By Joseph Alexiou
Writer and photographer Mitch Waxman is the leading authority on the history of Newtown Creek, a toxically polluted industrial waterway on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. In addition to his reporting and documentation, Waxman leads regular tours on land and by boat while spreading the unique stories of New York’s most centrally located contaminated coastline to the community.
You are considered New York City’s foremost authority on Newtown Creek. What was the journey to becoming an expert on a federal Superfund site?
Famously how I ended up at Newtown is that I got sick with heart “stuff,” and my doctor told me to start running. The quote I always give everyone is that in the part of Brooklyn I’m from, you only run if someone is chasing you. So I walked. I walked around with camera and discovered Newtown Creek and discovered this wild thing in the center New York City.
Reviewed by Kara Murphy Schlichting
What metaphor captures the relationship between the Hudson River, the cities that line its shores, and the people who plie its waters? Is the river a touchstone by which thinkers trace American ideas about nature? Is it an allegory, teaching those humbled in the face of ecological change to repent humanity's role? Is it the exemplar of the declension narrative present in American environmental storytelling? Or is the river more like a battle cry, rallying those committed to environmental activism and resiliency? Hudson Rising, the new exhibit at the New York Historical Society, contends it is all of these things. This deeply researched, thoughtfully presented, and satisfyingly interdisciplinary exhibit introduces the visitor to myriad people who have used and shaped the river, confronted ecological ruin, and turned towards preservation to mitigate degradation.
Hudson Rising, New York Historical Society. March 1 – August 4, 2019.
Reviewed by Leslie Day
In the late nineteenth century, municipal officials and boosters of a regionally-scaled New York City endeavored to reshape the material nature of the cityscape. Debates about the physical nature of the urban fringe demonstrate how the city’s coastal edge was both an ecological system and a cultural and political landscape. The harbor environment included both sides of the high-tide line — riparian land and lands underwater. Developers looked to control the material characteristics of the coast through infrastructure. Landscape architects, engineers, and street commissioners approached the urban edge as a laboratory for regional planning. These city builders focused on regional environmental boundaries in contradistinction to laissez-faire urbanization and development that overlooked the conditions of environment and topography. Parks, channelized rivers, and street systems expanded the urban fabric into rural hinterlands.
Reprinted with permission from New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore, by Kara Murphy Schlichting, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
By Marie Warsh
On November 16, 1966, an unprecedented event took place on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Beginning at midnight, thousands of New Yorkers convened on the park’s largest lawn to watch the Leonid meteor showers, which were expected to be particularly brilliant. Although the crowd was let down — dense cloud cover prevented visibility — the gathering nonetheless offered a convivial atmosphere. Spectators brought chairs, blankets, and hot beverages, and the event became an after-dark picnic, with some marveling at the novel scene. One woman observed, “All these people in the park after midnight, and no one is getting mugged.”
New York’s Parks Commissioner, Thomas Hoving, had conceived of the event, which he’d dubbed the “Heavenly Happening,” and it epitomized his approach to revitalizing Central Park. The event was a direct response to concerns about safety in the park. Incidents of crime began to increase in the late 1950s, and this reality, as well as often ominous or even sensationalized press coverage, contributed to a growing reputation of the Central Park as a “hoodlum haven,” as J. Edgar Hoover declared in 1964.
Cartoon Performance, May 15, 1966. The first happening in Central Park involved the installation of a 105-foot-long canvas across the lawn known as Cedar Hill for the public to paint on. Capturing the open-ended nature of the happening, the press release for the event stated that “The performance will end when the painting is finished, or when it rains, or when it grows too dark to continue.”
Lindsay K. Campbell's City of Forests, City of Farms: Sustainability Planning for New York City’s Nature
By Dianne Durante
The only sculpture originally slated for the Park
In Olmsted and Vaux’s Greensward Plan, the only sculpture was one atop the fountain at the center of Bethesda Terrace. The commission for the sculpture was given in 1863 to Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), an American-born sculptor working in Rome who happened to be the sister of a member of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park.
Stebbins’s eight-foot-tall fountain figure is an allegory for the life-saving, clean water of the Croton Aqueduct. According to Scripture (John 5:2-4), at Bethesda, near Jerusalem, an angel occasionally came down to stir the waters of a certain pool. The first person to step into the pool afterwards was cured of anything that ailed him. The main figure of Bethesda Fountain is the Angel of the Waters, about to stir. The four-foot-tall putti below her represent Purity, Health, Temperance, and Peace.
This post is an excerpt from the author's new book, Central Park: The Early Years.
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