Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Winter Walk-Off 2013

February 28, 2013

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For the past several years Les of The Tidewater Gardener has issued an annual challenge to take a walk from your house and post on what you see. It’s okay to drive to the place you want to start your walk, but you have to walk. No photos of your own garden are allowed. I’ve always meant to participate but never have. So here goes, though I’m not sure I’m complying with all the rules. This is about a walk, a subway ride, a drive, and a lecture in New York City. I hope my geographical disadvantage will permit this to qualify.

On Monday I was at work at 19th and Park Avenue South,  just north of Union Square, where I work two days each week. Armed with my cell phone camera, I took a quick walk and subway ride downtown to Wall Street to meet my friend Cathy for lunch. I passed the open space at the north end of the park (above) where a fabulous farmer’s market is held four days a week. Not much going on there, but it was a cold, blustery day.

I did see a few sparrows perching in these magnolias at the edge of a playground.

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Union Square Park has several statues of people important in American history (and a wonderful statue of Gandhi in a little parklet at one corner). Obviously, this is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which seems appropriate since Daniel Day Lewis had won best actor only the night before for his performance as Lincoln.

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The park was empty. Not a day for eating lunch outside.

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These American elms amazingly survive in pockets of soil above a massive subway complex. Even in winter, their squiggly forms, reflected by their shadows on the ground, provide a lot of visual interest.

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Before I got to the subway entrance, I passed the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette.

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There’s also a large, imposing equestrian statue of George Washington at the southern park entrance, but I didn’t see that one. Instead I entered the subway.

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And within ten minutes, I was about three miles to the south at Wall Street.

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I came up the stairs across from Trinity churchyard …

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… where Alexander Hamilton, among many other illustrious New Yorkers, is buried.

Here is a look down Wall Street. Part way down the street is Federal Hall, which marks the site where George Washington was inaugurated as our first President. And at no.57 Wall Street Alexander Hamilton lived with his family for ten years. (All the security barriers spoil the view.)

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I met Cathy, and on the way to lunch we passed one of my favorite places in the city–this notable plaza with sculpture and skyscraper on Broadway between Cedar and Liberty streets. The building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill  and completed in 1967, is paired with the Red Cube sculpture by Isamu Noguchi.

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This is considered by many to be one of the great public spaces in the city. To quote Ada Louise Hustable, the former architecture critic of the New York Times, in her March 31, 1968, review:  ”This small segment of New York compares in effect and elegance with any celebrated Renaissance plaza or Baroque vista. The scale of the buildings, the use of open space, the views revealed or suggested, the contrasts of architectural style and material, of sculptured stone against satin-smooth metal and glass, the visible change and continuity of New York’s remarkable skyscraper history; the brilliant accent of the poised Noguchi cube–color, size, style, mass, space, light, dark, solids, voids, highs and lows–are all just right. These few blocks provide (why equivocate?) one of the most magnificent examples of 20th-century urbanism anywhere in the world.”

Well! Someone should tell that to the people you see scampering across Broadway in the photo.

I’ve always found part of the magic of this space is in the way the massive building gracefully meets the ground. You can stand right next to it and feel as if you’re standing beside a familiar house. You don’t feel dwarfed by opressive, discomforting, massive scale, as you so often do standing at the base of such a large building. Of course the Noguchi sculpture is is essential to making this space work. I may be over reaching a little, but I think I could make a case for calling this a garden. (I’ve read that the sculpture and its position within this space was greatly influenced by Noguchi’s experience designing gardens in the preceding decades; there’s probably another blog post to be done on that subject.)

After lunch I headed back uptown (though 19th Street is not really uptown), and took this shot looking up Park Avenue in front of my building.

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It may say MetLife but to me it will always be the Pan Am Building. You can see a blurry Grand Central Terminal at its base.

After work I went to the third in a series of free lectures on ecological urbanism. They’re being held at The Cooper-Union.  Parking becomes legal at 6 p.m. on the Bowery, so I drove down (only a few blocks from work) and waited in the car until I was legal, then walked to The Cooper-Union.

The Bowery is a very old street, originally going back to a Lenape Indian path running the length of Manhattan Island. This is a view up the Bowery and 4th Avenue looking toward the Empire State Building, now in its St. Patrick’s Day regalia.

