, with 3.7 million square feet of floor area, was the largest office building in the world when it was built. In between, on the site of the Jeannette Park that Huneker wrote about, a new public space was created by the well-known Modernist landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg in 1972. It comprised both the city-owned site of Jeannette Park as well as a new Privately Owned Public Space.  In 1985, a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by the architects William Fellows and Peter Wormser and the writer Joseph Ferrandino, was added to the space, which was rechristened Vietnam Veterans Plaza. The memorial, a glass-block slab bearing etched inscriptions from servicemen's letters home, is quite affecting, especially when it is illuminated at night. Jeannette Park, by the way, was named for a sailing ship that sank during an 1881 expedition to the North Pole sponsored by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr., who named the ship after his sister.

Lower Manhattan from Helicopter
Jeannette Park can be seen on the line of the pier visible just right of center at the bottom of the frame. The massive 55 Water Street, comprising one higher and, to its right, one lower volume, is to the right of Jeannette Park. The space in front of 55 Water Street's lower volume is the Elevated Acre.

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, when many of the old buildings familiar to Huneker were still standing but superannuated for commercial purposes, an artists' colony emerged around Coenties Slip. Such artists as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, and Jack Youngerman (and his wife, the French actress Delphine Seyrig) kept their homes and studios in the neighborhood, many of them right on Coenties Slip. The artists left amid the area's large-scale redevelopment beginning in the late 1960s, many of them moving to SoHo. By the time the artists settled in the neighborhood, Robert Moses had remade Jeannette Park as one of his signature recreational parks, with tennis and handball courts.
Sanborn map showing Coenties Slip and Jeannette Park in 1913.

Map of Coenties Slip and Vietnam Veterans Plaza today. (Image used with permission of PropertyShark.)

It is worth noting that a couple of new parks lie immediately nearby. Coenties Slip Park, between Water and Pearl Streets, opened in 2006, the design of George Vellonakis, the Parks Department's landscape architect. It contains a sculpture, Coenties Ship, by Bryan Hunt. An escalator between the north and south wings of 55 Water Street leads to a park--a Privately Owned Public Space--also opened in 2006. Called the Elevated Acre, it was designed by Rogers Marvel, the recently dissolved firm that has had a major impact on the city's public environment and who will be the subject of a future post on this blog.

When Huneker wrote and Mielatz etched, Warren & Wetmore's Seamen's Church Institute stood at the northwest corner of South Street and Coenties Slip. Built in 1907, the building had since 1913 borne atop its southeast corner the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse. When the Seamen's Church Institute was demolished for 55 Water Street in 1967, the memorial lighthouse was preserved and reerected at the South Street Seaport Museum, where it stands to this day on Fulton Street just east of Pearl Street.

Warren & Wetmore's Seamen's Church Institute, surmounted by the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, southeast corner of Coenties Slip and South Street, photographed in 1925. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)

The Third Avenue El turned onto Coenties Slip, skirting the western edge of Jeannette Park, as it jogged from Pearl Street onto Front Street for its final push to the Battery. The portion of the El between Chatham Square and South Ferry ceased operation in 1950. Bear in mind also that the FDR Drive was decades in the future when Huneker wrote.]

However, I thought it time to ask a policeman the direction of Corlears Park. He didn’t know. No one knew, until an old chap who smelt of fish and whisky said: "It’s Cor-lears, you want?" I had misplaced the accent, and the ear of the average longshoreman in South Street for quantity would please a college professor of Greek.

I went my winding way, finally enlightened. I like the London bobby, for he is obliging and instructive, but I also like our policeman. He is gruffer than his English contemporary—a shy sort of gruffness. I found myself at Canal Street and the Bowery—I don’t know why—and was told to continue eastward. If I had taken a Grand Street car to the ferry my journey would have been simplified, but then I should have missed East Broadway and a lot of sights, of which more anon.

I dived into the east. It was a noisy, narrow lane rather than a street, and the inhabitants, mostly babies, were sprawling over the sidewalks. Often I followed the line of the gutter. Then I reached an open space and was disappointed. It was Corlears Park, and the absence of shade was painful. This lack of trees is a fault to be found in the majority of municipal parks and playgrounds. Night, if you don’t feel too scared or lonely, is the proper time to enjoy the Hook. The view of the East River is unimpeded. The water is crowded with craft. A breeze always fans one. Women and children, principally Italians and Jews, sit or walk. Cats are friendly. So is the small boy who knocks off your straw tile with his stick. A venerable steamboat, rotting and dismal, the relic of a once proud excursion career, is warped to the wharf. It has flowers on its upper deck, and pale, sick people sit on the lower. You are informed by the inevitable busybody who traipses after strangers that the old boat is now for tuberculosis patients, living or dying, in the neighbourhood. What an ending for man and machine! Hecker’s huge structure dominates the upper end of the park, as does Hoe’s building over in Grand Street. The chief thing is the cleanliness and spaciousness. The same may be found at Rutgers Park, but without a water-front, always an added attraction.

Corlears Hook Park, before 1908. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)

[Corlears Hook Park, which was less than a decade old when Huneker wrote about it, is still there, but has been drastically reconfigured, as have the streets all around it. Originally square, and bounded by South Street, Jackson Street, Cherry Street, and Corlears Street, the park is now rounded off on its eastern (water) side, as the FDR Drive cuts through (east-north), marking a separation (discussed in Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes) between Corlears Hook Park and East River Park (built in the 1940s). As for the surrounding streets, virtually everything between the Brooklyn Bridge and 23rd Street to the east of Madison Street/Avenue D was razed and rebuilt with modern housing projects, mostly after World War II.

