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Monday, July 2, 2018

The Healing Garden: A Mobile Public Park

What's the smallest park in New York City? I don't know if anyone knows for sure. Septuagesimo Uno was probably the smallest I'd ever visited.

Until a couple of weeks ago. Strolling through the the Rubin Museum Block Party, we happened upon a trailer with open doors on the side and in the back. We walked past, not giving it much thought. But then I did a double take, had to double back and step inside.

The trailer, as I later learned, is called The Healing Garden. Its creator, Kim Holleman, describes it as a "mobile public park."

healing garden nyc
Image from kimholleman.com

The cut-through image above, from The Healing Garden web page, belies the trailer's actual plain-metal outward appearance. All the more startling, then, is the contrast when you step inside, where you find plants (native to New York, of course), wooden benches, a "naturalistic stone water-fall and fish pond," and happy visitors.

So here it is: my new candidate for Smallest Park in NYC.

healing garden nyc

The Healing Garden has been hauling around the city since its debut at an NYC Parks Department event in 2006. It's quite an idea, bringing a park to the people instead of making the people go to a park – even only a handful of people can squeeze inside. I'm glad we ran into it.

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media except where noted

Friday, June 22, 2018

Domino Park

Like most New York City parks that have opened with fanfare in recent years, Domino Park, on the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, isn't city-run, but privately funded and maintained.

The first completed stage of a larger redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar Refinery, six-acre Domino Park is a vast improvement over the desolate stretch of waterfront that had defined this edge of the neighborhood since Domino closed the plant in 2004. And with its creative reuse of relics of the industrial past, the park is spectacular in a splashy sort of way.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

It's also weirdly theme-park-ish, an effect that's especially notable if you cross into it from dusty old Grand Ferry Park which borders its northern edge. Grand Ferry Park also has an industrial relic – a hundred-year-old smokestack from a Pfizer molasses plant. You could say Domino Park took that idea and ran with it to the extreme – inspired also, no doubt, by the High Line, New York City's most famous conversion of industrial infrastructure to park facilities and another instance of private development stepping in where city funds don't dare to tread. But the contrast between the big, shiny new park and its little, scuffed-up old neighbor is extreme.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The photo above shows the northern entrance to Domino Park and to the elevated catwalk called Artifact Walk, which stretches for several blocks.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The walk incorporates two large cranes from refinery days, the whole thing painted in what Curbed describes as "the park's signature turquoise," a cheery, summery hue that softens all the hard, heavy metal into a gentle, Disneyish playpen.

domino park artifact walk crane williamsburg brooklyn nyc
domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The elevated walkway offers a panoramic view of the park, the river, and the Williamsburg Bridge, which was the world's longest suspension bridge when it opened in 1903.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The park platform itself, with its "sustainable foliage and trees, a mix of natives and exotics" according to Architectural Digest, has been built "above the 100-year flood elevation and set back 100 feet from the water's edge." Of course, we know terms like "100-year flood" have little meaning now, well into the Anthropocene.

There are a couple of signs of our times in that last paragraph. The first is the mere fact that landscape firm James Corner Field Operations, which also led the development of the High Line, considered climate change and sea level rise when it designed the new park. Second, note the interest taken by a prestigious architecture publication. This facility has been laid out as deliberately as the interior of any new building.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

But the interest taken by Real Estate Weekly is also the sharpest indicator of how crucial commercial and financial considerations are to the fate of potential parkland in the city. Its website gushed that Domino Park is "nothing short of miraculous" and "should serve as a national model of urban renewal and an example for future developments."

Kudos, then, to Two Trees Management, owner and operator of the whole Domino redevelopment, including the park. I remember when Two Trees was a small family concern just getting a toehold in Dumbo, where my band shared the rental of a rehearsal studio in the rundown old days. The Domino development will include 2,800 rental apartments. Seven hundred of those will be "affordable." Which means available to (maybe) the five percent, as opposed to just the one percent.

Domino Park isn't just about architecture and real estate. It's also art. Just before it opened, Daniel McDermon of The New York Times heralded "One of this weekend's most anticipated art openings." He was referring to the playground. Designed by Mark Reigelman and incorporating spinning valve wheels cast from Domino originals, it's meant to mimic the sugar refining process. "The idea is that a child enters as raw sugar cane, and exits at the last portion of the playground as molasses, or sugar cubes," Reigelman told the Times. Fun? Creepy? Maybe both. Either way, the ghost of the old Pfizer molasses plant next door would surely approve.

