Ground Rules

The extent to which restaurants seem essential in any city is a measure of its failure to provide citizens with good places to assemble. That failure, in Manhattan’s case, may explain some of the peak-pandemic reverence for restaurants. But restaurants also show us the way. The best impact on the urban landscape of the long disruption has been the so-called streetery, with which—in a rare instance of civic wisdom—restaurants were able to encroach onto parking spaces. From the elaborate diorama-like versions in the West Village to the basic platforms in less would-be picturesque neighborhoods, these outdoor interventions are an answer to a question Manhattan has been asking for fifty years.

Manhattan goes outdoors

Photograph by David Unger.

Maya Lin, Ghost Forest. Madison Square Park, May 10, 2021–November 14, 2021.
Mimi Lien, The Green. Lincoln Center, May 10, 2021–September, 2021.
Streeteries, 2020–.

There has long been nowhere much to go in Manhattan. The great gridiron was not designed for destinations—only to take you elsewhere. Even in Central Park, the island’s seeming consolation, the paths and trails were intentionally conceived to keep you moving. In the 19th century upper-class horsemen and coach-riders were meant to canter between brief pauses for picturesque views, while lower-class workers on their sabbath were subtly encouraged by the landscape to keep it moving, lest idle hands do their usual work. Today, the Great Lawn is reliably fenced off. To the north and south of the park, which isn’t especially central to the island, there is no great constellation of embankments or piazzas or other public offerings of the kind that make parts of so many other cities so inhabitable.

Instead the borough offers defeated typologies, along with the occasional diamond in the rough. In midtown, ghastly windswept plazas. Downtown, the token privately-owned-public-space micro-parks—pathetic ground-level zoning concessions in service of building taller towers above. Between the island’s peripheral highways and its rivers are miles-long strips of lawn—lately much adorned with amenities as the riverbanks become backdrops for luxury development, but still narrow and traffic-fumed, hemmed in by the FDR and the West Side Highway. Furthest uptown, Marcus Garvey and Fort Tryon Parks were concessions by the gridiron to particularly impervious outcrops of bedrock, later imperfectly reverse-engineered to serve citizens.

Riverside Park and Morningside Park—Robert Moses’s first great love and Frederick Law Olmsted’s miniature palisade, respectively—are flawed gems, the latter especially complicated by its historic effect of steeply segregating the Heights from Harlem. The legendary Washington Square Park—once an elegant and radically accommodating sunken plaza, a 1970 triumph of modern community-driven design catalyzed by activist playwright Robert Nichols—was desecrated in 2014 by a prim faux-Victorian update. The city’s greatest surviving modern masterpiece of landscape design is nearby—Sasaki Walker & Associates’ 1959 Washington Square Village Park—but its under-the-radar survival must have something to do with the fact that it’s a secret garden.

Chelsea’s High Line Park, a popular success and a contemporary near-masterpiece, has achieved instant karma. Over the past decade, as a consequence of the zoning arrangements that were part of its development, landscape architect James Corner and architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s artful reconstruction of a formerly re-wilded elevated railway viaduct has increasingly become a glass canyon. Its escarpments are some of the cheesiest skyscrapers ever wrought, styled by such billionaire-whisperers as Bjarke Engels and Thomas Heatherwick. If the High Line used to be all about the journey and not the destination, its northern terminus is now Hudson Yards, a superhumanly scaled symptom of financialization that felt obsolete long before the pandemic—with its stairway-to-heaven folly at its icy heart. That last destination, designed with only just-above-waist-high barriers even up at 150 feet, was closed this January after three jumper suicides. It reopened in advance of Memorial Day weekend with new behavioral restrictions asserted to ameliorate melancholy and impulsivity: solo visitors forbidden and admission, formerly timed but free, now coming at ten dollars a ticket.

But even Manhattan’s less deadly local parks and commons aren’t always welcoming places. Designed in a willful dream of perpetual spring or of autumn in New York, they are increasingly inappropriate for our brutal anthropocene winters and summers. Even pedestrianized asphalt streets re-radiate heat back up at you. Even officially sanctioned parkland barbecuing gets policed by vigilantes.

