Friday, January 16, 2015

Don't take our parks for granted

I'm reading the classic Pulitzer-Prize-winner The Power Broker, a history of New York City as seen through the biography of Robert Moses. Moses was the most important figure in the city's 20th-century history, having built much of the infrastructure of the city (and Long Island, and elsewhere) that we use today - for better or for worse. His legacy is a fascinatingly mixed bag, and that includes some serious caveats with his masterpiece, Riverside Park. But on the whole, it's easy to appreciate how far New York's parks have come. Here's a passage describing Riverside in 1914:

Sometimes, of course, Moses would tell the cab driver to take him straight home. But often he would ask to be dropped off across the West Side, on Riverside Drive, at the end of Seventy-sixth Street near the Hudson River. And as he climbed out of the cab there, he climbed out into a scene far different than the doormanned serenity of Central Park West.
He would be standing on the high bluff that was Riverside Drive, behind him, if he looked up, stately apartment houses would appear to be swaying over him against a backdrop of moving clouds. But he would be looking down. Below him, along the edge of the river, was a wasteland, a wasteland six miles long, stretching from where he stood all the way north to 181st Street. The wasteland was named Riverside Park, but the "park" was nothing but a vast low-lying mass of dirt and mud. Running through its length was the four-track bed of the New York Central, which lay in a right-of-way that had been turned over to the railroad by the city half a century before. Unpainted, rusting, jagged wire fences along the tracks barred the city from its waterfront; in the whole six miles, there were exactly three bridges on which the tracks could be crossed, and they led only to private boating clubs.
The engines that pulled trains along the tracks burned coal or oil; from their smokestacks a dense black smog rose toward the apartment houses, coating windowsills with grit. The smog had an acrid odor, but people who lived in the apartments hardly noticed it; it was scarecely worth mentioning alongside the stench that seemed to hang over Riverside Drive endlessly after each passage of a train carrying south to the slaughterhouses in downtown Manhattan carload after carload of cattle and pigs. When, despite the smell, Riverside Drive residents were driven by the heat to open their windows, they were kept awake at night by the clank of the couplings which hooked the cars together.
Walking in the park was an adventure; the walker sank at intervals into the landfill of which it had been constructed, for water has eaten away much of the fill from below. In many spots, it had broken through the crust of the fill to form little lakes. Every year the park grew smaller, as its edge crumbled into the river.
Areas that were still solid had been appropriated by the railroad for wood-lined pits in which coal was piled. Lying along the river were heaps of rotting timbers, stored years before by some city department and forgotten. At Seventy-ninth and Ninety-sixth streets, untreated garbage mounded toward the sky; the Sanitation Department used those areas as dumping grounds from which the garabage was transferred to scows which towed it out to the open sea, but somehow the rate of transfer was never fast enough to clear the refuse away entirely. Other solid spots held human refuse: derelicts who had built tar-paper shanty towns considered so dangerous that the police stayed away from them. At night, the open fires over which the derelicts cooked flickered in the darkness below the Drive.
Looking south, Moses could see the bluff sink and the park narrow until both disappeared, and houses, factories and warehouses crowded close to the waterfront. The railroad tracks wended their way between the buildings, making several sharp curves, and then emerged on Eleventh Avenue, along which, at street level, trains inched their way in a straight line down to the foot of the island. In front of every train, to warn away pedestrians and drivers, rode a cowboy on a horse, waving a large red flag. Since the trains came at frequent intervals and moved extremely slowly along the avenue, traffic was frequently backed up for blocks. Often, a driver would become impatient and ignore the warning flag. For that reason, Eleventh had become known as "Death Avenue." For years, the city had tried without success to find a solution to the problem posed by the presence of the railroad along the West Side.

The passage particularly struck me because I've been planning a sketch meetup to sketch the park soon. For those who don't know, here's what that exact spot described above looks like today, as seen from Google Streetview: