Search This Blog

Friday, December 31, 2010

Time Landscape

A year turns, another stone laid down in the story of America's greatest city. But New York is notorious for tearing down its monuments and paving over its history. The preservationist strand in the city's vast tapestry has always been thin and wavering; collectively speaking we value our history weakly compared to, say, the people of Boston or New Orleans.

As Mayor Bloomberg would say, We're New York: We build things. We're all about commerce, after all; and commerce is all in the present. Yet every generation contains its share of neighborhood historians, scholars, and history buffs. Our official Landmarks Preservation process, though used often enough as a weapon in petty political fights, does at least once in a while preserve sites worthy of perpetuation.

And then there are those who look back further, to the time before European settlement when the land we know as New York City consisted of forests and marshes dotted with villages from which the Lenape ventured out to hunt, fish, and generally manage the land a lot less destructively than we do now. The Mannahatta Project educated a good many New Yorkers about the way things were, and citizens, even planners, try to suggest the past in smaller ways here and there, as with tiny DeLury Square in lower Manhattan, or the restoration of the Ravine in Prospect Park.

Before either of those projects, there was Time Landscape. Conceived by Alan Sonfist in the 1960s and begun in 1978, this "forest" in the middle of Greenwich Village uses "a palette of native trees, shrubs, wild grasses, flowers, plants, rocks, and earth" to evoke the land as the Dutch settlers first found it at the beginning of the 17th century. Properly speaking it isn't a "park." It's pretty much just there for looking at through a fence, and honestly, it's not very photogenic.

But then, it wasn't planted to please the eye. Although wildflowers (or "wild"flowers) are always nice to see in the heart of the city:

Here's the nicest shot I could get on my November walk-through:

Because it isn't a park you actually enter, Time Landscape is easy to miss, or to assume it's just an extension of the adjacent community garden. It's not. It's a "miniforest" with oak and sweetgum trees, soothing witch hazel, poisonous pokeweed (which grew wild in my old Brooklyn backyard), tulip trees, bindweed, and violets, among many other specimens. Its narrowness and cold rectangular shape (not to mention its location in the midst of the Village/NYU sprawl) insure you won't mistake it for native forest, or even a park pretending to be natural terrain. Sonfist is an artist, and Time Landscape is, to my mind, closer to conceptual art than to naturalism. But it's nice to know he thought of it, and that the city continues to maintain it through the Parks Department.

And a walk alongside this curious patch of New York is an experience not quite like any other in the city.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The High Line

As the cold of December curtails your humble correspondent's park trekking, it's time to catch up on a few things—like the most talked-about New York City park in many years. The High Line, built atop a disused freight rail line, runs a couple of stories above Manhattan's west side, above Greenwich Village and Chelsea.

Enjoying the High Line in summer

When completed, the park will be a mile and a half long, but the section already open became instantly popular and has been blogged about ad infinitum, so there's no need to say a whole lot here.

Benches are for standing on.

Word spread far and wide, too. The High Line is the one thing my brother, who lives in Vermont and pretty much hates city life, wanted me to show him when he visited earlier this year.

Native vegetation has been planted amidst preserved sections of railroad track.

It's a nice place for a traffic-free walk in any season—a place to rise above it all, so to speak.

The High Line is narrow; well cared for, but not gorgeous; and not even all that high. But it's not like anything else. Other American cities are working on similar projects, but at this point, I think you'd have to go to Paris to find anything similar.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

DeLury Square

Never say Park Odyssey isn't up to the minute. Less than a week after the November 8 ribbon-cutting, we paid a visit to DeLury Square, a new park by Fulton Street, just a bit inland of South Street Seaport.

A "peaceful, green oasis within this densely populated and busy commercial and residential area" (as per Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe), DeLury came about through a realignment of the intersection of Fulton and Gold Streets and a $2.3 million investment from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. It's named, like the simpler plaza that preceded it, for John DeLury Sr., founder of Local 831 (a sanitation workers' union).

The rocks and shrubs and the little waterfall are supposed to evoke the terrain of Manhattan's native forests, according to Alex Hart, the park's designer.

Maybe so; they read more like modern art to me. Want native forests? Head uptown to Inwood Hill Park. But that's no matter. Right here in this gritty, densely populated, more or less characterless segment of Lower Manhattan is a brand new park. With green things, and flowing water, and benches from which to enjoy them. Sweet.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tompkins Square Park

I remember when Tompkins Square Park was a park you walked around, not through. After dark especially, it was one hell of a creepy place. As a focal point for squatters and anarchist demonstrations, it was symbolically scary too—anarchy meant anything could happen, and it probably wouldn't be good.

