Experiences: a Commentary on Art, Space and Humanity

Taking a walk in New York City is like embarking on an exciting adventure.  Walking down 5th Avenue is an experience of opulence and encounters with posh storefronts that have tantalizing, out of reach products.  Lavishly decorated windows at Christmas time sport gifts that few can afford but that anyone can admire.  Times Square yields a bright, exciting and fast-paced affair with the Theatre District.  Hell’s Kitchen, once a depressed Irish enclave has been reborn as a thriving, upbeat region full of actors.  New York City has a reputation as a melting pot for a reason.  A walk through each neighborhood or district will make that evident.  So too can a walk through a neighborhood change one’s view or preconception of that area.  In a fragment of the concluding sentence in Rebecca Solnit’s essay “The Shape of a Walk,” she claims, “walking reshapes the world by mapping it, treading paths into it, encountering it; the way each act reflects and reinvents the culture in which it takes place” (Solnit).  Not only does a walk map and reshape the world, it maps and reshapes who we are as people and the way we interact with the places we visit—with the places we walk through.  Such was my experience with Alphabet City.

Many New Yorkers and tourists alike think of Alphabet City as sort of an “East Village Underground.”  To me, it is an enclave of starving artists, a modern day Bohemia and, of course, the almost iconic setting of the musical, RENT.  This is a place that has seen riots, protests, extreme poverty and gentrification.  But the artistic spirit of Alphabet City lives on anyway.  The Life Café has become not only a restaurant, but also a near shrine to Jonathan Larson and the musical he wrote.  At night, one can still see the neighborhood’s young, hip residents embracing life in a way that would make the dramatis personae of RENT proud: smoking outside of bars, dancing on light poles and smiling as their friends make fools of themselves. 

This sketchy, yet lively Bohemia is home to Tompkins Square Park, a park similarly as beautiful as Washington Square Park or Union Square Park; yet subtle differences remain that cause fewer people to actually venture and make a visit.  Washington Square Park is an ornate, grand, almost European commons in the middle of Greenwich Village.  It is a place where college students come to relax and where drug dealers come to sell their product.  Union Square Park is similar.  It too, is very centralized, very open and very accessible.  Tompkins Square Park, by contrast lies on the threshold of Alphabet City and has far fewer ornaments to beautify its space. 

Central Park probably shares the most similarities with Tompkins Square Park.  It is closed off from the rest of the neighborhood.  High rock walls line the borders of the park, making it a secluded sanctuary for all who wish to escape the busy pace of New York City.  Tompkins Square Park ties together the East Village and Alphabet City, but is also outlined on many sides with fences and gates that make entrance to the park all the more difficult.  A series of gated playgrounds and basketball courts on the outer edges of the park prohibit immediate admission into the park as well.  Central Park brings together east and west and is broken up into several different sections.  As was the vision of Central Park’s architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, Central Park combines the “pastoral and the picturesque” (Olmstead).  Tompkins Square Park is split up into sections of playgrounds, basketball courts, and open spaces with benches.  It combines the stereotypically urban—the unkempt basketball courts with graffiti and trash—and the more posh, newly renovated and secure playgrounds.  Tompkins Square Park—where dogs and children play by day, and where the homeless sleep and muggers creep by night—truly serves as a mixture of the East Village and Alphabet City.

In 1863, just a few days after the Union won the Battle of Gettysburg, New York City erupted with the largest civil rebellion in American history—aside from the Civil War, of course.  Able-bodied men, who could not afford the 300-dollar Commutation Fee to escape the draft, rose up against the establishment to protest the injustice of the system.  This bloody conflict left over 200 civilians dead.  Tompkins Square Park served as a main stage for this particular riot, which seems to mark only the beginning of a long history of tensions between the establishment and the residents of the Tompkins Square Area.  Robert Moses redesigned and renovated the park in 1936.  It is said that the intention behind the new layout was to divide and manage crowds protesting in the park.  People could not stand together in one big open space and were literally separated from joining in public protest, simply because of the park’s design.  This was not, however, the last of Robert Moses’ designs to disrupt the public.

In 1939, Moses took a public dumping ground in Queens, flattened it out, and created the behemoth that is Flushing Meadows Corona Park.  Originally created and designed for the 1939/1940 World’s Fair, this park is the second largest in New York City.  In her essay, “Design and Discipline: the Legend of an Urban Park,” Blagovesta Momchedjikova discusses her own experiences and observations when visiting the park.  She describes the contrast between what would have been a bustling area during the World’s Fair and the present-day park—a vacant lonely space.  Momchedjikova observes that, despite the vast public space that the residents of this area have been “given,” they do not use it.  Instead, they relax and play in the “no-man’s land” on the outskirts of the park.  The residents explained to Momchedjikova that the “official” park was not what they wanted.  She states that, “what they were all longing for was a neighborhood park for daily use: small, located in the midst of their communities, easily accessible on foot, equipped with benches, picnic tables, a children’s playground, and a small, multi-purpose field” (Momchedjikova).  The periphery of the park provided those exact things for each individual community in the park’s constituency.  The juxtaposition between the public and the design of an urban park is as pertinent with Flushing Meadows Corona Park as it is with Tompkins Square Park.

