Tag Archives: New York City

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Plans to erect a quite cartoonish rendering of fifteen-century navigator Christopher Columbus on the banks of the Hudson River not only stripped the Genoese credited with “discovering” America of historical context: it deployed the royal emissary who discovered the continent beside a development constructed by Donald Trump, the property developer who would become United States President. The monumental Columbus–projected to be far larger than any statue in the Western Hemisphere–was less of an image of contact, than a heroic image of the appropriation of the New World, an odd switch in signification from the statue rising in New York harbor, holding a torch celebrating enlightenment by the global advance of Republicanism the French government in 1893, and even upstaging it with an icon of appropriation.

This Columbus, towering and monumental in relation to Manhattan, is an invitation to an exercise in masochism in the idiom of kitsch, a new mass culture of spectacle of colonization that compresses space in global space in its claims to unlimited global authority. The utmost image of the illusion of an independent actor in space, removed from any network of royal funding, international finance, the recycled image cast in Moscow dramatizes the hoary historical myth of imposing control over space single handedly–as if erasing all acknowledgement of human dignity or a colonial context. Its amalgam of global authority and the aesthetics of kitsch that begs for more detailed examination than it has received. Standing now at the edges of American territoriality in Puerto Rico, the monumental statue designed for the quincentenary of Columbus’ first voyage is a marginalized but potent marker of transatlantic exchange.

Cristobal Colon in “The Birth of the New World” Monument in Arecibo (PR)/Lynmaris Chardon

Not bad for a gifted monument. The real estate promoter, who seems to have taken it as a calling card for his own sense of personal majesty, a made-to-order monument that had, in fact, been shopped around already to American Presidents, would be welcomed onto the reclaimed land he had convinced the mayor to rezone as residential, over the objections of Jerry Nadler, not on a column, as the World’s Fair monument built to Columbus in Barcelona in 1888 of 60 meters, or the image of pillar on which Columbus stands in New York, cast in Rome for the Italian American community, hands on hip, seventy feet above the city looking to New York Harbor of 1892 where immigrant streams were arriving, but a monument that would be imposed on the far west side of Manhattan, towering above the Hudson River, hailing the land of which he assumed mastery by virtue of royal authority, an apparently freestanding statue imposing absolute mastery of space on observers.

Of course, he looked as if he had stepped out of a comic strip, as much as a , in keeping with the cartoon-like statues of the Georgian sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, who had already accompanied Boris Yeltsin to Washington, DC to present the statue in miniature to President Bill Clinton, before Trump seems to have been offered this image that must have pleased him much as a monumental compliment on his sense of his own grandeur as a builder, a monument that he imagined might be identified with his name in the future as it dominated the skyline unlike any of the buildings he constructed or enhanced by lending his name, including Trump Tower, as a figure that, in Trump fashion, both transgressed the law and asserted it.

This Columbus was, after all, not only a kitsch figure but a father figure of the nation that Trump was being invited to assimilate to his development. As much as the notion of discovery and world-making was a Renaissance trope and trick in trade, staking claims for the Spanish King within previously uncharted territory, deploying a “Doctrine of Discovery” to justify setting foot in new worlds, the statue announces the victory of a new globalism financier by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers that aspired to total authrity. Its position materialized how the historical Columbus claimed, on October 16, 1492, that indigenous subjects would make good servants as subjects of the throne of Castile, appropriating their identity as a way o taking possession of the island of Haiti where he first disembarked, proclaiming its possession to an audience of few, “by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled.” In stock phrases that vividly cemented unfurling a royal standard to the act of taking possession five renamed five islands–San Salvador, Santa María de Concepción, Ferdinanda and Isabella–as an act of discovery, the statue raising one hand like Augustus over a different island seems a transnational salutation of confident appropriation, unlike any other global monument to Columbus, and far greater in size. The pedestal held a cartoonish map unscrolled at its base, atop which travel miniature ships, in an odd hybrid of the windrogse of a portolan chart, graticule of a Mercator map, and GPS screen in its current home.

What sort of map underlay its presentation to Donald J. Trump on behalf of the Russian people in 1997, in ways that unexpectedly would make the realtor a new figure on a global stage not only of real estate, but the new global networks of appropriating funds by money laundering, offshore tax evasion, as a cover for the escalation of widespread illegality in Russia of bribery, criminality, poaching, and organized crime. A decade after Trump’s first attempts to develop real estate in Moscow, and a decade before Trump began to depend on Russian and former Soviet Union financing for real estate projects in Canada and the United States, by potential money laundering, the kitschy monument Columbus offered a masquerade to grant global legitimacy to Trump and post-Soviet Russian oligarchs on a new global stage, that we can only fully appreciate today. A decade before Donald Trump, Jr. confirmed to investors in Moscow that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets” in 2008, the statue was to arrive as Trump returned from Moscow having announced plans underway to replicate Trump Tower in Moscow, licensing his name to the renovation of the Moskva and Rossiya hotels.

