Essay for Garden Show
by Sam Korman
O, New York is all heat. It is a surfeit of dreams, models, and migrations. New York is all heat, from which we’ve tried to escape. New York’s lives are in its buildings. New York’s dreams are in its parks.
In the early 20th century, there are several summers on record in which a heat wave absorbed the city. Most affected were the urban poor, they stifled and suffocated in the tenements. And everyone took to the parks. Arthur Miller describes a summer in the 1920s during which hundreds of people slept in Central Park and their collected alarm clocks semi-syncopated throughout the sleeping meadows. Out of their shoebox model apartments and into the lawns—a migration not unlike Miller’s upper east side neighbors driving to the Catskills or Adirondacks; not unlike weekend migrations out to Brooklyn and Long Island, to Brighton Beach and Coney Island, or the recently created Jones Beach and Fire Island. These places invoke fresh ocean and mountain air; the parks harken to these as “the lungs of the city.” The parks are the practical arts of landscape that disinters air from its burial in the city. As if to meet some older generation, Central Park is a parable of old Manhattan, a museum to the swamp and glacial rock dump that had forged the island. It can often feel quite difficult to find ones own place in the heat of the city. And that is what set this comedy in motion.
American democracy takes place on the surface. It is about believing in appearances; it takes place amidst the hopefulness of a voracious public. It is not the ersatz manners of a former Europe, the impenetrable humor and wit of the courts; if America is said to have a comedy, it is a rather plain one. The great experiment takes place in the congregation of bodies for which we do not always know what to say—the laws for which we’ve conceded our votes taxidermy our present behaviors, wants, and needs. They are what’s forged in the heat: a coffin in which we contemplate death in democracy. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is perhaps the converse to this: “And what I assume, you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” He goes out in the heat and warms himself there; he could be said to simply walk through the streets and the parks and record what he sees. It is a great list of the bodies which culminate in a state; it is a great list of the energies that culminate in an identity; it is a typology of the self in many selves. Appearances are the advent of this life.
New York’s parks were consumed in America as a democratic style, a broadly human salve. They were observed as particularly urban, and with the condensation of masses of people in the cities, the parks seemed to be brought by these emigres of pastoral life. It’s a unique portion of our ego to assume democracy originated in the lives of these flocks of people. Likewise, Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of Central Park, did not see his park as describing a national style, but a general civic curative. (An old adage, that the only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.) Together with his partner Calvert Vaux, Olmsted developed the Greensward Plan, a model proposed for New York to combat a miasmatic capital delirium, to literally disrupt the stale air of the tenements. Generations had passed that never experienced open space, grass, or forests; and the manicured style of British parks, though an inspiration, was too similar to the rational grid overtaking Manhattan. The city’s power brokers could already envision its surface awash in buildings and interlacing roads; Olmsted returned to the city after a failed attempt at farming.
At a time when our intellectuals proposed self-reliance, a person must experience nature—largely in solitude—to bring about the inborn virtues of her character. If her individual spirit was nourished, so she could participate in the wider arena. Olmsted first developed the idea of parks as “the lungs of the city” in response to the otherwise swampy conditions inherent to Manhattan island that were seen to cause poor health, especially among the slums. With Central Park, we might also freshen the city’s spirit—the metaphysical lungs of the city—it would be rugged, and native, and verdant. Olmsted frequently invokes the “picturesque,” perhaps a Victorian hold-over, in his writings about the project; as well contained there were strict guidelines for use aimed especially at the unmannered people likely to be attracted there. With a small, self-run security force, people were required not to run or play. Rather, they could only stroll slowly, or rest in quiet contemplation. Nature was no place to be rude.
Think, if you’ve had the fortune of an American Grand Tour, of the Giardini in Venice. It has been the location for the Venice Biennale since 1895, is a garden of tall trees and hedgerows, shade, and shifting light from the Adriatic sun; is a garden of architecture, pavilions, exposition, exhibition, style. It is flanked by the sea, its turquoise waters lap at the edges of its manmade hardlines. Utterly decadent, and what it must’ve looked like at previous biennales, when there were paintings and paintings and paintings and the occasional sculpture of a figure. Might a painting of a peasant caused a stir? All the national styles collected, convened, propelled into the international view. What this must’ve looked like then! What it must’ve felt like. What this little aggregate of islands brought together in its simulated city-state! What is it today? Does the conceptual and political convene old boundaries? Perhaps this garden park is too potent an intoxicant. A living institution too great a pleasure.
