The Gates, in Context

by

02/24/2005

5th Ave & W 59th St, New York, NY 10019

Neighborhood: Central Park

Central Park exists because of two writers who cared about the well-being of New York City, including all its people: the poet William Cullen (“Thanatopsis”) Bryant, who proposed his idea for the park when he was still studying at Yale and also editing a periodical called the “Evening Post,” and to the landscaper and editor of “The Horticulturalist,” Andrew Jackson Downing, who developed plans for the park in tandem with a partner, Calvert Vaux, and who might well have been the park’s chief designer, had he not died in a steamboat accident in 1852, at the age of 37 or 38. (Apparently, it was the democratically minded Downing, in particular, who wanted the park to benefit New Yorkers from all classes.)

During the decade prior to the Civil War, Bryant and Downing saw that the poverty-stricken throngs in the notorious section of Five Points, in Lower Manhattan, had nowhere to walk or let off steam, and the two of them wrote a series of newspaper stories calling for a park or preserve that might serve as such a cooling-off place (which, the City officials realized, would help to defuse potential riots). At the time the decision was made to construct the mammoth park (843 acres), land in Manhattan north of what is now 42nd Street was primarily devoted to farming and some estates and country houses. One area—where the park now is—was a kind of wilderness of squatters and their wild pigs. The land was swamp, mostly, and undesirable for country houses. It was also studded with monumental rocks, the detritus left over from glacial movement during the Ice Age. Eventually, more dynamite would be used to blast away or reshape those rocks than would be detonated at the Battle of Gettysburg. By 1858, portions of the park were opened to the public, including an area for ice skaters.

Frederick Law Olmsted, a visionary city planner—the embodiments of whose ideas for public spaces, realized in cities across America, can still be visited today—was put in charge of a competition to design Central Park. He also contributed a design of his own to the competition, and he won it. His partner was Calvert Vaux, a native of France who, unlike Olmsted, was actually a trained architect yet who, in the service of this extraordinary public project, agreed to serve as Olmsted’s assistant, despite Vaux’s bruised feelings at what he felt was a demotion. Eventually, Vaux’s position on the project was upgraded to that of partner. These two men, so different in temperament and background, and their team of engineers and craftsmen, created from the rock-strewn swamp what is, for many New Yorkers, the greatest single art work on the island of Manhattan. Apart from the sky and the air, everything about Central Park, even the park as it has undergone considerable changes in the past century and a-half, is the result of decisions made by human beings. The contour of the land. The position, size, and shape of the rocks. The trees, every one of which has been planted, including the forest growth in the Harlem Meer, the lovely little wood at the park’s northeastern tip, in which one can walk by a stream and even fish without seeing any evidence whatsoever of the surrounding city. The points of perspective, in which one rounds of corner and “just happens” to see a charming confluence of greensward, trees, and, perhaps, a wooden structure. All of these were the result of planning—the point of which was to make a pedestrian forget that they had been planned. The size of the project, and its impact on the city, bespeak the planners’ heroic belief in themselves, of course; however, the intellectual and philosophical principles that governed their actions also bespeak a staggering humility.

Central Park has, as focal points of its overall plan, outstanding formal elements, most notably the Mall—an allée lined on either side with elms, the quintessential tree of America’s small towns. Their towering boughs gently bend toward the center, suggesting the long nave of a cathedral. Below the elms on each side are benches arranged to form a straight line the length of the Mall, so that, when one walks the length of it, the eye is entertained by the contrast of the softly shaped “tree” roof and the rigorously geomentric “pews.” This grand statement concerning the sanctity of the union between Art and Nature in America leads to what is considered to be Vaux’s greatest single contribution to Central Park: the sweeping Bathesda Terrace, whose sandstone balustrades have been intricately carved with figures and shapes derived from Nature—some of the iconography stretching back to the Middle Ages—and from 19th-century human endeavor. With the exception of one small section, no two of the dozens of sculptural or friezelike carvings are identical. Those on the West side of the Terrace are concerned with themes of autumn and winter; those on the East side with spring and summer. From the Terrace, one looks on a spacious vista north, a kind of miniature version of the 18th-century’s ideal of the Sublime. Almost directly below the Terrace, accessible by a commanding set of stairs and then a brief, preparatory walk through a womb-like passage under the barrel vault of a bridge, is a spectacular, tiered fountain, overseen by the figure of an angel in the form of a striding woman, wings outspread. (This fountain was featured in the movie of Angels in America.)