Much of these transactions will long remain shadowy. But the arrival of this ostenttious monument announced Trump’s intension to expand his properties from Manhattan to a global stage, and elevate his new development as a showpiece of a global corporation.

If it is long before the Border Wall, the monument whose delivery Trump obtained quite similarly erases the experience of America’s indigenous inhabitants; its very grandiosity and spectacularity that seemed emulate Trump, if it had been made for him, rather than was, as seems to be the case, a totem that post-Soviet Russia presented to American President George H.W. Bush. Rather than suggest a voyage, or a laborious journey, the massive bronze statuary is distinguished by its immobility, rather than mobility–Columbus was a navigator, after all, and his statuary commemorates this voyage–but cast the fifteenth-century navigator in the form of a triumphal neoclassical icon of authority, on a diminished sort of ship. This imaginary Columbus, in neoclassical robes akin to the Statue of Liberty on nearby federally owned Bedloes Island, but was far removed from the romance and excitement of the voyage imagined by the American illustrator N.C. Wyeth, of adventure of the sea, if the ships were somewhat similar–

N. C. Wyeth, Beyond Uncharted Seas Columbus Finds a New World (1927)

–but rather than mastering the open seas and moving beyond charted seas, is reduced to a statement of flashy and large-limbed grandiosity, less of an adventurer than a standing figure announcing “I am here” in not a belligerent but an almost confrontational triumphal cryptic gesture.

Standing atop a pedestal that would include the map he allegedly followed, rather than mastering the elements, the figure reaches deep into a mixed bag of mythistory to declare it on the shores of the Hudson River in a place where Columbus did not, of course, ever stand, where it would have stood before setting suns, on the shores of Manhattan island. If Wyeth’s majestic illustration was made as a framable print for the National Geographic Society to sell to its members, the exclusive nature of the statue Trump believed its Georgian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, wanted installed on his newest New York development, in 1997 primarily marked his status as a developer, and ability to make a good deal with Moscow. The monument made for the presentation for the quincentennial of the “discovery” of America seemed a precedent that proclaimed the victory of the arrival of a unilineal development of a transnational economic development of real estate values, removed from any bearing on global geography, as if to celebrate a triumphal arrival of local capital.erasing all sense of cultural relativism by affirming an image of global triumph that echoed Francis Fukuyama far more than George Washington or Karl Marx. The removed kitsch of this figure of alleged patriotism provided an image of pacification of native peoples, not including any group outside of a global economy of which Trump had then. seemed emblematic.

The statuary was indeed installed in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and island that Columbus had visited, its impoverished residents of that fishing village on the outer edges of United States territoriality did not have much of a chance to resist and protest its placement, in the manner of residents of San Juan, as those of Miami Beach, Baltimore, Columbus, OH, and Ft. Lauderdale, undoubtedly taken aback by its monstrosity. Two presidents of the United States were justifiably lukewarm in accepting the gift from Moscow; the monument’s ostentatious heroism was a flat-footed poor fit with national traditions of commemorations, portraying the colonizer as a victor. But approaching Trump, during his early trips to develop Moscow properties in the mid-1990s, mirrored Trump’s attraction to both global politics and global properties in fascinating ways. A mirror for his own monumental self-esteem, the massive statue seemed to publicize the development he had planned for the Hudson River lots, a signal of his welcome of an influx of Russian funds, expanded in sales of apartments and condominiums in Trump hotels and developments from New York to Florida, if not a self-styled image of his own international goals.

This improbably towering Colossus on the Hudson, a true monument of global kitsch, would seem a Las Vegas style recycling of Augustus, an imperial gesturing to the nation as if selling an imagined vision of probity, security, and assurance, if it did not also double as a vision of globalism–one less rooted in nation, than transnatinoality, pumped up by foreign funds, rather than steering to the New World: the robed figure that Trump was keen on as taller than the Statue of Liberty would have saluted Manhattan island, in a way the actual Columbus of course never had, but revamped the austere figure of the navigator as a savior, royal emissary from afar, as a New Man for a new era, perhaps recycling Russian images of idealism as much as recuperating American ones. The rotary wheel was not only anachronistic, it suggested a smoothness of travel that is absurd, a mash-up of a yacht owner and a Roman hero who seeks little from his audience by adoring adulation.