Maybe for this reason, so much of Manhattan’s history is written in bars and nightclubs—and especially in restaurants that feel a little like bars and nightclubs. If your apartment is too small and familiar to have people over, and your parks and commons are threadbare and inhospitable by incompetence or intent, you go out to restaurants. Here you find public privacy and urbane intimacy.

The extent to which restaurants seem essential in any city is a measure of its failure to provide citizens with good places to assemble. That failure, in Manhattan’s case, may explain some of the peak-pandemic reverence for restaurants. But restaurants also show us the way. The best impact on the urban landscape of the long disruption has been the so-called streetery, with which—in a rare instance of civic wisdom—restaurants were able to encroach onto parking spaces. From the elaborate diorama-like versions in the West Village to the basic platforms in less would-be picturesque neighborhoods, these outdoor interventions are an answer to a question Manhattan has been asking for fifty years.

If conserved, the streetery might become a moral equivalent of Manhattan’s greatest public space: the stoop. Repeated all along side streets from the Village to the Upper West Side to Harlem, these outdoor building entrance steps are why such neighborhoods are as humane as they manage to be. They provide a human-scaled agora and amphitheater in which to see and be seen, an appealing in-between, in a streetscape that generally lacks the articulations of an integrated private and public life: arcades, cascades of steps, non-retail street-level living.

The catch is obvious: streeteries are not really public space, because you have to pay. But the radically temporary is the true critique of the seemingly permanent. Like bike lanes and food trucks and the occasional artisanal parking-space installation before them, streeteries play in the street where they belong, and reduce vehicular traffic. (The plywood of the streetery is also the perfect rebuke to the unnecessary plywood that dominated so many of Manhattan’s retail corridors in the summer of 2020, in sour anticipation of mayhem that never came.) With such measures, Manhattan can affirm a new and self-fulfilling self-respect as a place to dwell. Just as the temporary pedestrianization of certain blocks under the city’s Open Streets program has recently been made permanent, not one of the parking spaces given over to streeteries should be returned to the stupefying accommodation of the pocket of dead space inside a parked car. A complex cross-section for any street, from fire escapes and window-boxes across to planted medians, along the broadest possible sidewalks: this is the best formula for a public commons in Manhattan. It’s a setup that doesn’t even require skillful design.

As far as I can apprehend it, Manhattan’s mood on the street is one of shrill exuberance. Masks off, guards up. Despite—or because of—an ocean of ambiguous, civically abdicated grief; despite what will have been a genocidally scaled loss of life around the country and the world; despite the incompetence and malevolence responsible for the preponderance of that loss; despite the ongoing horror in India, Brazil, and elsewhere in the global south—despite all this, the weather and the mRNA vaccines and the sudden abeyance of government advisories on mask-wearing and social distancing have drawn everyone outside. In these brief and precious weeks before the white-skied humidity and piss-puddle torpor of a holocene city summer settles in through September, Manhattanites seem ready for things to be benign. They are ready to repress horror. They are good to go.

But go where? You can’t sit in a restaurant, even a streetery, forever—especially not in summertime. What kind of urban green spaces do people want, after their long winter? How do Manhattanites propose to occupy the parks and greens they have? What hopes and habits have been reinforced by confinement and interruption, and what hopes and habits changed? Two temporary installations, from different angles and with different intentions, suggest answers.

The first of these is Ghost Forest, in which forty-nine dead trees are now planted, as if alive, in the small meadow at top end of Madison Square Park, across some sandy gravel from the Shake Shack. The trees—tall Atlantic white pines, slender and spiky—were destroyed by the salinization of groundwater in their native New Jersey Pine Barrens, a process accelerated by the climate emergency. This part of the park is often fenced off behind one of those temporary-looking but effectively permanent wire barriers that blight so many city parks; but now, to access the art, there’s a small official opening at the southern tip of the fencing. The trees will be there through November.