When examining the history of both of Robert Moses’s parks, his designs seem to leave the community—the public—out.  This is a stark difference from Olmstead’s intention behind Central Park, which was designed as an escape for the people of New York City that they did not have before.  Flushing Meadows Corona Park was designed for the World’s Fair and only the World’s Fair.  Moses did not take the public’s wants or needs into consideration.  If he had, the World’s Fair grounds would have been more temporary and a series of smaller, more accessible parks would have taken their place.  In “Design and Discipline,” Momchedjikova exclaims, “In his miniaturized metropolis—testimony to his sweepingly destructive, ‘flattening’ gestures through numerous vibrant city communities, where the Park is one of many public places—we see Moses’ ultimate solution for an ideal city: the one devoid of any public” (Momchedjikova).  Perhaps this was his solution for Alphabet City as well: separate the people and take away their collective voice, and what is left is a complacent, silent space devoid of life.

The people to whom Tompkins Square Park was beloved fought back, however, and defied the design of Moses’ partitioned park.  Vietnam War protests became ever present as the war itself became less popular.  The 1980s brought yet another change in the protestant nature of Tompkins Square Park.  As times got tougher for New York City’s downtrodden, the park became an emblem of the social problems plaguing the Big Apple: rampant drug usage and dealing as well as widespread homelessness.  Riots and crimes took place all too often, leading to increasing gentrification in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.  The New Yorker’s experience in and with Tompkins Square Park has changed drastically over the nearly two centuries since the park’s dedication.

The human experience when encountering art is a changing one—with time, with people as a whole, and with a person as an individual—just as a person’s experience with a public place can change him or her.  In his essay “How Does a Work Work Where?” Matthew Goulish poses three questions (named in the title) and attempts to give art a definition based on its surroundings and how it interacts with those surroundings.  His primary concern is to change the reader’s perspective of art. 

He describes his experience viewing The Conversion of St. Paul as a “series of events” rather than as looking at a painting.  He suggests that art is a transcendent entity or experience.  Goulish goes on to claim, in his fourth question, that works of art are dependent upon human beings.  He says that, “work is an event in which the human participates,” (Goulish, How Does a Work Work Where?) He notes that human interaction is necessary for art and for work to work—for it to connect with people. 

Human interaction, with each other, with art and with the world around us is based on ourselves as individuals and nothing else.  It is up to us as human beings to relate with the world, and with art, with humility.  It is our duty to trust that beauty can be found anywhere—it is up to us to allow it to enter our minds and our hearts.  Another essay by Goulish, “Criticism” discusses the critic’s or just the regular person’s interaction with art.  Goulish argues that, “We may then look to each work of art not for its faults and shortcomings, but for its moments of exhilaration, in an effort to bring our own imperfections into sympathetic vibration with these moments, and thus effect a creative change in ourselves.” (Goulish, Criticism).  He claims that a piece of art is finite when we view it and that there is nothing we can do to change it, no matter how much we may dislike it.  Instead of chastising art then, according to Goulish, it may behoove us as viewers to allow the art to pour over us as a wave of beauty and influence.  In both of these essays, Goulish implies that art is an experience—one that is contingent upon human interaction with the piece itself.

Goulish’s notions about art and the human experience with art are applicable to Tompkins Square Park, both in history and today.  Visiting this place is all about the experience—not the statues or the beautiful gardening that have been put there to make the park look less threatening, but the events that occur there—from the riots to the children playing.  One can go to the park at night expecting to visit a shady area with no redeeming qualities, but may soon change his or her opinion, as might someone going into the park with the opposite preconception. 

The Tompkins Square Park basketball court on 10th St and Avenue A is empty—almost dead—in the middle of the night.  I feel fenced in, like I’m in a cage, which sort of befits the setting.  Two trashcans are situated in the middle of the court.  One is empty and overturned while the other stands tall, overflowing with garbage.  It seems to be an odd metaphor.  The overflowing, upright trashcan is suggestive of the stuffed, wealthy people that one wouldn’t normally find in Alphabet City.  The empty one on its side however, is eerily appropriate.