Robert Moses, in his time, saw parks as the cure for parks—a political tautology that was his means to power. More parks and more parks—and then build the roads! Parks were the excuse for parkways; parks were the means to outwit, outpace, and out-finance the system. He started on Long Island, building the beaches at Fire Island and Jones; he built roads to the beaches that only cars could traverse. The heat of the city was the imperative for the public beaches, but many were left to swelter, unable to reach relief by bus. Once commissioner of the city’s parks, he built many plane, neighborhood pocket parks; while one of Moses’s first projects was to reconstruct Central Park. In the 1930s, he had crews working night and day to redevelop the park. He kicked out the sheep from Sheep Meadow; he refurbished the zoo; he installed play equipment; he licensed the Tavern on the Green as a perk for himself and his circle. What had heretofore been Olmsted’s park gone to ruin, was Moses’s entree into the city. Parks were a political weapon under an apolitical sign: parks were good for all, who could argue? It was his means to power, and he was celebrated. It was on the foundation of parks that he built his empire; it was with the parks that he ensured the legal means of almost absolute power; it was through the parks that he remade the city; it was in the parks that his idealism turned into cold pragmatism. The parks propped up his master plan and helped him to displace tens of thousands of residents. They became turned-out emigrants within the city itself. (Before Moses, the parks had already been a site for graft—stories of Boss Tweed cronyism, installing pensioner relatives as irrelevant groundskeepers, or the absurd story of the zoo gone to ruin: better to hire someone to guard the tigers with a shotgun, than repair their broken cages.)
Moses took the helm of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. During his long career as park commissioner, he eyed the polluted wasteland that was Flushing Meadows, which had been an expansive marshland prior to 1900. In the 19th century, it became an ash dump during the period’s unchecked industrialism—what would later be described as the grim hell of the “Valley of Ashes” in The Great Gatsby. The World’s Fair, hardly a new convention, was a spectacle that hewed culture to nationalism. And this would be Moses’ excuse to turn Flushing Meadows into a park. As his plans for the public display withered with each passing month, and bills mounted, the fair eventually never recovered. It was an economic failure, lost the city millions, and cost Moses the adoration of the public and press—which he had mastered with his parks—as well as several of his professional appointments through which he yielded significant practical power within the city. Was there truly a place for culture within a futurist political projection that aligned it with industry and government? Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men was famously censored, eventually painted entirely silver like a blank movie screen. The park, though beautiful, is a vast green vacuum that separates distant neighborhoods.
What do parks mean? Around this time Robert Smithson dove into Central Park and called it a museum, and Olsmted an artist (a particularly American artist). Rem Koolhaas later wrote his retroactive manifesto for New York and defined Central Park as a “taxidermic preservation of nature that exhibits forever the drama of culture outdistancing nature.” Jane Jacobs made a more practical observation about parks: we need to abandon “the science-fiction nonsense that parks are ‘the lungs of the city.’” She warns that they are no better equipment for the people to interact, no better tool for the community, than a simple front lawn; unmonitored, as they facilitate no social goings-on unto themselves, especially within a neighborhood otherwise unserviced by basic commerce and leisure activities. At the Queens Museum, housed on the grounds of Flushing Meadows, is a scale model of the city of New York. Commissioned by Moses for the World’s Fair, it documents the city at that time, the city which Moses had so dramatically reshaped for the preceding 40 years. One can see the rows of skyscrapers in Manhattan; as well, one can see the Title One projects that Moses built throughout the city, exhibiting their radiant gardens at a 1:1,200 scale. What does this map represent? A model of the city, housed in a museum, leashed to the park—it’s dizzying effects resonating the chaos of New York, the parks an unnatural vacuum, as art subsumes the city. The buildings look like agglomerations of coral, and the parks appear utterly contrived.
Perhaps the parks were holistic, though they healed no one on their own. Their value wasn’t determined by whether or not they belonged to the people, but rather, by how malleable they were to metaphor. Nonetheless, the period of the late 1960s and 1970s was a failure of the parks and when the city was told to drop dead, the parks hardly did so. They flourished, and perhaps reclaimed the native capacities for the land. They grew and grew and became more wild. Olmsted had hoped for something like this in his Greensward Plan: the unabated, natural, excess of nature, a sublimity, through which a park visitor might locate some inner rationality, cognitive and spiritual capability. They might get to know the shape of the self. Robert Smithson saw it as the best sculpture, eminently chaotic. It was by no means an ailment. And others found an illicit space, too. If the parks had always ever been for the middle and upper classes—public transportation was not affordable by the urban poor at the tip of Manhattan in the mid 19th century—their failure opened them up to others. It was a paradox. Cruise the park, and don’t fear the cops—there were none. Take to the Ramble, screw across the street from the American Museum of Natural History. In any case, find the people hidden there.
Democracy need not admit or make room for what exists outside its rule of law. Some things live too much, some things bare too much heat to be metabolized and preserved by the law or by history. As much as democracy is constituted by the public realm represented in such green spaces—a shared commons in which people may congregate, converse, demonstrate, or simply take part in leisure, or participate through observation—the parks are tested at their borderlands. The parks may represent an idealized state, and as they have been passed down from one administration to another, they have served a handy political metaphor for their governors, mayors, and commissioners—who hold and sanction and manage them in the public’s trust. Such an idealized vision of democracy necessarily relies on the typologies which democracy entombs in normalcy. Do the parks show a harmony of voices? Certain as some leisure space, they admit pleasure and communion and sport—insofar as these terms can still be applied to debate, they represent the American comedy of appearances, and perhaps a reduction to a game of catch or Frisbee.