Their effect on a recent spring weekday was glorious: the artful arrangement of the tree trunks, like carefully constellated stars, enabled visitors to settle in and sit on the ground in a far more intricate and intimate way than usual, with their backs leaning against the sun-warmed dead wood. The cool grass was full of people lounging and loafing, drinking and eating, kissing and sleeping. By modeling artful arrangement in space and implying overlapping penumbras of turf and territory, the trees made for a glade somehow far more accommodating than an empty meadow. I have never seen that park so voluptuously occupied. By that measure, the work is a radical success.

Among the lush canopies of the two hundred living trees in the park, down in the dappled light traduced through them, the dead treetops are easy to miss. Or worse: decades of Dutch Elm Disease and other anthropocene blights have accustomed and blinded us to dead and near-dead trees. We look past them. Or maybe it’s easy to choose to believe that these trees are not dead, but, through some kind of summery winter, just sleeping. A sign explains that white pines used to create half a million acres of complex habitat along the east coast; we’re down to a tenth of that. The sign notes further that a thousand trees and shrubs are to be planted across the five boroughs to offset the carbon gassed into the atmosphere by the act of shipping and installing these forty-nine dead trees. The sign’s reader might think: why not just plant those thousand trees? And then, with the money saved by not carefully installing these forty-nine artifacts into Madison Square Park, plant another thousand? And then plant another 100,000? Why undertake any offset-requiring action at all?

To make us think about climate change, comes the answer. And yet: what are we being made to think? That someone has thought about climate change enough to plant forty-nine dead trees—in order to make us think about climate change? To make us think that the Madison Square Park Conservancy has thought about it? To make us think that somebody else—anybody else—is doing the thinking about it? To momentarily spare us that duty—at least long enough to lean and loaf at our ease? So that we might return refreshed to the cause? Or never return? It’s the standard question to be asked of all memorials: are you there so I must remember, or are you there so that I can forget? As an artifact of the present, Ghost Forest can be experienced as a memorial to the dead of a war that has yet to be lost or won or even seriously fought at all. Or, more soberingly, already irretrievably lost before we ever got around to declaring it. In which case, here—too late, too soon—is public art on the subject.

The designer of Ghost Forest is Maya Lin, the artist-architect who at the prodigal age of 21, back in 1982, authored the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC: the polished and abstracted cut into the ground, cauterized in shimmering black granite from India; the laconic chronology of the names of the dead; the gentle yet relentless slope that takes you down and brings you back up. That was probably the very finest memorial possible at that time and place. Now, once the shock of its abstraction and its seeming counter-monumentality has been assimilated, what remains is elegance. The dead trees on their little meadow, too, are elegant—the setup recalls, and could conceivably have been inspired by, the sight of bright green nutrient-infused grasses emerging under scorched trees after a wildfire sweeps through a Western landscape, of the kind to be found on the acreage outside of Ridgeway, Colorado where Lin sometimes resides. Yet the green grass of Madison Square Park, such as it was, was there already; the biodiversity of the soil below won’t be enriched over the years by the on-site biomass decay of those forty-nine dead trees, but likely diminished by their mechanical removal this coming fall.

Nothing here is exactly sprouting back to life. The skinny luxury residential skyscrapers now shooting up around Madison Square Park recall the new supertall apartment towers of Billionaire’s Row on 57th Street—as stupefyingly vacant and obstinate as the interior of a parked car on a city street, constituting their own kind of ghost forest.

Thirty blocks up Broadway from Ghost Forest is The GREEN, a 14,000–square foot installation at Lincoln Center’s paved central plaza. Configured by the acclaimed set designer Mimi Lien for Lincoln Center’s Restart Stages program, The GREEN is a counterpoint of sorts to Madison Square Park’s dead trees. Like those trees, it will be up through the fall.

The GREEN looks something like a skate park that’s grown a lawn. Behind a score of cement terrorist-truck barriers, two curved walls rise along the north and south edges of the plaza like the sides of a cyclorama. Seen from within the installation, these plywood-backed walls visually edit out most of the two theater facades to the north and south of the plaza, framing the canopies of some Broadway street trees that provide a borrowed landscape. Toward the flat middle of The GREEN, around the existing fountain, are three large barrel-vaulted arches. One has a branch of an empanada chain in it. One is upturned, suggesting a stage. The third features a box of free books from the New York Library for the Performing Arts. There are small blobby chairs—also, as if growing out of the earth, coated seamlessly with grass.