Hecker's flour mill was at the southeast corner of Corlears and Water Streets, along the east side of the park. Corlears Street once ran from South to Grand Streets but was demapped amid the neighborhood's redevelopment into public housing superblocks. The great printing plant of R. Hoe & Co. was actually located a couple of blocks to the north of the park, on the north side of Grand Street between Columbia Street and Sheriff Street (since demapped), extending all the way back to Broome Street.]

Printing plant of R. Hoe & Co., Grand Street and Sheriff Street.

Tompkins Square stirred memories. It lies between Seventh and Tenth Streets and Avenues A and B. When I first remember it, it was also called the Weisse-Garten, and no foreign nationality but German lived on its arid fringes.

The anarchists of those days gathered at Justus Schwab’s, whose saloon was on First Street. There I first became acquainted with Johann Most, an intelligent and stubborn man, if ever there was one, and other “reds,” the majority of them now dead. I remember, in 1887, the funeral parade in commemoration of the anarchists executed in Chicago because of the Haymarket affair. A sombre procession of proletarians with muffled drums, black flags, and dense masses of humans. I didn’t go home that night. To my surprise I found the old-fashioned bird store—where they once sold folding bird-cages (collapsible)—in the same place, on Avenue A, near Seventh Street. The park is mightily improved. There are more trees, and also playgrounds for boys and girls, a band-stand, and refreshment pavilions.

[In her autobiography, Living My Life, published in 1931, Emma Goldman wrote:

On Saturdays when I did not have to lecture, we used to visit the saloon of Justus Schwab, the most famous radical center in New York. Schwab was the traditional Teuton in appearance, over six feet tall, broad-chested, and strait (sic) as a tree. On his wide shoulders and strong neck rested a magnificent head, framed in curly red hair and beard. His eyes were full of fire and intensity. But it was his voice, deep and tender, that was his peculiar characteristic. It would have made him famous if he had chosen an operatic career. Justus was too much the rebel and the dreamer, however, to care about such things. The rear room of his little place on First Street was a Mecca for French Communards, Spanish and Italian refugees, Russian politicals, and German socialists and anarchists who had escaped the iron heel of Bismarck. Everyone gathered at Justus’. Justus, as we affectionately called him, was the comrade, adviser, and friend of all.  The circle was interspersed with many Americans, among them writers and artists. John Swinton, Ambrose Bierce, James Huneker, Sadakichi Hartmann, and other literati loved to listen to Justus’s golden voice, drink his delicious beer and wine, and argue world-problems far into the night.

Justus Schwab came to New York from his native Frankfurt in 1869, age 22. In the 1870s he opened a basement saloon at 50 East 1st Street, between First and Second Avenues, and operated it until his death in 1900. The building, a 5-story, pre-Old Law tenement, still stands.

50 East 1st Street, where Justus Schwab's basement saloon was located. (Photo used with permission of PropertyShark.)

Johann Most was born in Augsburg and came to New York in 1882, at the age of 36. He died in 1906 in Cincinnati. Most, who held court at Schwab's saloon, was a notorious figure in late 19th-century New York, an anarchist who advocated acts of terror and assassination as a means of igniting revolution. Huneker refers to the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886, and the executions of four of its alleged perpetrators in the following year. Some of the Haymarket demonstrators were followers of Johann Most, as were Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman at the time (1892) Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick.

Huneker notes that the "park is mightily improved." In fact, when he first knew it, in the late 1880s, it had been comprehensively renovated only a decade or so earlier. The "band-stand" to which he refers was installed at that time. The playgrounds came in the 1890s, courtesy of Lillian Wald's and Charles Stover's Outdoor Recreation League, which lobbied for playgrounds around the city. In other words, it seems unlikely that the park had improved physically all that much between the time Huneker hung out in the neighborhood and the time he wrote "The Lungs," and, indeed, the park would decline precipitously through the 1920s and 1930s, until rescued by Robert Moses, who gave the square the basic character it retains to this day. (Moses introduced the lateral walkway on the line of 9th Street that has since divided the lower park, with its layout, so typical of New York City parks, of curving paths and irregularly shaped lawns, and the upper park, with its formally arrayed playgrounds.) Tompkins Square opened as a public space in 1834. It served as a state-designated military parade ground between 1866 and 1878, when it became a public park and received the aforementioned renovation.]

I entered. On the benches I found “lobbies” of old men, Germans, Israelites for the most part. They were very old, very active, contented, and loquacious. They settled at a “sitzung” the affairs of the nation, keeping all the while a sharp lookout on the antics of their grandchildren, curly-haired, bright-eyed kiddies who rolled on the grass. The boys and girls literally made the welkin ring with their games, in the enclosures. They seemed healthy and happy. There are vice and poverty on the East Side—and the West—but there are also youth and decency and pride. I should say that optimism was the rule. Naturally, in summer, even poverty wears its rue with a difference. I saw little save cheerfulness, and heard much music-making by talented children.