In any case, when I visited, kids were definitely enjoying the refining process.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Meanwhile, up on the Artifact Walk, workers were putting the finishing touches on what looks like a giant "C." What will it help spell? "Come and Play?" "Children Are Our Future"? "Can You Afford to Live Here?"

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Grown-ups were enjoying the outdoor seating at the Danny Meyer taco shack.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Old screw conveyors, repositioned as design elements, jutted up from the ground.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Below ancient tanks, steam rose from vents installed in a cut-away section of the pier. If this "poof of noirish fog" (as Gothamist slinkily described it) looks refreshing on a hot day, be aware that if you step into the steam, you will get wet.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The park is manicured to within an inch of its life. Along with the kinetic fountain, playground, steam vents, and artifacts, there are bocce and volleyball courts and a couple of sharply defined stretches of grass to stretch out on.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Meanwhile, across Kent Ave., plenty of development remains to be done.

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

And the life of the city churns on, oblivious, on the nearby streets and on the East River. I spotted the tugboat Coral Coast motoring under the bridge.

domino park williamsburg bridge brooklyn nyc tugboat

I have mixed feelings about Domino Park, as I do about any public facility run not by the municipal or state government but by private owners. You have to wonder what would happen if – or should I say, what will happen when – the developers fall on hard times. What if the real estate market crashes? Or a huge storm surge or other natural disaster runs roughshod over the sparkling new park, knocking over all the amenities like, well, dominoes?

Of course, when hard times hit, city-run facilities deteriorate too. Just ask the people who founded the Central Park Conservancy.

On balance, any way it comes about, a new park is a good thing. And, all philosophical and social questions aside, on the hot day of my visit this dance step seemed to say it all:

domino park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media

Friday, June 15, 2018

East River State Park

We discovered this park on Brooklyn's East River waterfront in the Williamsburg neighborhood some years back when we went to a Smorgasburg event there. I returned for a lunchtime visit on a sunny, windy weekday in June to take some photos.

One feature I like about East River State Park is its extensive stretch of cobblestones (more properly called Belgian block), remnants of the park's history as a 19th-century shipping dock.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The streetside area blooms colorfully in springtime.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

But a large expanse of cracked concrete dominates the park's seven acres, good for family picnics and Smorgasburgs but not exactly soothing to the eye.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

The old, unfinished-looking grassy sections have a certain charm. Kids like 'em. So do lovers.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

In spite of all the waterfront development going on in the city, plenty of these un-manicured stretches remain. Because they're not beautiful, they can offer a feeling of privacy, even isolation.

east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc
east river state park williamsburg brooklyn nyc

Why is this a state park? I'm not sure, but it probably has to do with the park's origins in the 1990s as a project of the Trust for Public Land, which stepped in after local residents had rallied to prevent construction of a new waste-transfer station on the abandoned site. Up the river in Queens is another State Park, Gantry Plaza State Park.

One consequence of State Park status: No dogs allowed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Paley Park

Like nearby Greenacre Park, only even smaller, Paley Park on East 53rd St. just off Fifth Avenue offers a tiny respite for stressed-out midtown Manhattan office workers, with a waterfall and a café. Described by the Cultural Landscape Foundation as "the original 'vest-pocket park,'" it's so small, at just a tenth of an acre, that it's difficult even to get a perspective to take a photo.

paley park manhattan nyc

When I was younger, everyone knew who William S. Paley was. The legendary radio and television career of the architect and chairman of CBS spanned most of the 20th century.

In the middle of that century everyone also knew about the place that then occupied the site. From 1934 until 1965 this was the location of the posh Stork Club, its door famously guarded not by a rope but by a gold chain. Frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra, this infamous celebrity hangout was the site of Walter Winchell's radio broadcasts, which made it, as CNN's Bob Greene wrote in a piece called "Where Celebrity Culture Was Born," the "embodiment of stardom."

When the club closed and the building was torn down, Paley arranged for and financed a park to be created on the site. Designed by noted landscape architect Robert Zion (who was killed by a dump truck in 2000 at the age of 79), Paley Park opened in 1967 with the official name of Samuel Paley Plaza, after Paley's father.

paley park manhattan nyc

For half a century now, this privately owned space, formerly home of an exclusive club, has welcomed the public.

paley park manhattan nyc

The ivy on the walls, the honey locust trees, and the hiss of the 20-foot waterfall help mute the cacophony of the surrounding streets.

paley park manhattan nyc

Paley Park is a perfect example of how even the tiniest of city parks can open a wide window onto cultural history. It's featured prominently in urbanist William H. Whyte's charming 1979 film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, itself a fascinating look at NYC in tougher times.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Newtown Creek Nature Walk

