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.

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