[The neighborhood of Tompkins Square was the heart of old Kleindeutschland, the stronghold of the city's vast German immigrant community through the second half of the 19th century. Relatively few of the residents of Kleindeutschland were Jewish ("Israelites," in Huneker's word) until late in the century, and by the time of "The Lungs" the neighborhood was very heavily a Jewish immigrant quarter.]

The Tenth Street side of Tompkins Square reminds me of upper Stuyvesant Square. It is positively well-to-do, many doctors and dentists hanging out their shingles on the quaint, pleasant-looking brick houses. A very old German Lutheran meeting-house is at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue B, and one block lower is St. Bridget’s Church. Not afar is a synagogue or “Shool,” as they call it, and you may catch a glimpse of the stately Church of the Holy Redeemer on Third Street near Avenue A, with its cartridge-shaped spire (easily seen from Brooklyn Bridge), that suggests shooting the soul to heaven if you are willing.

[The "very old German Lutheran meeting-house" was the 1847 Greek Revival building of Trinity Lutheran Church. The parish remains on the site, on the southeast corner of Avenue B and 9th Street, but now worships in a building from 1993. "St. Bridget's" is actually St. Brigid's, a Roman Catholic church in the Gothic Revival style, designed by the prolific Patrick C. Keely and erected in 1848. Someone else who called it St. Bridget's was the poet Frank O'Hara, who lived nearby at 441 East 9th Street when in 1961 he wrote his poem "Weather Near St. Bridget's Steeples":

You are so beautiful and trusting
lying there on the sky

St. Brigid's still sported its distinctive high, spiky spires both when Huneker and when O'Hara wrote about the church. Those spires were removed in 1962. The New York Archdiocese chose to shutter the structurally unsound church in 2001, with plans to raze it. Miraculously, an anonymous $20 million donation allowed a thorough renovation of the building (though not a replacement of the lost spires), and the church was reconsecrated and reopened in 2013.

Tompkins Square, looking east, 1870s. In the foreground is the bandstand, to its left in the background is St. Brigid's Church.

As for the synagogue, Huneker likely refers to a shul on 8th Street between Avenues B and C, just down the block from St. Brigid's. The Orthodox congregation of B'nai Moses Joseph Anshei Zawichost and Zosmer opened its "tenement synagogue" (meaning built on a standard tenement or row house lot) in 1908. The building still stands but it has been converted to residential use.

Holy Redeemer, on 3rd Street between Avenues A and B, with its "cartridge-shaped spire," was once the spiritual epicenter of Kleindeutschland Catholic life. The church opened in 1852 and had a high, highly figured Baroque tower. It was, however, dramatically remodeled, and simplified, in 1913 by the architect Paul Schulz. In both instances was (and in the latter case still is) the tower visible from the Brooklyn Bridge, and from throughout Kleindeutschland. We may surmise that Huneker made his visit after the remodeling, for "cartridge-shaped" is far likelier to be used to describe the newer rather than the older tower.

10th Street along the park's northern edge does indeed possess a stately air. Indeed, the block of 10th Street between Avenues A and B was designated in 2012 as a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Go here for the detailed designation report.]

Time was when the Felsenkeller, at the foot of Fifty-seventh Street, East River, was an agreeable spot of summer nights. It was an open-air cafe, and while sipping your beverage you could watch the wheels of passing steamboats. It exists no longer. You must go up to East River Park, at Eighty-sixth Street and the river, or to Jefferson Park, opposite Ward’s Island, to enjoy the water. There are little grassy hills, with rocks, at the former park that give you the illusion of nature.

[East River Park was established in 1876, grew with the addition of the old Gracie estate in 1891, and was renamed Carl Schurz Park in 1911. Thus, it had been renamed by the time Huneker wrote, though we may assume that like so many old New Yorkers Huneker found it hard to get used to new names for old things. The park in Huneker's day was not yet separated from the East River by the FDR Drive. At the foot of 86th Street was the landing for a ferry to Welfare (Roosevelt) Island. In 1941 Robert Moses remodeled the park after the FDR Drive opened, among other things creating the esplanade that continues to the south of the park as the John H. Finley Walk. 

Carl Schurz Park, looking to the northeast, in 1915. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)

Jefferson Park is on the East River between 111th and 114th Streets. It opened in 1905 when its East Harlem neighborhood was heavily Italian. In 1911, the city added 1,008 small farm plots where neighborhood children could grow vegetables and flowers. Robert Moses remodeled the park in the 1930s, adding one of his signature swimming pools in 1936. The Felsenkeller at the eastern end of 57th Street was one of the German beer gardens that once were a feature of the city. Not much is to be learned of the Felsenkeller, but a letter to the New York Sun (March 10, 1939), in answer to another writer's query, indicates it was "run in connection with a bath" (a swimming pier?), and "was open only in the evening in good weather, as there were no shelters. Indeed it was a great place to spend an evening." Another letter in the same issue said "It was a delightful place, built right over the water, and patronized by refined and congenial people. However, for many years it has ceased to exist, and is now only a memory." In the New York Sun of March 13, 1939, yet another correspondent wrote that it "was situated on the south side of Fifty-seventh street and hung over the sloping ground facing the river. It was a high-class beer garden and concerts were given nightly. My recollections bring to mind a concert grand piano which stood near the entrance, which was a few steps below the street level." ("Felsenkeller" means "rock cellar.")]

