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Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Queen Elizabeth II September 11th Garden

"Sowing the Seeds of Friendship and Peace" is the slogan of the Queen Elizabeth II Garden (formerly known simply as the British Garden) at Hanover Square in downtown Manhattan, and there probably isn't a park in all of the city laid out with more forethought and symbolism. Designed by English landscapers with paving and plantings outlining the shape of the British Isles, it incorporates Scottish sandstone, evergreen hollies that are "cultivars derived from an English holly parent," 67 nandina shrubs representing the 67 British victims of 9/11, and other signifiers of the British Isles. (See this 2004 news release describing this Britishification of Hanover Square.)

Even in winter the plantings are picturesque.

The Garden's official website lists the high-minded goals of the British Memorial Garden Trust, Inc., founded by the British Consulate and the St. George's Society (which goes back to 1770). For royal family fans, it also has a photo of Prince Harry at the dedication and one of the queen herself visiting in 2010.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Morningside Park

I first conceived this project – visiting and documenting every park in New York City – a couple of years ago, while I was working at Columbia University and taking lunchtime walks in Morningside Park and other nearby green spaces.

Part of the inspiration for the whole blog project, in fact, came specifically from the dramatic geography of Morningside's steep rocky slopes cut by grand stone staircases.

Yet in all this time, I hadn't actually covered Morningside Park here on the blog. So, for my documentary visit, I returned just a few days after the big snowstorm of February 2013 to walk the park's full length. Subsequent warm air and rain had trimmed the snow cover, but an icy white landscape remained.

Winter doesn't scare away the wildlife around here.

Skinny, but 13 blocks long, Morningside Park was conceived just after the Civil War, though construction didn't begin until the 1880s. Architect Jacob Wrey Mould and legendary park designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (of Central Park and Prospect Park fame) all had hands in the design. According to the Parks Department's website, "Retained as a consultant, Vaux saw the work to completion in 1895, the year he drowned in Gravesend Bay. Parks Superintendent Samuel Parsons Jr. wrote of Vaux's work, '…perhaps Morningside Park was the most consummate piece of art that he had ever created.'"

Artful or otherwise, a walk along the cliff provides some remarkable natural sights.

Needless to say, Native American tribes haven't resided here for a very long time. You won't run into any Dutch farmers in the area either, but somebody left some hay bales next to a couple of the park's fattest old trees.

In one of those New York City juxtapositions I always enjoy coming across, behind another big tree you can see the bright colors of a schoolyard mural.

The really well-known piece of art in Morningside Park is the eight-foot-tall bronze Bear and Faun, or the Alfred Lincoln Seligman Fountain, sculpted by Edgar Walter, a student of Auguste Rodin's, and dedicated in 1914.

In wintertime it's quiet and still, but hardly less prominent as it guards the base of one of the park's great staircases.

The sculpture actually depicts a bear, on top of a crag, apparently stalking a fawn who's hiding in the mouth of a little cave below. But to me, the shape of the whole sculpture has always suggested a crouching female figure.

Of course, as happens so often in cities, wealthier people claim the higher ground while lower-income folks live down below. In few places is this more obvious than the Morningside Park area, where the top of the ridge houses the grand buildings of Columbia University and many fancy apartment buildings, while down below, to the east of the park, resides the working class. Nonetheless, one of the best qualities of city parks like Morningside is that everyone has equal access, whether you skitter down from the west or walk in from the east.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coenties Slip Park

I admit only grudgingly that Coenties Slip Park is in fact a park, but with benches and plantings it makes an effort.

In this ancient part of the city, Manhattan's southern tip, just about anything you run into is interesting even if lacking in other qualities. Every street you walk on is soaked in history. I'm also intrigued by the way public spaces like this are inserted into these crowded warrens, often taking advantage of the irregular street layout to get tucked into spaces that might otherwise have little practical use.

Coenties Slip is a little street near the waterfront named, according to Wikipedia, after "an artificial inlet in the East River for the loading and unloading of ships that was land-filled in 1835." For more on New York City's many slips of old, see Harold Goldstein's rundown. Apparently, the street that Coenties Slip became used to run for a few blocks, but the stretch closer to the river has been subsumed by the Vietnam Veterans Plaza.

Hugging the street that remains is a small triangular area marked by a striking sculpture by Bryan Hunt called Coenties Ship. This double-pointed steel structure suggests, perhaps, a ship's mast, or a catamaran standing on end – or what you will. (He says it is meant to "invoke buoyancy and nautical nuance poised for a future.")

Friday, February 8, 2013

Vietnam Veterans Plaza

The New York City Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza sits right off South Street and the Hudson River waterfront. Though located in the old part of the city, it's a modern-style plaza, constructed in the mid-1980s, renovated and expanded just after the turn of the century, and rededicated just after the trauma of 9-11.

The central feature is a muscular glass wall inscribed with excerpts from letters written home by American soldiers who were to die in the war.

If the writing appears hard to read, it's not poor photography. On the Plaza website, the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Plaza admit that, renovation aside, the wall "needs serious attention" and "is now losing its luster and legibility." The group hopes to redesign and rebuild this poignant memorial.

In the meantime, with its steps, plaques, and angular elements, the plaza continues to evoke and memorialize the lives of the 1,741 New York City residents who died in that terrible war.