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When the Dutch ruled New York, Peter Stuyvesant had a farm (Bowerij) right here, where he retired in 1667, just before the British took control of the city. Here is a quotation from Wikipedia that gives you some feeling for how things have changed in this part of Manhattan.

“In her Journal of 1704–1705, Sarah Kemble Knight describes the Bowery as a leisure destination for residents of New York City in December:

Their Diversions in the Winter is Riding Sleys about three or four Miles out of Town, where they have Houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery, and some go to friends Houses who handsomely treat them. [...] I believe we mett 50 or 60 slays that day—they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’le turn out of the path for none except a Loaden Cart. Nor do they spare for any diversion the place affords, and sociable to a degree, they’r Tables being as free to their Naybours as to themselves.”

So, though I didn’t see any actual gardens on my trek, I did visit a notable park, a “conceptual” park at the plaza with the Noguchi Red Cube and the Bunshaft building, and a farm, or what was once a farm about 350 years ago.

And I ended the day with a lecture on a new field of study, ecological urbanism, that may help us make more sustainable, liveable cities in the world of the 21st century. I’ll should add that the lecture was held in The Great Hall, where Abraham Lincoln spoke as he was beginning his campaign for a second term as President. (Just about every famous person in American history has spoken in The Great Hall.)

It appears my winter walk-off turned out to be quite a day.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Les February 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm

When we were last in Union Square we stumbled upon Gandhi surrounded by some of the market vendors unused cardboard boxes. It was kind of surprise to see him there, especially in such an undignified way. There were a few other familiars there, Washington of course, though most Virginians seem to lean more to Jefferson, and the Marquis who is honored here with his name on the river that surrounds my neighborhood.

Thanks for participating in my little challenge, especially since you have diversified the Walk-Off gene pool so. I always love a trip to New York, even if only in pictures.

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James Golden February 28, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Yes, unfortunately anything maintained by the city’s parks department is likely to be in ragged shape. It seems only “public/private partnerships” or special conservancies that have fund-raising clout can maintain parks in good condition. Thus the High Line and Central Park, among a few others, are usually well maintained. Every state seems to have at least one Lafayette something or other. My family lives in Oxford, Miss., in Lafayette (pronounced “luh-FAY-ette”) County, or alternatively, Yoknapatawpha County.

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Georgia @ local ecologist April 1, 2013 at 7:11 pm

I enjoyed your post! I live in the Village and am familiar with all the sites you photographed with the exception of the cube garden.

I hope the City (and her residents) will fully fund the Parks Dept. so that all parks in all neighborhoods can be equally beautiful and functionally.

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James Golden April 2, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Glad you did. I don’t think we’ll see any increase in the Parks Department budget. More likely, cuts.

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Ailsa February 28, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Oh, this is a lovely idea and also lovely to be in NYC virtually with you James. I will post tomorrow on mine and you will see the incredible difference in our winter ;c)

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James Golden February 28, 2013 at 10:47 pm

When I started out on a spur-of-the-moment decision I didn’t realize I’d encounter such a grab bag of history and culture. I guess New York’s a pretty neat place, though I still prefer to be in the country at Federal Twist. I imagine your winter is much snowier than ours.

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Helen March 1, 2013 at 7:18 am

Thank you for the walk around New York. I have never been and this was so interesting as it was your view of a city you know rather than what I see on television.

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James Golden March 1, 2013 at 8:14 am

It’s not a typical view of my life now that’s I try to spend as much time as possible in the country. But, in fact, it was a kind of revelation to myself, seeing how wedded I’ve become to life in New York. I guess I’d have to call it a love/hate relationship. I’m glad you enjoyed the visit. The city has really entered a prosperous period in recent years with the building of miles of riverside parks and the growing popularity of the outer boroughs. Brooklyn is not an “in” destination, very popular, and a desirable place to live (I live in Brooklyn).

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Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening March 1, 2013 at 10:08 pm

My parents grew up in Bronx and Brooklyn, but I was a child of the suburbs and have spent my adult life in upstate NY. For over 25 years I have lived “in the sticks,” never really comprehending the environment my parents grew up in. But you have made me see how an urban environment can be familiar, whereas for me it has always been alien. I still don’t think I’d want to live there, but perhaps I’ll visit.