I can’t say much in favor of Union Square—now hopelessly encumbered with debris—or of Gramercy Park, locked to the public (you are permitted the barren enjoyment of gazing at the bleak enclosure), or of Madison Square, with its wonderful surroundings. These be places familiar. Nor do I care to drag you over to Hudson Park, on the West Side, to Abingdon Square, to Chelsea, De Witt Clinton, Seward, to other parks of another kind duplicated everywhere, even to the scarcity of foliage and benches. Mount Morris Park, at One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Street and Madison Avenue, was, a few decades ago, not so crowded as it is to-day. The hegira up-town has made it as populous as Tompkins Square. And not so pleasant. A little café, with a back garden on the west side of the square, was once a favourite resort years ago. Schmierkäse and pumpernickel, and—Tempus fugit!

Union Square, looking north, in 1915. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)

[Perhaps only very briefly in its history, when in its earliest years it was an elegant residential quarter, was Union Square not "hopelessly encumbered with debris." Remarkably much of Union Square's immediate surroundings remain from Huneker's time, as one may see in the picture showing Union Square in 1915, the year of New Cosmopolis. In the upper right corner is the Germania Life Insurance Company Building (1910-11), now the W Hotel, at the northeast corner of Park Avenue South and 17th Street. (When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Germania Life thought it prudent to change its name to Guardian Life.) To its left is the Everett Building (1908), followed by the Century Building (1880-81), home of the excellent Century Magazine, for which Huneker sometimes wrote. The building now houses what is probably the largest Barnes & Noble store in the city--where you can purchase a copy of Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes. The high, pyramid-topped building rising in the center in the background is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Building (1909) which, when Huneker wrote "The Lungs" had only a year earlier yielded to the Woolworth Building the title of world's tallest building. Metropolitan Life was part of what Huneker calls the "wonderful surroundings" of Madison Square. As for the plan of the square itself, it's been much simplified in the years since, with, among other things, the addition of the two ramrod-straight lateral paths at 15th and 16th Streets.

Hudson Park had since 1898 been a terraced classical park, very unusual for New York, designed by Carrère & Hastings, who also designed the adjoining Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library. (Seven years after "The Lungs" appeared in the Times, the poet Marianne Moore took a job at that library, which was directly across the street from where she and her mother had lived since 1918.) In 1946, Robert Moses transformed Hudson Park into the modern recreational park, now called James J. Walker Park (for the 1920s mayor who had lived across the street), it is today. Abingdon Square, Chelsea Park, and De Witt Clinton Park have something in common with one another: Each is home to a notable World War I memorial. None of these, of course, was or could have been in place when Huneker wrote "The Lungs." Two of the memorials--Abingdon Square and Chelsea Park--are by Philip Martiny, the Alsatian immigrant who became one of New York's greatest sculptors. All three are bronze statues of "doughboys." It's been said that World War I was the first of our wars to be commemorated largely through images of common, anonymous soldiers, not heroes or generals. Doughboy statues typically were placed in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods from which so many doughboys were drawn. The Martiny in Abingdon Square (intersection of Eighth Avenue, West 12th Street, and Hudson Street) was dedicated in 1921. The Chelsea Park (Ninth Avenue and 28th Street) doughboy was also dedicated in that year. In De Witt Clinton Park (Eleventh Avenue and 53rd Street), the statue is known as the Flanders Field Memorial. The work of Burt W. Johnson, it was dedicated in 1930. Mount Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park, is bounded by 120th and 124th Streets and Madison Avenue and Mount Morris Park West (a little to the west of Fifth Avenue). It opened in 1840 and received its present name in 1973. At about 20 acres, it's halfway in size between Washington Square and Fort Greene Park. Its most distinctive feature is a 47-foot-high fire watchtower made of cast iron and erected in 1855-57. It's located right in the center of the park. The park today has an amphitheater (located on the west side of the park, where Huneker used to eat his schmierkäse and pumpernickel, tempus fugit!), a swimming pool, a dog run, and playgrounds. (In the original Times version of "The Lungs," Huneker says "Tempus fugit like sheol!")

Huneker indirectly walked from Coenties Slip to Corlears Hook via Pearl Street and the Bowery, turning on Canal Street to East Broadway. Right at the intersection of Canal Street and East Broadway is Seward Park, which he mentions in passing. He would have passed the first municipally built playground in the United States (1903), as well as the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library, opened in 1909, with the city's largest collection of materials in Yiddish. It was also once the most heavily used branch library in the city.

Part two to follow.]


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hunter's Point South Park

by Robin Lynn

It takes more than a while to build a waterfront park, so it’s worth returning to see newly completed sections. More than fifteen years ago landscape architect Thomas Balsley created the schematic design for parkland along the water’s edge in Long Island City, Queens, and today he’s still watching over design and construction.

Hunter’s Point South Park (Center Boulevard between 50th and 54th Avenues) opened in August 2013, next to Gantry Plaza State Park, the older initial area designed by Balsley and Weintraub & di Domenico. (see Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes, p. 119). On October 9, 2013, I re-joined Balsley to see the new area. Why re-joined? In 1998 I was with him when I organized a Municipal Art Society tour of his then-new 2.5-acre Gantry Plaza State Park. I expect to be with him in the future, timeline unclear, when his final park section is built on a bluff south of Hunter’s Point South Park.