A nearby wall mural suggests the neighborhood isn't completely yunnified

Eventually, through a painful process of confrontation and gentrification, the city and the economy combined to "clean up" the park and the surrounding Alphabet City neighborhood, scouring out the squatters and squashing the anarchists. There was violence, and the park was closed for a time in the early 90's. Fortunately, the neighborhood still has a fair amount of personality, and the park, somewhat spiffed up and much more friendly than it was, still accepts all comers, rich or poor, like a good city park should.

The park is named for Daniel D. Tompkins, a wealthy lawyer who became New York's governor and then Vice President under James Monroe. Many a 19th century Governor of New York served only a single two-year term, so there were a lot of them; my impression in my travels has been that it's hard to visit a cemetery anywhere in New York State that doesn't have a Governor somewhere underground.

Tompkins, however, served for a whole decade in Albany before being elected VP, and during that time he also became a hero (financially) of the War of 1812. You can find him right nearby, in the West yard of St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery.

The history's interesting, but, like anywhere in lower Manhattan, the people are often more so. Here, a sax player serenades the passersby.

And of course there's the vegetation. Tompkins Square Park has some elms, including one sacred to the Hare Krishna sect, plus gardens and grass in its ten-plus acres.

This stump must have been one hell of a tree in its day.

The Temperance fountain is the most compelling of the park's several monuments because of the sculpted figure of the cupbearer goddess Hebe at the top, modeled, according to the Parks Department, after a sculpture by the great Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen. (This one? If anyone knows which one, pray tell.)

Temperance fountains were meant to encourage people to drink water instead of alcohol. Judging from the number of bars in the neighborhood, I'd say that particular dream was a lost cause.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunset Park

It's a neighborhood and a park—and the name of Paul Auster's latest novel. It must be a happening place.

Because of its elevation, Brooklyn's aptly named Sunset Park is a great place to see the sun go down—or at least catch some mother-of-pearl skies. In addition to Manhattan skyline action, you can spot the Statue of Liberty and bits of Staten Island and New Jersey.

Zooming in on the Manhattan skyline

(It really looks more like this)

There are loads of fun activities you can do in Sunset Park. You can dowse for treasure with a metal detector…

…wait patiently for the pool to open (next summer)…

…hit the volleyball courts…

…or just enjoy the outdoors.

Brooklyn's very authentic Chinatown is nearby. So is some of the best Mexican food you'll find north of the virtual fence. As for the park itself, it's surprisingly large—almost 25 acres. But from the surrounding streets it looks almost featureless because it sits up on a sort of plateau, which makes you think it must have been built on top of something.

However, unlike most of New York's larger parks, Sunset Park is not easy to dig up the dirt on, so to speak. Which tells me it's built on top of something very important and secret. A federal gold vault? An Indian burial ground? The Ancient City of the Lizard People? Jimmy Hoffa?

The possibilities are endless.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Abe Lebewohl Park

Named after the longtime owner of the world-famous Second Avenue Deli, Abe Lebewohl Park is the more-or-less triangular plaza in front of St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery. Sitting in it is a pleasant way to take a break from a walk through the East Village. Talking about it is mostly just an excuse to mention St. Mark's, one of the most historic churches in the city.

And to mention Lebewohl himself, proprietor of the Second Avenue Deli, another historic item though of somewhat more recent vintage which was, in its time, like its owner, and like the church, considered a neighborhood treasure.

The park exists because the church is set at an angle to the neighborhood's regular street grid, creating a triangular space. Why? It's old. Really old. The present building, which dates from the 1790's, faces (or would if it were a block further west) Stuyvesant Street, an oddball block that actually runs east-west, cutting through the grid, a remnant of Dutch times. The church property has been the site of a chapel since at least 1660, when Peter Stuyvesant built one there. He's buried here too.

Not Abe Lebewohl Park. This is a view of the churchyard. Most often it's locked, but on some days in the summer it's open for a visit, and well worth it.

Oh, and the Second Avenue Deli? Gone. (There's a new iteration further uptown, of which reviews have been mixed.) But the name of Abe Lebewohl, murdered in 1996, owner of one the most famous Jewish delis, lives on in front of one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the country. That's New York for you.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hudson River Park

Hudson River Park is, let's just say, one of our longer, skinnier parks. The Chile of Manhattan, you might call it, only without the mountains and coal mines. Not bad sunsets, though.

It's a modern park. Running all the way from Battery Park up to 59th Street, Hudson River Park took shape only in the last few decades and only formally came into existence in 1998, after it became clear in the 70's that an elevated highway would not be built along this part of the river. Instead, we have jogging, a bike path, a dog run, a heliport, the Intrepid, concession stands, bathrooms…

Kayaking, concerts, and outdoor movies; the fireboat John J. Harney; the Frying Pan, a retired lightship now used as a bar, where you can get a cold bottle of beer or a syrupy margarita (it's surprisingly fun if you can go when it's not too crowded); and even outdoor ballroom dancing.