Newtown Creek Nature Walk

Synonymous to many New Yorkers with pollution and blight, Newtown Creek is seeing a bit of a conceptual renaissance. Unlike its neighbor to the south, the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek doesn't run through now-trendy and artsy neighborhoods. Instead it separates the industrial top edge of Greenpoint, Brooklyn's northernmost neighborhood, from the industrial southern edge of Queens's Long Island City section, whose artsy and developing quarters lie some distance from the shores of the canal-like waterway.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nycSo the existence of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk will be a surprise to many New Yorkers, and, I wouldn't doubt, even to many residents of the nearby neighborhoods. Not a city park per se, it's a semi-natural environment built along the southern bank of the creek, designed by sculptor George Trakas and landscape architect firm Quenelle Rothschild & Partners, LLP for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). (Quenelle Rothschild has had a hand in many NYC spaces, including Hudson River Park, the Battery at Manhattan's southern tip, and the Astor Place/Cooper Square redesign.)

The approach begins at the intersection of Paidge Ave. and Provost Street. Your only neighbors seem to be the enormous Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, and a Spectrum facility where the vans that come to your apartment when your internet or cable service is out go home to sleep. But two granite boulders, dumped nearby during the Ice Age, mark the start of an unusual urban adventure.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The curved bars of the shiny gateway are meant to suggest the water. Or perhaps reeds being pushed to the side by a rampaging hippo. I get the idea, but to me, it's not the most welcoming entryway.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

But a hidden outdoor dungeon underneath, described as a "fragrance garden," makes up for it. This is a space unlike anything else I've seen.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

A long walled path called the "vessel," shaped to mimic the design of 19-century ships, leads you to the waterfront.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

On a corner plaza, granite circles surround a honey locust tree, each etched with native place names.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

A sign gives their meanings. These translate as "Wet planting place" and "Where there are sharp rocks."

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

Nature sprouts up from a set of north-facing steps engraved with taxonomical and geological terms. But the view across the water is actually more interesting. It was hard to stop watching a giant claw load smashed cars onto a barge. The tugboat CMT Otter was picturesque too.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc tugboat

Want to know more about the Otter? Of course you do. Who wouldn't? Who doesn't love a tugboat? And it wasn't hard to find. (When it was built in 1980 it was named the Papa Tom. How's that for hyper-specialized trivia?)

We had the place almost to ourselves. A couple with a dog went by, a few young folks were ensconced around the corner on the Whale Creek Path, and a lone jogger zipped in and out. That was it.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc
newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc

The Newtown Creek Nature Walk isn't gorgeous, and it isn't spectacular. Also, it stretches the definition of "nature walk" almost to transparency. Yet it's one of those places that reminds us of a few important truths about parks.

Especially in a city the size of New York, there's room for an endless variety of interesting ways to preserve or express nature, including transforming industrial spaces and even infrastructure into pleasant outdoor environments. And just as their conceivers and designers had to draw on their creativity to make them, these places can draw out our own imaginations when we visit, expanding our urban world and injecting city life with not just a dose of fresh air, but an added dimension – and an important dimension, at that, because without it our spirits decay.

newtown creek nature walk greenpoint brooklyn nyc geese

George Trakas at the Water's Edge: Newtown Creek from Urban Omnibus on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Rufus King Park

Rufus King was a signer of the Constitution, President George Washington's Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, the last Federalist U.S. Senator, and James Monroe's opponent in the 1816 presidential election. He was a key figure in stopping the expansion of slavery into new U.S. territories.

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And he lived in Jamaica, Queens, where his house is now the King Manor Museum, the centerpiece of Rufus King Park.

rufus king park king manor museum jamaica queens nyc
rufus king park king manor museum jamaica queens nyc
rufus king park king manor museum jamaica queens nyc

The oldest part of the manor was built in 1750. King bought it and the surrounding 90-care farm in 1805. His oldest son John Alsop King, a governor of New York, inherited the house, and the King family resided here until 1896. The eleven acres that remained of the property became a park, which has recreational facilities and a bandstand. The manor itself was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been a museum open to the public since 1900.

rufus king park king manor museum jamaica queens nyc

These days the museum hosts events including concerts, such as the Five Boroughs Music Festival program I covered recently where the ensemble Tenet played music much older than the house, and much older, in fact than the colonies themselves.

At night the park takes on an expressive, if artificial, glow –

rufus king park king manor museum jamaica queens nyc

– a glow that makes it hard to take a picture of the house without capturing your own shadow cast large on the exterior.

rufus king park king manor museum jamaica queens nyc