Two Israelis, speaking Hebrew, walk into the park with their dogs.  I strain to listen and to see if I can decipher some of their conversation but my skills are no match for their rapid Hebraic tongues.  Their dogs are big.  One, probably a mastiff, is black, has an intimidating stare and is—lazy.  While the other, leaner dog jumps around chasing after tennis balls, the maybe-mastiff just sits there, keeping a watchful, protective eye over the park—and on me.

A giant stone statue resembling an altar looms above the center of the park.  A lady, unrecognizable to me, sits atop the pillars.  She looks angelic and watchful.  The words “faith”, “hope”, “charity”, and “temperance” adorn the top of the altar—it looks as if Glenn Beck had commissioned this statue, but the year reads 1891.  Perhaps she is meant to be a guardian of the park: watching over the children at play or the people braving the park at night. 

Two rats scurry by.  One comes way too close for comfort.  This isn’t exactly the type of place I want to be in at night.

The park is expectedly busier in the morning.  Mothers and nannies play with their children in the playgrounds closed off to unaccompanied adults.  A chorus of mothers warning, “be careful,” is drowned out by their children’s squeals of joy.   Joggers hurry through the park, speeding past the lackadaisical maintenance workers who “try” to keep litter off of the pathways and pavement.  A man who appears to be just above homelessness sits on a bench reading a paper with pictures too big and too colorful to be from the New York Times.  A shock of bright yellow hair adorns his head, complemented further by his facial complexion, which resembles a tomato.  In contrast to the night, everything about the people in this park today seems normal and in place.  People sit and relax, and others amble through, taking in the sights on their way to class or work. 

Wind and a brisk cold grip the morning.  People, bundled in jackets entirely out of place for April, do not let the temperature dampen their spirits.  The sky is painted blue and beyond the intrusive noise coming from the cars and trucks on the surrounding streets, one can hear the flapping of bird’s wings, the rustle of squirrels in the bushes, and the red-faced man sneezing.  It’s a loud sneeze and it sounds painful.  He wipes off his face and bites into something crunchy.  Everything he does can be heard from across the park. 

The man munches on his cracker and peers past the statue where a young father plays with his toddler daughter.  She looks just old enough to have learned to run, but just young enough to not quite be an expert.  She holds her arms out at her sides for balance, nearly tipping over as her turns get sharper and as her speed increases.  She makes a bubbling sort of engine sound with her lips.  If she knows what an airplane is; she probably thinks she is one.  Such is the imagination of a child.  Her father jumps in front of her and makes a face—his eyes open wide and his tongue pops out abruptly as he puts his hands up to his ears.  She giggles and he hugs her.  Maybe this is her first flight alone.  Maybe Daddy usually holds her in his arms before bed and swings her in the air like she’s really flying.    

One could spend an entire morning in this park looking for art and, aside from a few statues, see nothing out of the ordinary.  Even the statues are fairly typical of New York City Parks—a mythological figure here, an obscure American historical figure there.  Could that then be the art?  No, not the statue, but the park’s ordinary nature: the contrast of it all.  By night, a sketchy mugger/rapist hideaway—empty, silent and desolate.  By morning a calm, quietly loud public space where people hum, smoke, walk their dog, try to lure squirrels over for a picture, chat and play with their kids: perfectly normal; perfectly beautiful. 

New York City is, in and of itself, a work of art.  It is a sculpture of skyscrapers that cut a beautiful, jagged horizon into the sky.  It is a mural and a collage of colors with a population more diverse than any other in the nation.  It is a symphony of music, from the street drummers to the New York Philharmonic.  And, it is a living entity adorned with nearly two thousand parks and recreational facilities, from the massive and the iconic, to the small and less familiar.  It is literally impossible to come to this city and not be approached by art.

And thus, the person strolling through Tompkins Square Park should not do so looking for art.  Instead, he or she need only observe the park in the spirit of New York City and in the spirit of Goulish and, “approach it with childhood” (Goulish, Criticism).  Going anywhere with the purpose of looking for art will never produce results.  Instead, we must approach a public space and let the art come to us.  We must walk in the spirit of Solnit and let our surroundings change us and we must embrace our public spaces.  Our public spaces are part of what define the places we live.  If the residents of Alphabet City had not done these things in regards to Tompkins Square Park, it would be exactly like the basketball court at night—dead and voiceless—twenty-four hours a day. 

Works Cited

Goulish, Matthew. “Criticism.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay - Art in the World - The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010-2011. 109-112.

—. How Does a Work Work Where? 2000.

Momchedjikova, Blagovesta. “Design and Discipline: The Legend of an Urban Park.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay - Art in the World - The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010-2011. 223-230.

Olmstead & America’s Urban Parks. Dir. PBS. Perf. Olmstead. PBS. n.d.

Solnit, Rebecca. “The Shape of a Walk.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay - Art in the World - The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010-2011. 261-267.