Cacophony, acrimonious to our political bulwark and wide meadows in which all is in view of all—it is tested in the woods of the park, the tunnels of the park, the night time of the park, by the rancorous heat of those living outside, or simply those which would prefer not to be in. They are a fantasy space in which the bold darkness of a community can rear up; or the gorgeous desires flare; or illicit altered states intervene—they are places for which the threat of being seen is met with the capacity that individuals can truly abide their own pleasures. Today, some had the time to walk and other’s didn’t. And still others took to the parks at night. Passing through at night, 100 years ago, one might find dozens of sleeping people on the lawns and meadows and under the trees. As yet without sufficient ventilation, the parks had a breeze and a draft. Today, we have air conditioning, and technology has made affordable this summertime necessity; in 1989, the Central Park Jogger case, in which 5 black and latino men were wrongfully convicted of rape, we again saw the city stamp out the brash differences fostered by the park. We have better fortified our buildings against the threats of such places—it has reduced this world to a private fantasy and the parks, perhaps, lose by their claim to a common metaphor, if slightly. When a community could at least intuit itself, let alone articulate itself, is perhaps a hopeful ideal, but where a central authority can mandate the meaning of such public encounters, and limit them thereby, it homogenizes our language of space. When people slept in the parks, one didn’t have to wonder where everyone went at night.
The parks are written by the city, but what for the country? What for its democracy of space? It was the chief ideal of projection, our moralistic world, our work driven capital. What for the sublime of nature? We’ve borrowed it from there, too. What for the generations that never saw a tree? We hired Olmsted, the right man for the job. What about our fun? We hired Moses, he got the job done. At the same time that Olmsted built the parks, at the same time we sought to transcend via democratic means and the rights of man, the painters headed north to the Hudson, and finding some great ecstasy, perhaps they also found an addiction and headed west. When they returned, rather than rehabilitated, they were absorbed. They had taken to the mountains and they drew the rivers; they anatomized the animals, brought back the flowers—they gave us the colors of the country, stuck them in the homes, hung them in a museum that resides on public land in Central Park—both Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux were not charmed by the admission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art into the park, felt at least its architecture should be subordinated to the landscape.
The provinces feed the cities more than just food. The 19th century found valor and morals there—the metaphor that the middle of America is the real America still has some traction. And the cities can also feel utterly parochial. We have devoured the continent and claimed eminent domain over the land. It is perhaps this quality that is the inheritance of any president, who must win this world over in order to win an election. A president must adapt his rhetoric to the values of this portion of the country—so spread out and distant from its neighbors; or suburban and shuttered in model homes. Some question about beauty resides there, as well; something about the country and its politics mingles with the city dweller in the park. Where will the mothers take their children seems to ring the same note as where have all the cruising grounds gone. At least from my vantage now, in my apartment, in the city; through the windows, and the screens, and the interfaces that mediate such visions of unlikely communions. Doesn’t it sometimes seem that the politicians only speak to the land and not to the people? That by some means they might make the land great, or leave it fallow, stewarding the land by the measures laid forth in an eastern city. What meaning might they wrest from the land, will be the wealth of this nation. It’s no wonder no one trusts a smart person from the north.
New York is particularly indebted to the preservation of nature, not solely in its Central Park, but upstate, 125 miles to the north. The Delaware and Catskill Watersheds supply New York with 90 percent of its drinking water; the Croton Watershed furnishes the remaining 10 percent. The city must preserve the country; it is imperative to the survival of its citizens and infrastructure that these places remain natural, unimpeded, and unsettled. This sentiment echoes Olmsted’s plan for Central Park—less respiration, and more circulation, or lymphatic. The voracious heat of development and people, of movement and parks, requires some coolant. It requires the massive political and physical infrastructure to migrate this water to the city. In effect, the basic services the city provides are entirely reliant on the esteem, preservation, and aestheticization of nature. Hence, it is a gauge whereby the metaphors of American landscapes, from which the city’s parks have borrowed, the city’s politics have borrowed, too. By some means, it is a gauge on this flow.
Art, like parks, is sometimes a provincial terrain in a democratic society. It feels alien, meritocratic, compared with the idealized hard work of the pastoral life—or its concomitant values that are cemented in the city’s classes, which are neighborhoods, which are districts, which circumference parks. Nonetheless, the country is a verdant and erotic place—the Midwest this time of year is absolutely lush, and green, flocks of insects, and birds to eat the insects, and men to hunt the birds; the mountains and glacier melt, Colorado in sulfuric yellow and hills rusting red; California, Oregon, state names that immediately produce a grandiose image in the mind. And the city is not without its mad rush and heat and migrations of people and capital and resources and trash. Perhaps art is an utterly urban thing, and its oligarchic management of taste somehow anathema to the otherwise populist necessities of the city, the miasma of culture that seeps in everywhere and substitutes for the landscape. In these ways, art is another gauge of our politics our rhetoric our metaphors our language our space. Like the parks, art can be a gauge, a document, a museum, a fair, a display, a garden show of democracy. So we go to the parks, and there is heat there, and the heat stirs the breeze, and for a moment the city opens up. The parks encompass the night time privations, or simply make it easier to dream. Did Olmsted condition the air for democracy?
Sam Korman is a writer and curator based in New York.