Here, unlike those forty-nine trees, the grass is not dead, because it was never alive. Or rather, it was briefly alive 300 million years ago—it’s made with nylon, a thermoplastic product that consists, as DuPont originally and accurately sold the material, of “coal, air, and water.” According to marketing language by the company that manufactured this particular artificial turf, the undead grass uses “fewer petroleum-based polymers” because of

an exclusive Enviroloc Backing System that replaces up to 60 percent of petroleum-based polymers with plant-based materials such as soybean oil and sugarcane. Using renewable resources during the manufacturing process allows for our products to be 100 percent recyclable at the end of their life cycle . . . This system includes two woven layers with a polypropylene fiber layer in the middle and serves as the primary backing for our synthetic grass products. Combined, our unique system of layers . . . work to conserve Earth’s natural resources.

About 10 percent of all the recyclable plastic manufactured between 1960 and 2020 has been recycled. Most of the rest goes to landfills and oceans. Because of material degradation, plastic can be usefully recycled only once or twice, not in perpetuity. An emerging consensus on polymers like those in astroturf is that their physical recycling requires an incommensurate expenditure of capital, energy and carbon, so the best practice is not to participate in their use in the first place. Or conversely, to prolong the use of any already-manufactured polymer product for as long as possible—through reuse not recycling—in order to maximize the utility of its already lost costs. Nylon fibers deteriorate after about fifty years. But—unlike those of, say, sisal or bamboo or jute from which a verdant-colored lawn-like carpet might also be made—they don’t biodegrade into the elements from whence they came. So a five-month installation like The GREEN might come with a covenantal plan for how to further use its deathless material over the subsequent five decades. Although it’s hard to know the supply chain and geographical source of any supplemental plant fibers that may be woven into any particular patch of synthetic turf, the extractive environmental and labor histories of monoculture soybean and sugarcane farming suggest that these materials’ presence in any built environment may not represent an unalloyed good.

The GREEN was packed when I saw it on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in May—a couple hundred people crowded into those 14,000 square feet. Meanwhile, the beautiful additional sunlit plaza forty feet to the north on the Lincoln Center campus—featuring a rippling 1,000-square-foot reflecting pool, a lambent glade of plane trees over a cool sandy parterre, and a numinous 1963 Henry Moore sculpture in green-patinated bronze—was entirely empty. At the opening of The GREEN, Gothamist interviewed several charmed visitors. One dazzled respondent, trying it seems to communicate how bright and vivid it all seemed to him, said, “It feels like you’re in virtual reality. Like you’re in a video game.” When I read that, I thought of Walt Whitman: You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead. The atmosphere is not a perfume.

It is certainly possible to prefer the visibly artificial simulation to the unmediated natural and built environment. “Nothing in nature can be campy,” goes Susan Sontag’s famous essay, written contemporaneously with the original construction of Lincoln Center, “and most campy objects are urban. (Yet, they often have a serenity—or a naiveté—which is the equivalent of pastoral. A great deal of Camp suggests [the] phrase, ‘urban pastoral.’)” But for all the seeming serenity, or the forceful naiveté, of The GREEN’s urban pastoral, its atmosphere felt muted in contrast to the charge under Ghost Forest. For all the glory of the day and the liberty of the outdoors, at least during my visit the Manhattanites on The GREEN deployed something of the steely let’s-all-look-past-each-other behavior that arises in an increasingly crowded subway car. Those having the most fun were the small children clambering up the swoop of the bounding walls—figuring out how to use the texture of the fake grass to climb, and then use its uncanny slickness to slide down supine, like seals off an ice floe.

To those of a certain age, this landscape will recall the acid-adjacent splendor of the Tubbytronic Superdome, the low astroturf hill inhabited by the Teletubbies. The strange comfort of the eponymous BBC children’s show was in its insistent repetitions: same trip every episode. At their heart, successful public spaces would seem to be the opposite of successful stage sets. The latter must generally choreograph a meticulous and replicable interplay between person and place—with the design even dictating, as a script or code might, the one-to-one correspondences between the nouns and verbs of a venue: this is for sitting, this is for standing, this is for lying down. Whereas the public built environment, at its very best, does the opposite: leaving room for discovery and disruption between the architectural object and its subject, between location and occupation—the environment designed to catalyze its own transgression.

