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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.