Tom led this Archtober tour with Michael Manfredi of Weiss/Manfredi, the New York-based architecture firm, whose work deftly integrates architecture and landscape. They are collaborating with ARUP, a global firm specializing in infrastructure, to create the landscapes, park facilities, and streets of the new residential developments along the Long Island City waterfront. Manfredi characterized the successive sections as “charms on a bracelet” with their own expenses, programs, and settings.

Hunter’s Point South Park is city-managed. (New York City took back this stretch of land from the state prior to the city's 2012 Olympic bid for an ultimately unbuilt Olympic Village to and from which athletes would be transported by the ferries that are the only part of that plan to be realized.) What the city park and Gantry Plaza State Park have in common are the same killer views: the United Nations Secretariat Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building across the East River, and now the geometric contours of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island (see Guide, p. 139).

Against this amazing backdrop lies a great green elliptical space, sited between Long Island City’s streets and the East River, large enough for a regulation-size soccer field to fit within. The whole swirling mass is covered in green artificial turf, with natural grass on raised land around it. (The politics of green are interesting: The director of the City Planning Department wanted real grass, while the Department of Parks and Recreation, knowing that the area would serve the gym needs of a new public school across the street, did not.) The compromise: an altered topography, with active folks getting a flat artificial turf to play on, and parents and lovers getting grass. A lovely, continuous granite band divides the sections, and provides more seating.

What else? The Rail Garden, with rails in the ground, alludes to the area’s industrial past when rail cars arrived here and went by barge across the East River. Native grasses, which once populated the area, playfully sway among the rails. In the “foyer” area, there are appealing banquettes close to the street for visitors who don’t want to walk the full width of the Rail Garden to the water.

The covered canopy of the open-air pavilion by the New York Water Taxi dock (café to come with the requisite movable chairs) has a nautical quality with pleated panels capturing rainwater. The Southern pine wood on the deck, treated in Scandinavia to alter its cellular structure to perform like a much harder wood—such as the scarce teak or ipe—was used here for the first time in a city park. Nearby there’s a dog park, really two parks, one for small dogs, one for large dogs. “Dog owners are the new parents of the city…and they need to make social connections,” says Balsley.” Maybe the animals enjoy the views too.

The area across the street from Hunter’s Point South Park is a whir of building activity. Following the economic downtown of 2008, and to spur development, the city decided to build its parks first and then issue requests for proposals for buildings. The new housing, in construction or being planned, will eventually have a mix of 5,000 units of affordable and market-rate housing. In the meantime, the parks are open for business, with one more section to come.

Further reading:

Friday, August 23, 2013

Brooklyn Bridge Park Update

One of the purposes of this blog is to provide updates on the places covered in Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes. Many of our major new urban landscapes—Hudson River Park, the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park—were conceived to be slowly unfolding things. This is not unusual in the design and construction of major parks: Central Park opened in stages.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is not only a work in progress, but its design is a continuing process. In the book, for example, I reported that the philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz had, right at the time of the book’s writing, offered a staggering $50 million to Brooklyn Bridge Park to construct the Fieldhouse, as it was to be called, below the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, to the north of Pier 5, roughly on the line of Montague Street. The central attraction of the Fieldhouse was to be a velodrome with a 200-meter banked track for fixed-gear bicycle racing—Rechnitz’s passion, and that of a small but hardcore group of New Yorkers who bemoan the city’s lack of such facilities. Well, the plan is off. First, many park advocates criticized the idea, saying that a velodrome was far too specialized a use for valuable public parkland. Supporters of the plan pointed out that the Fieldhouse would contain facilities for many other activities as well. In the end, park officials determined that $50 million, while a breathtaking amount when considered as a donation to a public park (Philip and Lisa Maria Falcone reportedly gave $10 million to the High Line), simply wasn’t enough to build the Fieldhouse to the specifications everyone wanted.
Here is a rundown of the some of the changes in Brooklyn Bridge Park since the writing of Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes:


The summer of 2013 marks the second seasonal appearance of the Pop-Up Pool at Pier 2, about at the line of Pineapple Street. The 30-foot-by-50-foot, 3½-foot deep pool was designed to be temporary, and is scheduled to remain in the park only through the summer of 2017. It cost $700,000 to build.

Pop-Up Pool 4
On its landward side a wall is formed by brightly painted stacked shipping containers. such as Brooklynites are familiar with, in the “pop-up” context, from DeKalb Market, the hip temporary artisanal market that operated until last fall in downtown Brooklyn. (But recently Robert LaValva of Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Market proclaimed the shipping container aesthetic to be “already a little passé.”) On the water side of the container-wall the space divides in two. On the south is the pool, which accommodates sixty swimmers at a time. On the north is a sandy area with umbrella tables where refreshments sold by Brooklyn’s Lizzmonade may be consumed. (The pool closes at six, but the refreshment area stays open, as a bar, until eleven.) The Pop-Up Pool operates through Labor Day, and will reopen next June.
We live in a “pop-up” culture, it seems. Pop-up markets, pop-up shops, pop-up cafés—and, at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a pop-up pool. When Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia built their jaw-dropping municipal pools in the 1930s, there was nothing pop-up about them. These were monumental structures—think Red Hook Park, McCarren Park, Astoria Park, Jackie Robinson Park—that were conceived to be among the defining public works of the nation’s greatest city. When the reputation of Robert Moses hit rock bottom following the 1974 publication of Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, it was in large part because so much of what he had built was in such dismal repair. Jane Jacobs even suggested that La Guardia was a fatuous mayor for building so much, on the federal dime, that the city would thereafter prove unable to maintain. Today, those 1930s pools don’t look as bad as they once did. McCarren Park Pool closed in 1984 and stood as a majestic, threatening ruin until it was refurbished and reopened in 2012. When it opened in 1936, the pool could accommodate 6,880 swimmers. The renovated pool of today accommodates about 1,500. Still, the point Jane Jacobs made holds: You might build something for the ages that proves to be as evanescent as any pop-up.


