Friday, May 8, 2009

The New Leisure: Looking At Manhattan

As a gardener, I am often aghast at what it takes to put a park together. Politics, of course, so many different constituencies. But then its the astronomical sums too.

Original construction cost of Central Park was about $14 million from 1858-73 (roughly $225 million in today's dollars). Central Park contains 843 total acres, including 136 acres of woodlands, 150 acres of water and 250 acres of lawns. Prospect Park, covers 585 acres and includes a 60 acre lake, cost $5 million (roughly $87 million in today's dollars) to construct.

The proposed, and somewhat begun, Brooklyn Bridge Park will have 85 acres including 6 piers and 1.3 miles of waterfront. The estimate for the entire budget, or today's estimate -we know what happens to those, to build Brooklyn Bridge Park is 350 million dollars. This is massive spending for a park that is, from what I've seen so far, a much less ambitious design than Central or Prospect Park. In today's dollars, it would have been possible to build both Central and Prospect Park for less money. Somehow, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benape sees this park as "a bargain."

Pier6-Overhead_450px

What we get is a park that operates primarily as a plinth for the viewing of lower Manhattan, an interface for harbor activities, and concessions. Should this area be a park? Of course. Are we getting our money's worth? I don't think so.

Take the north end of Brooklyn Bridge Park, years ago re-configured into a public park where it was once a run-down, old NY kind of a hangout. There was a time when no one would accept a park in this location, if not only for the incredible amount of rattle and thrum from the trains on the Manhattan Bridge.



As city parks go, it's quite popular -people are sprawled out on the grass in warm weather, wedding photos are taken, tourists photograph the bridges, dogs are walked, little kids are bicycle-trained. The crowds accept the noisy racket of NYC and embrace the waterfront. The thematic embrace here is a bold revision of the city's infrastructure as a naturally sublime backdrop for leisure and a long overdue acceptance of the desire to near ourselves to water. The pleasure here comes from the calming of the watery middle ground as the Manhattan Bridge's massive, dark underbelly and rumbling incite.



The Brooklyn Bridge operates on the level of a functioning ruin in the landscape. Overshadowed by its slightly newer neighbor, the bridge incorporates engineering history into the schema of the picturesque sublime. The park grounds, benches, pathways and railings are all bland. There are hints of an ecological influence in its native planting. Only the massive stone ampitheater and kayak-launching beachfront under the Manhattan Bridge give us bold moments; a sort of big brother to those significant, original moments at Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens.



Touted for the new addition is the view of the palisade formations of lower Manhattan. Yet, much of what I get from the view of the lower Manhattan skyline I already receive on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, along with its quaint nostalgia for old New York. The low viewpoint offered from the piers has the effect of bringing us to the foot of the Emerald City, looking up, and if your me - wondering who's behind the curtain of Wall Street.

The sketch below, from the Urban Strategies Inc. website, proposes something of interest. It appears to add something new to the context between the bridges and I hope it survives the process. A fear of infant tourists falling into the sea might just divert this design proposal to the trash bin.

A park with this bold budget should have a bold design. Not only formally, but conceptually. A park that incorporates new conceptions of our relationship to nature. A park that gives us more than the plinth effect. I think it is telling that the park is named after the Brooklyn Bridge. After all, that's the part of the park that we know has a heart. That's also the part that is essentially finished and functioning as it should.


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