I'm partial to the Big Apple sculpture, too:

(For a more fun photo of it, click here.

Being that this is New York, hold up your camera to take a picture and you're sure to spot somebody else taking a picture.

Even with the Jersey City skyline in view, you can sort of imagine how sweet the river looked to those first explorers. Just look at those clouds.

Some folks can't stay off the water even today. Good thing Captain Sully wasn't landing his plane on this particular evening.

Hudson River Park looks a whole lot different at its southern tip, down by Battery Park. Here's where it starts, with Battery Park City lying between the park—mostly just a paved strip here—and the river to the left. I do mean to walk the whole length one day. Just not today.

And eventually, when the Ground Zero area is rebuilt, presumably you'll be able to bike all the way from Battery Park through to 59th St. From 59th you can already continue biking north as far as the Little Red Lighthouse and beyond. But that's for other posts, other days.

This has nothing to do with the park, but I can't help throwing in this photo from my walk back through the West Village. Art is everywhere you look.

There's much more to Hudson River Park than I've captured in these photos. The darn thing is five miles long and, according to the Hudson River Park Trust, 550 acres. Maybe somewhere in there, down below, there's even coal.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rector Park

Most of the parks we're visiting on this odyssey are kept up by the good old New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, Adrian Benepe, Commissioner, and more power to 'em. But there are quite a few that aren't, like Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens, and the subject of today's brief entry, quiet Rector Park, which is maintained by the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy.

Consisting of two wide rectangular gardens just east of the Hudson River Esplanade, Rector Park is meant expressly for passive enjoyment. "No active recreation please," so put away that frisbee. "Watching your baby nap" is the most exciting activity the Conservancy recommends for visitors to Rector Park.

From outside and above, it doesn't look like much:

But the eastern rectangle, in particular, feels pretty spacious. The lawns are so well-groomed they look positively, almost freakishly suburban.

But then, we are only a block or two from the Manhattan Yacht Club. Lotta rich people around here.

Hard to believe we're also only a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, too. Which, by the way, is looking less and less like Zero and more and more like "something's happening here" even if "what it is ain't exactly clear." Nothing like an approaching tenth anniversary to get embarrassed politicos and developers talking.

Meanwhile, over in Rector Park, there's nothing happening. Absolutely nothing. And that's just the way they like it.

What's that? You want to know what that little round green sign says? "Feeding pigeons and squirrels also feeds rats." I like the way the phrasing lets you draw your own conclusions about whether you should, in fact, feed pigeons and squirrels. Very civilized indeed.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Prospect Park, Early Fall

Though I now live in Manhattan I was a longtime resident of Park Slope and came to know Brooklyn's most famous park very well. Brooklynites like to say that after Olmstead and Vaux got the kinks worked out on Central Park, they perfected their vision with Prospect Park. This 585-acre oasis certainly is a wonder.

On a nice day, you can always count on a bustle of activity by the "main" entrance, by Grand Army Plaza, where these serpentine decorative planters stand guard. (You're supposed to touch a snake for good luck before you go into the park, according to custom.*)

All told I've probably spent several weeks of my life in Prospect Park. New Year's Eve fireworks; an Audobon Society "bat walk" (we saw three kinds of bats); concerts at the bandshell (Richard Thompson in the rain being the most memorable); hikes through the Ramble and around Condom Wrapper Grove; spotting rabbits on Lookout Hill; exploring the local Revolutionary War history; paddleboating; communing with the Camperdown Elm (here's Marianne Moore's poem about it, and here's a bit of history; see below for photos); sledding down a snowy hill on a shred of plastic garbage can cover; my list goes on.

The park was conceived way back in 1859, and James Stranahan, President of the Brooklyn Board of Park Commissioners at the time, is rightly regarded as the "Father of Prospect Park." He is honored with a statue at the entrance, and looks like a kindly old man. More information on Stranahan here, and just about everything you'd need to know about the park here. Below are some images from a visit in early Fall. Only a few trees here and there were starting to turn.

This unofficial trail runs along the park's eastern edge, parallel to Flatbush Avenue

One of the park's many arches

It's beautiful by the lake in late afternoon

Ducks dig it

The Boathouse is the park's most striking building

Here's that Camperdown Elm

and a peek inside it

Could Monet have done better?

On the base of the memorial to the Maryland 400, whose brave stand enabled Washington's army to escape to fight another day

Clearing dead trees on Lookout Hill, victims of recent violent weather

The Lake from above—you can almost imagine you're in the wilderness

A meeting of the minds

A taste of autumn

Finally, for the younger set: I don't know how you play on this, but it looks cool

*It's a custom I made up. Please participate, and help establish my immortality.