One of the frustrating things about Brooklyn Bridge Park until recently was the lack of direct access from Brooklyn Heights, one of Brooklyn’s oldest, most beautiful, and most exclusive neighborhoods, situated atop the bluff overlooking the park. One had to enter the park to the south, at Atlantic Avenue, or at the north, near Fulton Street. Many park users felt that many residents of Brooklyn Heights wanted it that way. Long before a shovelful of earth was turned in the construction of the park, when it was just being discussed and debated at the community level, one heard many a loud concern raised about the prospect of hordes of people traipsing through Brooklyn Heights en route to or from the park. It’s still not as though the Heights has a truly intimate relationship to the park, but up at Middagh Street, in the northernmost section of the Heights, at Squibb Park, a dramatic pedestrian bridge, sweeping down from the bluff to the park below, opened last March. The bridge was designed by structural engineer (and MacArthur Fellow) Theodore Zoli, whose other credits include the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge (2008) connecting Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Omaha, Nebraska, over the Missouri River. A lengthy profile of Zoli appeared in the same 2010 Esquire magazine feature—“The Brightest: 16 Geniuses Who Give Us Hope”—that included that famously (or notoriously) fawning profile of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Squibb Park 4
The Squibb Park Bridge leads out from a >1-acre park that Robert Moses built in the 1940s as part of the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. To enter the park, you have to descend stairs from Columbia Heights at a point just north of the northern terminus of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. With its old-fashioned park benches, old-fashioned lamp standards, Moses-vintage utility building, and utilitarian flagpole, and in the way the park’s nestled in a crook of the expressway, and in comparison with our Bloomberg-era landscapes, there is something deeply evocative about this park, something almost quaint: It looks like a set for a movie that takes place in 1950s New York.

Squibb Bridge 2
But that all changes, dramatically, as you step through a discreet opening in Squibb Park’s southwest corner onto Zoli’s narrow and very open bridge, suspended on tree-like supports and taking, about halfway along, a sharp right turn to deposit you in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The materials are black locust with steel cables and steel mesh, and, it’s been said, it’s constructed a lot like the pedestrian bridges found along hiking trails. It’s dramatic, as I said, but not as an object to look at, rather as an experience. As an object, it’s unassuming. As an experience, it’s unique, the descent (or, in the other direction, the rise) offering views never before seen, a continuum of viewing angles up and down the bluff that, before, only a bird could enjoy.

Another Bend in the Bridge
I’m charmed by how Zoli, in the Esquire profile, remarks on his interest in the poet Hart Crane. The Squibb Park Bridge does not figure in the Esquire article, so Crane’s name does not arise in connection with it. It was in a house that once stood at 110 Columbia Heights, at Orange Street, two blocks to the south of Squibb Park, that Hart Crane wrote The Bridge.

View from the Bridge

A view from the bridge.


Theodore Zoli: Bridge Engineer, profile in Esquire.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Laurie Olin Receives the National Medal of Arts

On Wednesday, July 10, 75-year-old Laurie Olin became only the fourth landscape architect to receive the National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States. The others all had New York connections: Dan Kiley is represented in New York City by the atrium of the Ford Foundation on East 42nd Street and by Blackwell Park on Roosevelt Island; Lawrence Halprin’s firm was responsible for the plaza at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on Roosevelt Island; and Ian McHarg, who founded the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania, was part of Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd, which worked on the plan for lower Manhattan in the 1960s. But none left a mark on Manhattan remotely like the one that has been left by Laurie Olin. Olin, either with his onetime partner Robert Hanna in the firm of Hanna/Olin, or later through the Olin Partnership, is synonymous with the 1980s and 1990s transformation of open space that we also strongly associate with the writer William H. Whyte, whose 1980 film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces wrought a revolution in urban perception similar to that of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961.

ET Bryant Park

Bryant Park (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

We also associate Olin’s New York works with the self-described public gardener Lynden B. Miller, who contributed so significantly to Bryant Park and Wagner Park, which, with the Battery Park City Esplanade and Columbus Circle, represent Olin’s impressive corpus of Manhattan projects. Even small landscape designs are collaborative affairs, and it’s hard, even after careful study, to assign credit for specific features to specific firms or designers. At Wagner Park, Olin worked with, in addition to Miller, the talented Argentinian architects Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado.

ET Wagner Park

Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

At Columbus Circle, Olin worked with the renowned fountain designers WET Design.

ET Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

And yet, we seem to have no problem regarding Olin as the auteur of all these designs. Bryant Park is not simply a realization of the ideas of William H. Whyte, nor is Wagner Park simply a vessel for Lynden B. Miller’s container gardens. Each of these spaces hews to a vision that is Olin's own (or Olin’s and Hanna’s).