“The lawn,” Diller Scofidio + Renfro once theorized, is “a benign platform of controlled domestic growth and a sinister surface of repressed horror.” In all their best work, they have found the strange in the familiar and the repulsive in the attractive. Although the firm became more famous for the High Line, their defining masterpiece to date is their 2000–2010 renovation of Lincoln Center. This work preserved the severe and fastidious elegance of the old modern complex, while adding surreal, subversive details that caused the whole thing to feel like a glitch in its own matrix. By changing everything, they made the place more itself—for example by enlarging the iconic fountain but making its computer-programmed watery behavior much weirder, or by keeping the few broad entry steps up to the plaza but drawing them out to almost awkward depth—a strategy of delay and anticipation—and installing ostensibly useful electric signage across their risers, and so an uncanny flickering underfoot. They brought their fascination with the lawn to the 7,000-square-foot planted roof, a potato-chip-like hyperbola topping a pavilion by the Moore-adorned reflecting pool in Lincoln Center’s northern plaza and dipping down to a grade-level entrance from which to be climbed. It features real grass.

There is everything playful about Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s great grassy roof, but nothing infantilizing. Although it has carefully considered safety features like tall and doubled-up perimeter railings, and subtle helpful steps at its steepest slope, it is also a demanding environment that has the gratifying feel of being just dangerous enough. If I ever lost my sense of balance, I would love to relearn it there. But it looks scarier than it is. Maybe this appearance has caused some pessimistic liability consultant to determine that this green roof, like the meadow in Madison Square Park or Central Park’s Great Lawn, should remain so often fenced off. But the answer to a big danger is a little danger: that kind of inoculation was the guiding principle of the Adventure Playground movement, a radical and sublime postwar Danish and British approach to non-condescending design for children in the urban environment. The movement learned from how those children were already playing in bomb craters and with shrapnel, already engaging with the material mechanisms of their trauma. This was the very same brave and unsentimental cultural scene that gave us Great Britain’s greatest contribution to the history of architecture, Brutalism—an architecture that, though beautiful and humane in a way now unfamiliar, never lied to you, never told you that life was cuter than it is. Although building as lavishly in concrete as the Brutalists did is no longer an especially environmentally responsible option, we can cherish that enduring work and dwell deeper into it as a gift from another time.

My hope is that a year of new horror and enforced domestic bliss will make people ask more from the great urban outdoors to which they now try to return. My fear is that, having been so deprived, people will settle for less. Manhattanites have long been strangely willing to sit on a sidewalk restaurant table whose view is not the Piazza Navona but the onramp to the Holland Tunnel. This willingness is evidence not of diminished expectations but of a necessary skill for finding beauty in places that aren’t pretty. Another way of saying that there is nowhere to go out to in Manhattan is to say that there is everywhere to go.

A grid, in its centerlessness and edgelessness, is an inadvertently democratic artifact: its heart and head are nowhere and anywhere, waiting to be found and made. Some American cities were designed, even in their original geometry, to beguile and portend, with a built-in hierarchy of destinations and ways to arrive. But the Manhattan gridiron was designed only to ensure orderly land sales—and, back when epidemics were blamed on miasmas of stagnant air, to allow for unobstructed river-to-river winds. (There was a smallish military parade ground in the 1810 design, but the great park wasn’t conceived until a half century later.) Since then, the urban project of Manhattanites has been to creatively occupy that cartesian artifact. What’s now at stake is that in our eager new willingness to be comforted and diverted, we may lose this skill: may expect the real world to be as relentlessly soothing and as calculatedly stimulating, as filter-enhanced, as the representations that we experienced for a year locked down and looking at screens. Acclimated to the coercive navigation provided by software, even in spatial and corporeal life we may, by this expectation, be made ever more the willing subjects, ever more the prey, of those who seek our compliance, our currency, and our complicity.

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