When I last saw the fountain, one recent, frosty day while The Gates were up, a tightly-packed crowd of giggling adolescents were crowded around the base, posing for a group photograph. As with many of the park’s most formal places, the people in the picture were incongruously vivid and high-spirited against the meticulously composed setting, designed for such pastimes as meditation by the poor on the aesthetic and social possibilities that earned wealth could bring them. Indeed, as I stood on the Terrace with my companions—my friend from California Janice; her 19 year-old daughter Mimi (who had never been to New York before); and Michelle Nevius, a wonderful tour guide (www.walknyc.com) whom Janice had engaged for the park trip that day and who provided a wealth of information about New York, some of which I’ve reproduced in this story—the subject of our conversation was the fact that it took decades for the people of Five Points to be able actually to reach the park as a matter of course on their Sundays off. Originally, one was not permitted to bring carts or even wheelbarrows into Central Park, or to picnic on its lawns, or to play ball anywhere in its environs. Until the development of affordable streetcars the length of Manhattan, to travel the miles that separated Central Park from Five Points would have been an odyssey, and much of it would have been accomplished by walking—in the case of a young family with several children and no umbrella strollers, an almost unendurable idea.

My companions and I tried to imagine being parents who lived in a five- or six- or seven-floor walk-up, crushed into a small, dark apartment with one or two other families. The father—and, in many cases, the mother, too—would have worked 12-hour days, Monday through Saturday, in a factory or sweatshop, well before the existence of OSHA to regulate conditions of ventilation and safety, sometimes leaving their children in the care of family or neighbors, or taking them to work, or leaving them home entirely on their own. Perhaps on Friday or Saturday night, one or both parents would have tried to shake off the effects of the work week by getting drunk—one of the few ways to unwind, when one didn’t have much money, in a world without television, radio, or telephones. And then, on Sundays, they were supposed to dress in their best clothes and trudge from the southern end of Manhattan to 59th Street, so that they could perambulate for four, or five more miles, their little children in tow, in order to concentrate their thoughts on higher morals and values one might possess, if one were a resident of a townhouse? And then trudge back the miles to their tenement? As much as I mourn the loss of so much of 19th- and early 20th-century New York—the theaters; the small, idiosyncratic shops; the midtown sky; the last vestiges of chivalry and decorum; and, most especially, Stanford White’s Penn Station, which, as a small child with my parents, I’d gaze at drop-jawed on our visits from Philadelphia to shop at Best & Co. or attend a Broadway musical or the New York City Ballet—I’m very glad to be living in our own moment.

In one of its more ephemeral dimensions, this moment includes The Gates—the cheerful and very charming installation over 23 miles of Central Park’s walkways, conceived by the Bulgarian-born artist Christo, who, assisted by his wife, Jeanne-Claude, a native of France, directed the laborious, 26-year process of permissions and realization—that will occupy Central Park for two weeks, then be dismantled and completely recycled, leaving behind no evidence whatsoever that it had ever been. I’m going to presume that readers of mrbellersneighborhood know what The Gates consists of, since magazines and newspapers—The New York Times, in particular—have flooded the zone with stories about those 7,500 meticulously placed, painstakingly engineered tangerine-colored post-and-lintel frames, each one bearing a curtain of tightly-loomed vinyl [?] fabric, with a six-stitch grid pattern that gives the curtain texture and helps its sunny color to sparkle and to appear variously translucent or solid, according to changes of light and gusts of wind. Below each curtain are some seven feet of clear space for people to walk through. (To read what I think is the most meticulous literary account of the installation, Tobi Tobias’s, in ArtsJournal, go to www.artsjournal.com/tobias )

We didn’t see very many birds in our two-hour walk (Central Park attracts some 200 species of birds, as it is under a major flyway), and Janice, who is especially interested in fauna of all kinds, asked Michelle about that. Michelle answered that the Audubon Society had objected strenuously to the project, although she didn’t know if Christo and Jeanne-Claude had been able to satisfy the society’s objections. However, an amateur birder and bird watercolorist, who, on the park’s Eastern border, had set up a telescope for the public, focused on the nest of New York’s celeb red-tailed hawks, Pale Male and Lola, said that it was his understanding that The Gates wasn’t harmful to birds; they just were lying low until the masses of pedestrians had dispersed. We looked in his telescope and clearly saw that the hawks had, in fact, returned to rebuild at the top of the Fifth Avenue co-op that had destroyed the nest. At least, we saw the nest; Pale Male and Lola, the birder suggested, were out foraging for lunch. We also saw some extraordinary carved faces under the cornice of the limestone building—faces that were so far removed from the street that only Pale Male and Lola would have been able to regard them with the naked eye. Imagine carving faces into the part of a building that hardly anyone would ever see. It’s like the little embroidered designs that Barbara Karinska would incorporate into tutus for the ballerinas of Balanchine’s ballets—designs that would only be seen by the dancer. Benign secrets in the shadows: in our fishbowl world, the very concept seems as exotic, and as costly, as beveled glass.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, themselves, raised the $21 million to make, install, maintain, and remove the installation, primarily through sales of Christo’s art work on paper, and all proceeds from books, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other souvenirs go to charitable organizations. Their positioning of the gates minutely respects the park’s design, as well: for example, none of them line the formal areas, like the Mall or the Terrace or the fountains, and, along the walkways, the series break to make way for large tree branches. When Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art intersect with that of Olmsted and Vaux, Christo and Jeanne-Claude always give their predecessors right of way. Nor is there any corporate advertising of any sort on the banners. (Think of the possibilities: all those curtains, layered in perspective, look like Windows, and with the title, “The Gates”—despite its inspiration in an Olmsted idea for the park that was never embodied—it wouldn’t take much to turn the whole thing into a celebration of Microsoft.) Instead, it is a selfless gift to the city of New York, as well as to the artists’ obsessions; and that fact, along with the festive nature of the work, helps to account for the tremendous enthusiasm it has inspired in New Yorkers, as well as in people who have traveled to see it from across the United States and elsewhere in the world.