The first time Olin was ever mentioned in the New York Times was back in 1983. On May 22 of that year, Paul Goldberger wrote: “Next month...what may be the best public space in Manhattan in a generation—and surely the finest riverfront park in New York City since the esplanade at Brooklyn Heights was completed in 1951—will open. It is the Battery Park City Esplanade, a linear park that runs for 1.2 miles along the outer edge of the 92-acre landfill site on the Hudson River that will contain the immense Battery Park City development.” (In 1996, Goldberger would write, of another work to which Olin contributed, “Wagner Park is one of the finest public spaces New York has seen in at least a generation.”) The next Times mention came later in 1983, on December 1, in a piece in which Deirdre Carmody wrote “An unusual public-private partnership is planning an $18 million redevelopment of Bryant Park that will include a huge glass restaurant, a cascading fountain with reflecting pools, four food kiosks and a permanent security force.”

ET BPC Esplanade

Battery Park City Esplanade (photo by Edward A. Toran from The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes).

We may then date Laurie Olin's profound involvement with New York City to 1983. In that year, I had been in the city for four years, and no one—no one—knew where the city was headed. The problem-plagued 1970s—during which the city lost nearly a million in population—were more than fresh in people’s memories. And though the Wall Street turnaround boded well for city finances (only a few short years after the city nearly declared bankruptcy and was stripped of much of its financial home-rule), the crime rate was still going up (homicides would not peak until 1990), and many New Yorkers lived in perpetual fear. Amid the civic disorder—the growing homeless population, the graffiti, the fear of crime—it’s hard to think that anyone would look to parks as part of the solution. In fact, historically we have always looked to parks as part of the solution. Central Park was built in part as a means of pacifying the restive masses during a period in New York of even greater disorder than the 1970s. Robert Moses and Mayor La Guardia sought to take the edge off the Great Depression by building swimming pools and Orchard Beach and by the comprehensive renovation of all the city’s parks, which had been badly neglected during the prosperous 1920s. Olin—and those whom he collaborated with—were thus part of a tradition. This is something I thought of when I read Inga Saffron’s fine appreciation of Olin in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. She wrote: “Olin is the product of the vast open spaces of the Pacific Northwest. Yet he ‘fell in love with cities’ at the precise moment when places like Philadelphia [where Olin’s practice has been based for many years] and New York were hemorrhaging middle-class residents, and has always seen parks as a means of seducing people back.”

But unlike Olmsted and Vaux, whose vision of urban parks was that they should be antidotes to the city, Olin has shown how small parks, at least, can, and perhaps must (though as we show in the book there has lately been a reaction against this line of reasoning), be of and not merely in the city. Olin’s parks thrive on urban density, and Bryant Park, as I’ve said so many times, feels like a party (even as it can at the same time feel like a refuge).

To call Bryant Park seductive is an understatement. And to say that Laurie Olin is one of the American creators most richly deserving of the National Medal of Arts is also an understatement.

I will say no more here. There is plenty about Olin in the book, and check out these links:

A very nice profile of/interview with Laurie Olin.

The Hanna/Olin page at the Cultural Landscape Foundation web site.

Olin and his friend Witold Rybczynski wrote a wonderful book on Vizcaya, the house and gardens that my late friend Henry Hope Reed called the most beautiful in America.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Socrates Sculpture Park

By Robin Lynn

Socrates Sculpture Park, on the water’s edge in Long Island City, is not an outdoor park covering hundreds of acres on a hilly landscape with precisely sited sculptures hidden among its hills and dales. It’s an urban sculpture park: a 4+-acre plot of land cheek-by-jowl with a Costco parking lot, separated from it by a prosaic chain link fence. It’s large by city standards and roomy enough to present multiple large-scale sculptures (changed annually), with enough space for the non-profit to offer outdoors movies and opera productions, yoga classes, and even kayaking off of its cove. Best of all, it can be reached by foot from the R train after an urban hike past auto repair shops and one-story factory buildings.

Socrates 2
Socrates Sculpture Park on the Long Island City waterfront looking across the river to Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Photo by Robin Lynn.
The park isn’t that old: It opened in 1986. But it’s ancient in terms of representing a topographical and cultural shift in the art world. First, it’s in Queens: giving validity to this outer borough as a cultural player at a time when Manhattan was the only player in town. Its organizers recognized the physical allure of the water’s edge, long before the city began developing its recent slew of waterfront parks. A lot of the park’s charm, and its breezes, are based on its location on the western shoreline in Queens (across from the East 80s, if you’re still counting in Manhattan terms).

Its founding even represented a bottom-up approach to developing open space, an idea gaining traction now as residents claim, and redesign, alternative open spaces such as traffic triangles, and work with the New York City Department of Transportation to bring more seating, less traffic, and more light into their neighborhoods. The well-known sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose waterside studio, where he creates his large-scale COR-TEN steel sculptures, is located just north of the park, was a formative player in developing the park. He and other artists began exhibiting art on this run-down plot of land slated for development; their visibility, their art, and encouragement from the community eventually led to the area being demapped and demarcated as an official city park, under the jurisdiction of the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation.

Today the sculpture park presents the work of emerging sculptors. In other words, this is not the sort of work seen along the median of Park Avenue where the selected artists are already well-known, many at the peak of their careers. At Socrates the sculptors are building their careers, doing well but could be doing better, and this exposure is very helpful indeed.
This summer the Architectural League of New York is presenting the winner of its Folly competition, with a work where architecture, design, and sculpture intersect to interpret architectural folly. Toshihiro Oki won with “tree wood” [sic], a whimsical, wooden structure that has nothing practical about it. The work—and it’s hard to know whether to call it art or architecture, but that’s the point—is on exhibit until August 4, 2013. It has a still-under-construction feel to it, although it’s complete. It’s just a force of linear elements that’s open to the elements, and fits perfectly into a park which was itself a folly back in the day.