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James Golden March 1, 2013 at 10:53 pm

I came from rural Mississippi, and I loved New York from the first visit. I think you must have lived the experience of parents who “escaped” New York. Not such a bad place. I prefer the country life, but I think I’d miss city life if I couldn’t have it. Come visit.

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Charlie March 2, 2013 at 2:41 am

What an amazing challenge. I have started to take a walk every day with the goal of spending at least 30 minutes to an hour looking at the plantings in a different part of the city. I think that the amazing thing that happens is your start to notice the amazing details that fill our lives and are such a blurr when you zip by. I enjoyed going on your walk, thank you so much for sharing. I found it very interesting.

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James Golden March 2, 2013 at 9:17 am

Yes, a bit of intentional mindfulness helps. Doing Les’s Winter Walk-Off gave me that intentionality, so I looked for connections between what I was and anything related to gardening. It also made me aware that living in New York, you’re also living with the history of the city in a very conscious way, a quite well documented history that makes the past “present.”

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Faisal Grant March 2, 2013 at 4:39 am

This is actually what I like, when gardeners ‘see’ gardens where they’re not expected to be. It’s almost as if anywhere could be a garden, or, moving on a bit, anywhere could be if we work towards it, or use our eyes and hands with greater perception.
It’s interesting that cities ( and a city like New York ) only become habitable, valuable, real – to some of us! – when their connection to nature is apparent.
I loved the tour! I feel I’ve moved along. Thanks James.

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James Golden March 2, 2013 at 9:22 am

Thanks, Faisal. Yes, I can see how this is similar to your “Joseph Cornell” gardens (my way of characterizing them). Mindfulness is so very important to appreciating cities and gardens (and anything else in life).

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Christina March 2, 2013 at 5:21 am

I really enjoyed your walk, I was in New York at New Year, so you reminded me of a happy holiday. One of the things I found so interesting was how all the trains and stations were hidden underground, cities built on islands always seem better at utilising space better than those where urban sprawl can go on forever. People who look and more importantly ‘see’ certainly get more out of their lives. Beauty in small things or surprising things, that’s what makes my day happy. Christina

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James Golden March 2, 2013 at 9:48 am

Christina, I’m inclined to say I envy your life–a life and garden in Italy (what a dream) and visits to New York. Yes, I love that so much of New York is underground. As a result, we had electric power in the city throughout and after hurricane Sandy, while we were without power for two weeks in the country. But it’s immensely expensive. New York has really blossomed in the past couple of decades, with riverfront parks, improving neighborhoods with more and more amenities, a broad improvement in lifestyle–at least among those who can afford it. There is another side to the story, and it’s a complex one.

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Diana Studer March 3, 2013 at 9:49 am

that other side, that complex one would be interesting. What does the area damaged by Sandy look like now? It is no longer newsworthy across the pond, but surely an issue IN New York?

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James Golden March 5, 2013 at 12:11 am

I don’t usually see most of those areas still suffering. My partner, Phil, has his offices at 90 Broad, way downtown where the flooding was bad. They were on an upper floor, but the building’s infrastructure was destroyed. The building is still operating on generator power, and there is still have no telephone service. However, the elevators have been replaced and the plumbing works. Some of the badly damaged residential areas on the beach front are still uninhabitable. But I’m of the opinion residential use should not be allowed in such damage-prone areas. Long-term solutions are still not happening. The cost of flood protection for Manhattan is just unimaginable. And the political climate here doesn’t help. The flow of emergency recovery funds has been very slow because the Republicans don’t like the Northeast.

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Rob (OurFrenchGarden) March 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Cheers for your street view. I’m in amongst the New York traffic James. I miss the buzz of a city sometimes.

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James Golden March 6, 2013 at 2:24 pm

I agree, Rob. I like the pace of the country, but I’d miss the city terribly if I didn’t have access to it. If you ever come to NYC, I hope you’ll let me know so we can meet in the flesh.

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Rob (OurFrenchGarden) March 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Will do.

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