“I want to see The Gates,” my daughter, a college student in Boston, said on the phone, and, on a visit home, she at first allotted a half hour or so for the excursion. Seeing them, though, in the narrow sense of the word “seeing,” isn’t, for me, anyway, an aesthetic experience. The structures are awkward, and although the fabric has nuance, the repetitive design doesn’t provide a lot of the simplicity and authority I associate with art at its best. Also, just to look at the installation doesn’t seem to be the point exactly, the way seeing Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapped islands or wrapped Reichstag is. In this case, even aerial photographs won’t give one the intended experience, in which one’s own changing perceptions as one proceeds along the park’s pathways are crucial elements: time and reflection are factored into the work’s identity. As insistent as those tangerine-saffron constructions are against the subdued greys and browns of Central Park’s winterscape, the look of them, alone, isn’t the reason to go to the park while the work is there. What one is meant to see—and to feel—is the park as one moves through it. The park and its continually surprising people. Indeed, when my daughter did finally get to The Gates with her dad, they ran into the ultimate Gates-coordinated visitors: a group of Buddhist monks. Way to go, saffron!

Orange is also the color of safety vests, and another thing that makes this project a success is that it feels secure. Christo and Jeanne-Claude hired a little army of people to patrol the extent of the installation; their jobs are mostly turning over wind-ruffled curtains with long sticks that have tennis balls on the ends, answering questions, and giving out swatches of the curtain fabric, of which one million were made for visitors. However, their very presence is something of a deterrent to muggers and mischief-makers, as, once, the park attendants who would pick up leaves with poking sticks were in many of the city’s public parks. (The patrollers can also swipe off graffiti.) As I write, the installation still has a few days before it is taken down, and my heart is in my mouth that those days will pass peacefully, without accident or mayhem. As I articulate this anxiety that something might go wrong with this project—a marvelous social event and kamikaze marketing tool for the beloved park, regardless of its optical vulgarity—I feel my own age, even though I realize that the park is apparently its own police precinct, and, according to Michelle Nevius, fewer crimes now take place there year-round than almost anywhere else in the city. Still, the park has been the site of some spectacular crime, and not all of it is violent. After Michelle’s tour, I’ll never again be able to pass by Tavern in the Green without remembering that it was once a sheep barn, whose sheep were released to graze on what is called Sheep’s Meadow—a kind of county fair exhibit to attract people to the park that occasioned Olmsted’s resignation. Or that the sheep barn was turned into a family-type restaurant (an antecedent to Tavern on the Green) during the 1930’s, in order to replace an elegant casino on the other side of the park that New York’s mayor wanted destroyed because it was attracting riffraff—even though, in destroying the structure, the City was also demolishing what had originally been Olmsted and Vaux’s charming pavilion, built for ladies to take tea and refreshment. It is not only the people who hate our way of life who seek to bring down New York: New York, itself, has swung the wrecking ball against its own legacy numerous times, and, on occasion, with glee.

The afternoon before my walk through the park with Janice, Mimi, and Michelle, I met another friend there to saunter through some of The Gates: the retired film editor Mimi Arsham, a native New Yorker who has lived in the city for much of her life. We walked the West side, mostly, and stopped to rest on one of the benches facing the exquisite little Bethesda fountain. (Note to self: Who was this ubiquitous Bethesda? Must look up.) Mimi, who is 30 years my senior, is also in much better physical shape than I am, and she wasn’t so excited at sitting down for a while, but she acknowledged the enchantment of seeing how different the color of the curtains looked momentarily in the sinking light or when the wind barreled through them, and how curious were some of the color-coordinated passersby. The only instance of orange or saffron we didn’t see was Washington Irving’s pumpkin. At one point, a lovely, fluffy dog, some kind of shepherd, trotted along the path. “I wonder if the dog feels anything from this,” Mimi ruminated, then she added in a self-critique, “That’s ridiculous. Of course he couldn’t.” As if on cue, the dog stopped, lay on its back, and began to squirm in what looked to me like a classic example of euphoria. “He must have fleas,” said Mimi. Of course, I was born and grew up in Philadelphia, so I wouldn’t have known that.

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