Alexandra Lange | Essays

What's to Be Done with Governors Island?

I am beginning to see that I have a bit of a parks obsession. This is recent, dating to the birth of my son two years ago. A day with him is a day spent outdoors, three hours in the morning, at least an hour and a half in after nap. He never seems to tire, but I do, unless I keep moving from park to park and playground to playground. I need a change of scenery, animate (the geneology of parents, from the no-eye-contact UES dads to the networking thin-thin DUMBO moms) and inanimate (sand, water or grass). All that standing around makes me appreciate all the quirky new open spaces on the NYC drawing boards, from David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground to the promised “adventure playground” at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6.

Rockwell’s concept is movable pieces, a playground that is made by kids, rather than inhabited by them. Structure, like the metal-and-Trex “castles”, “boats” and so on, is confining to the imagination. He has a good point, but I would also offer Governors Island up as an alternate remedy. There are no objects to play with, but the historic district is a facsimile of a college town emptied of residents. It is a town that needs ideas. Artists have taken over this summer, landscape architects (knock on wood) in the future. Even toddler ideas. I have written about Governors Island twice, once in New York Magazine, and am such an enthusiast that I have scheduled my son’s birthday party there this Sunday. I can do my part by tempting 20 more big/small people onto the eight-minute ferry.

Given my party plans, this week’s New Yorker story on GI, “Useless Beauty”, seemed particularly fortuitously timed. But for me it was a frustrating read. I envied all the real estate Nick Paumgarten was given to delve into the history of the island and indulge in reminiscence with 1940s residents, but he never moved the discussion forward. The subhead was “What is to be done with Governors Island?” and there was no answer. I couldn’t figure out if the piece was supposed to be newsy (the new park plan, held up by spastic Albany), muckraking (loose budgeting by GIPEC), or historical (the first GI resident may have been Dominican!).

What would have been useful is a planning story, a visioning story, talking about what role the island could play in the New New York. Paumgarten alludes to other ideas from the recent and distant past, but doesn’t tell us what any architects except for Vishaan Chakrabarti think. He interviews the charismatic Adriaan Geuze of West 8 and gets only landscape runes. Does he even mention that there can’t be permanent housing? If GIPEC head Leslie Koch is doing a bad job (and I am not sure she is), does anyone have any better ideas? I have long wished that the New Yorker had a feature writer who followed architecture and design and could write visually, because too often their profiles of architects are credulous (see “Winged Victories” on Calatrava, though I loved “Intelligent Design” on Rem Koolhaas). Architects can be their own worst publicists, but there are plenty of interesting futures that could be described. It felt like Paumgarten had nothing to say, and dressed that up in knee-jerk Nieuw Amsterdam garb.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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