Other works include “do it (outside)”—more conceptual than sculptural—where artists’ instructions are spelled out on long boards. Presented by Independent Curators International, and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the art is cerebral, and evokes past art historical movements. In the continuing Broadway Billboard series, Brooklyn-born artist Chitra Ganesh creates a sort of end-of-the-world narrative entitled “Her Nuclear Waters.” These colorful works give off a cheerful sense of desolation. Should the end of the world really look this good?

Chitra Ganesh, “Her Nuclear Waters,” at the entrance to Socrates Sculpture Park. Photo by Robin Lynn.
Within the park, the many works of sculpture, and sometimes multi-media art, have unlikely competition: a meandering path along the water’s edge, shielded from the sculpture by an allée of trees. In the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” school of thought, the park has built a perimeter walk where visitors can think about the art, and relax, while viewing the high-rises across the river in Manhattan, themselves a series of sculptural forms. For one year in the not distant past, there were even hammocks by the water’s edge, good for falling asleep after having taken in the art.

I’ve watched this relatively small sculpture park evolve from an underutilized lot, once a dumping ground, to a “gotta go there” space during the many years I’ve lived nearby. So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an equally worth seeing smaller enclosed garden nearby in the Isamu Noguchi Museum—a five-minute walk south along Vernon Boulevard. The former factory, across the street from where the Japanese-American artist lived and worked from 1961 until his death in 1988, exhibits his life’s work—sculpture made from basalt, marble, metal, and other materials—as well as his tools, photographs of his studio in Japan, examples of his lightning design, and others aspects of his life and work.

The Noguchi Museum. Photo by George Hirose © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York.

But it is the outdoor sculpture garden within the larger museum that is astounding: among the most serene, yet dynamic, open spaces in the city. The high walls, covered with ivy, and open to the sky, enclose a small space with an artful arrangement of trees and sculpture. This private domain, one man’s sanctuary, is still and perfect, and keeps the city at bay. It is the opposite of Socrates Sculpture Park, an open-to-the-elements, come-one, come-all multi-purpose site, with multiple artists and points of view, where traffic pulses past the front gates. The two open spaces are point/counterpoint. Go look.


Socrates Sculpture Park
The Noguchi Museum

Friday, July 5, 2013

Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes Available for Pre-Order

Following some unexpected shipping delays, The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes (W.W. Norton) now has a publication date of August 5. That actually means the book will be in bookstores any time now, and is available for pre-order at Amazon. Many thanks to William Menking for his nice post about the book at the Architect’s Newspaper blog. He wrote:

This is the perfect book to consult before your relatives come to town and expect an insider’s tour of the city or before you pass by an unknown bit of green in the city. Many of the urban landscapes described in the guide are likely known only by nearby residents or only the most keen city observers.

The Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes is Robin Lynn’s and my attempt at a first-ever survey of what we mean by the catch-all term “urban landscapes”: parks, plazas, green spaces, open spaces, atriums, trails, community gardens, even green roofs. Urban landscapes are more on the minds of city dwellers today than at perhaps any other time in history. In New York in recent years we have seen a revolution in landscape, as mile after mile of disused waterfront, once dominated by industrial uses, has been converted to linear parks. The High Line, a park built atop a disused railroad viaduct in Chelsea, has become one of the city’s principal attractions. And the city has banned vehicles from huge swaths of the roadbeds of Broadway and some other streets to create pedestrian plazas, replete with movable chairs and tables, rimmed by bike lanes.

Urban Landscapes

Our intention in the book is to look at these new developments in the light of what has gone before, such as Green-Wood Cemetery (pictured on the book’s front cover) in the 1840s, Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza in the 1890s, the reign of Robert Moses from the 1930s to the 1960s, and the influence of William H. Whyte from the 1980s to today. We may, indeed, say that each of these represents a distinct phase in the landscape history of New York City.

This blog has two purposes. One is to serve as a companion to the book. Here I—and my co-author Robin Lynn—can amplify certain entries in the book, make corrections, and add material for which we simply—a reality of the making of books!—ran out of room. (For example, both Robin and I very much wanted the book to contain an entry on Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens. That entry, instead, will appear, soon, on this blog.) Another very important thing: Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged some of the city’s landscapes, happened when the book was too far along in production for us to make changes. This blog will include Sandy-related updates to entries, as well as track any other changes to the landscapes covered in the book.

The blog’s other purpose is to be its own thing, to offer new perspectives on the city’s landscapes, to muse on landscape history, and to draw the reader’s attention to interesting places, exhibits, articles, and resources. For example, come back for my reviews of Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, at the Museum of Modern Art through September 23.

Both book and blog are about more than just describing landscapes. They are about the unique power at the intersection of urban design and landscape architecture to alter the city dweller’s patterns of use and attention, and both to shape and to reflect his changing wants and needs.

At any rate, I hope you will buy the book, and I hope you will follow the blog and join in the discussion of what has been and will continue to be a central issue in the life of New York and other cities (yes, I will get to other cities, too) in the 21st century.