Monday, January 28, 2013

Roosevelt Island, or Mars-on-the-Water

We were tourists for a day. Vince needed water for some long exposures and eventually chose Roosevelt Island, the sliver of highrise-populated land smack in the higher reaches of the East River, between the Upper East Side and Queens, over New Jersey.

We caught the gondola from 59th Street, and Manhattan dropped away beneath our feet. My own feet tensed up, promptly.

Landing on the island we walked to its western bank to look back at Manhattan and the Queensboro Bridge.

There is a cherry walkway I had forgotten, below. We had visited once before in summer, and had found this island dismal and desolate, and I couldn't wait to leave, then. For a place surrounded by water it seemed completely cut off from it, too.

I would like to come back in late April - this will be beautifully pink.

We were here to see the new park at the southern tip of this tongue of land - it had been under dusty construction the last time we had been here. I had done no homework at all. Walked in cold. Actually, it was very cold. But I had no expectations, other than the subconscious preparation, perhaps, given to me by the most recent parks to have greened New York: the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, parts of the Hudson River Park. 

So I was not too surprised to see chokecherries They seemed to fit the informed plant palette pattern, even if they are so horrible-tasting that even birds won't eat them unless absolutely starving. The first, smaller part of the park features low hills and massed, dried, wintery vegetation - it looked interesting.

And then we passed through another entrance, guarded by a golf cart and heavily insulated park guards. 

Long Island City Queens across the water to the east, above. Which is my way of saying that I did not take a picture of our first view of what I now call the white Mayan temple. Or the great white temple...

Below, to the left, if I had included it in the frame, is a huge set of white granite stairs, leading up to a mound - the white temple. The mound then slopes down, south, towards the water and the end of island. I should have photographed the steps. They are very dramatic. Instead,  it's easier to focus on these five magnificent beech specimens planted down here on the plaza in front of the preserved ruin of the asylum. (Island, asylum. An old, oft-repeated story.) Big trees. Wonder what they cost to bring in and plant. A salary or two. Each.

A triangular lawn. Tapering to...could it be? Are we on a ship? Yes, according to my brief, later reading. We are.

Sorry about the sun. I was pointing into it without a filter. Two allees of trees on either side, granite chips somehow glued together beneath them. This whole place screamed Impermeable Surface.  But again, I should have shown you that - the wide expanses of granite up here, the flanking avenues of granite lower, beside the water. The massive blocks of stone that support this all.

The trees were interesting, and a parks employee (not Parks Department, mind you, this is all private money, again) said that they are littleleaf lindens. If so, I have never noticed this colour in their winter branches, before. I wonder who supplied them. Absolutely uniform, and somewhere around 150 of them, I think. They will smell wonderful in June, if you live on either side of the water and open your window to the air of New York City.

Standing in the prow, at the point and looking back up. It looks good in pictures. But in person, it felt like being on a Space Odyssey movie set - throwback science fiction. Out of touch with the water, super-separated from the water, and the flocks of brants circling and calling overhead. This is denial of water, domination of land, of rock, of monument, by Man, over water. 

This is not about humankind. This is about ego.

Turns out it was designed in 1973. Which may explain a lot. And The New York Times critic loved it (there's a good picture of the great white temple in the link, and some interesting background, too). Which is depressing. Michael Kimmelman, for The Times, called it the city's new spiritual heart..



Cue soundtrack (thanks, Frank - see his comment).

I was hoping, of course, for plants, for connection to environment, and for diversity and creativity and refuge for city dwellers. Instead we walked into a hollow, echoing monument. Roosevelt of course, and here, in the prow of the park is a mausoleum-like chamber where one contemplates both his words - his four freedoms, this is the Four Freedom's Park - and the view, to the south.

Yeah, I get it. But it doesn't work. 

What a squandered opportunity.

This place is dead, and it should be alive and it has nothing to do with winter.

But goodbye to all that. We stopped after our tour of the ode to granite and aid to runoff, and settled on a bench near the water in the more vegetated bit and had our lunch. We huddled and held cups of hot soup. It was fun. It was freezing!

When in doubt: picnic...


  1. Hi Marie,
    As always, a joy to read with my morning coffee.
    So much to see and do in NYC. I live on the edge of the Olympic National Park, and that's the way I feel ... I could live here my whole life and not see it all. Sure is fun trying though! I love the contrast between city and wilderness, which is why I never start my day without visiting your neighborhood. Thank you for being such a diligent poster, I know it's not always easy to make the time. I hope you enjoy it as much as we all do. Have a wonderful day!

  2. Marie, I feel your pain: "I was hoping, of course, for plants, for connection to environment, and for diversity and creativity and refuge for city dwellers." Some places on earth did not get a fair shake in so many ways, despite their obvious connection to the surroundings. Above, Sue Baxter, I lived in PT and some of my best friends are there.. I feel your joy. And yes, isn't Marie just the best? I also LOVE winter picnics and have made my family very happy in sharing them. Happiness where ever possible.

  3. "Man" likes to bring order from chaos. Good thing this was private money, huh? It would have been better with meandering paths with natives and shrubs in the style of Oudolf and a chance to happen on the script of each of the four freedoms as if discovering them in the wilderness, with the monument to Roosevelt at the prow, maybe. At least the choice of the lindens was well thought. Designed as it is maintenance will be a breeze.

    Buck up, it could have been much worse. This design also allows for lots of people to gather. Perhaps with the human element, festival, art shows, markets, it will become a spiritual heart and commons.

  4. Thanks for saving me a visit there the next time I get to NYC. It was (previously) on my list. Looks soul-less. What a waste. The picnic looks good, tho!

  5. Was it really designed in 1973, but just built now? Have I got this right? The world and our view of its ecology has come a long way since 1973! I feel your dismay...looking good in photographs is not enough.

  6. well, still on the side of permeability, but I just read on wiki about the four freedoms, and about "human security," so I can't thank you enough for this article, I never would have gone down this path without you, whether meandering or paved in granite. and riding on a gondola- eek.

  7. I hear you. And don't you just hear the shuddering strings of a passing Imperial Star Destroyer?

    But in Louis Kahn's favor, he designed this before Lucas changed the way we see every last bit of imperial design. And I like Louis Kahn's work! He designed this at a time Modernism was like an Imperial Star Destroyer blasting away every bit of rebellious humanity!

    And someone probably said lately, good enough, we've got a bit of waterfront access and lush nativist type planting around this town, and with the sea rising and all, let's just let this be a bulwark!

    I've yet to be there. I preferred the sleepy, romantic vision of a ruin from across the water. Dreams lay awake. Wait, what's that, oh no -shuddering strings! For your pleaseure :

    1. Thank you, Frank :-) Perfect.

      Good point about Lucas.

  8. I hope we will see some pictures from the cherry walkway later in april, that will be a beautiful sight!

  9. beautiful, now maybe i'll make a point to go there in April! I can't believe I've never been.

    1. Thank you, Dervla. I think these cherries may rival the BBG's...we'll see (they are south of the bridge).

    2. I've been there during cherries. Very good.

  10. I really loved visiting Roosevelt Is on our trip to Manhattan last year. I loved the gondola ride over and the isolated feeling from the rest of the city. We didn't explore as much as you did as we were on limited time...

  11. Great interesting post Marie, thanks, and I love a picnic : )

  12. It reminds me of Square Barye on the Ile Saint Louis, in a similar way that Roosevelt Island reminds me of the Ile Saint Louis. Maybe time will improve it. Some variety of plants and some enormous, tumbling vines would be nice too.


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