Tsurab Tseretelli, “Birth of.the New World” (2016)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Alex Maguire/REX/Shutterstock (5736251i)
‘Birth of a New World’ sculpture by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli

The monument that was intended as an inauguration of sorts of transatlantic commerce with Russia would have marked the involvement of Trump in a corrupt network of real estate and an expansion of money laundering and international finance that have raised considerable suspicions about President Trump’s representation of national interests. And while the story of the “failed monument” which curiously traveled the world over its two decades of its apparent homelessness, before being erected in Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, shortly before Trump’s inauguration. Offshore of Puerto Rico, in a nearly deserted fishing village, where it has become a source of pride, the statue of Columbus curiously joins an also smaller Statue of Liberty, or a replica of the original, erected in 1918, in mysterious circumstances, that stands downtown. The majesty of the costly project seems to have not diminished after it circulated, seeking homes along the Eastern seaboard before an abandoned Bacardi factory, before running aground in Puerto Rico, where Columbus did set foot in November 19, 1493, on a shore filled with farmlands, and few spectators to admire it, far from San Juan, but near the statue that seems its twin.

Arecibo, PR

As if a competitor to the 1884 gift of the French Republic, in considerably rescued form in her 1918 Arecibo version, the Russian sculpture of nearly 300 feet seems to dominate the space of the lady of law: and if its itinerary that might well be mapped; its symbolics existed in a language of spectacle between Moscow, Manhattan, and The Donald.

If the story leading up to the mooring of Columbus in Puerto Rico in 2016 has been told, the resourcefulness of plans to move the monument across seas, after it was cast in Russian foundries, seems to have a shadow history in remapping global power relations. The strikingly parallel histories of the massive Columbus and the fortunes of the realtor demand to be examined as a history of aesthetics, finance, and the magnification of Trump’s unexpected political career. The aspiration to erect a monumental heroic bronze of the fifteenth-century navigator occurred two years before Trump celebrated his status in the polls for U.S. President for the Reform Party then headed by Jesse Ventura on “Larry King Live!“–announcing polls to champion his possible candidacy with false modesty. “Well, I guess the polls started it. The polls came out, and they said if I ran, I’d do very well,” Trump said as if he wanted to conceal his ambitions or present his election as foregone; “I don’t know, I just don’t even know. I mean, they put people’s name — they put various celebrities’ names in, and I did very well in polls, and, all of a sudden, people started calling . . .”

The turn to embrace his status as a public figure that Trump expressed as a happenstance reflection of the popular will that polls embodied–rather than a sense of public consensus or vote–is an eery aftermath to the ominous predictions that Trump had taken to forecast of impending disasters of the poorly led ship of state, no longer sufficiently respected by allies, or abroad, that had led Trump to style himself as an alternate vision of a politician, “young, dynamic, successful,” as a Democratic sponsor of his hosting of a Congressional dinner in 1987, who was, as John Kerry had praised him, “independent.”

The businessman was calling for reducing the deficit, accelerating nuclear disarmament, and expanding the financial burdens of military allies, leading him to be avidly courted by Republicans and Democrats alike by 1997 and to only surprise some by declaring “I believe that if I run for President, I’d win”–if few knew what party Trump belonged. Yet the specter of his candidacy already haunted the nation.

Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury,/December 6, 1999

The roll-out of this non-political beast, understood primarily through the lens of his own magnificence, was aptly echoed in the grandiosity of a statue of the fifteenth-century navigator who was about to be squirreled into the United States territory as a sign of his own vainglory. Promotion of Columbus promised a point of entrance for the realtor to an image of national identity, uncannily similar in nature to what he later declared in 2015, as an eagerness to defend American interests in a global market. It certainly was, promoted as the largest statue in the western hemisphere, larger not only that the iconic Statue of Liberty, given by the French government in a gesture of solidarity of Republicanism, but a monumental language perhaps both made in Moscow and pure Trump.

Did Trump’s apparent bravado, independence, and daring fit the bill for which Democrats searched as they sought someone “young and who would be good at politics but had never been especially involved in politics before,” as political parties searched for compelling figures to espouse the messages that they believed they delivered, but could be good at messaging. The search for a new image of political leadership seemed to fit Trump by 1990–even if he was presented over fifteen to twenty years later as still coming from outside politics–and made him a likely target of whose identification of himself with Columbus might be imagined, as he tried on new opportunities for self-identification as a politician that seemed, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the candidacy of Bill Clinton, to be regularly arriving at his door.

In this context, the cast image of a monumental Columbus arrived. Questions rose during the Colombian quincentennial about whether the fifteenth-century navigator represented the nation of the United States. The statue designed in Moscow was not designed for Mr. Trump, but was strikingly ahistorical in its triumphal celebration of the “discovery” of the continent not only as an image of national identity, but demanding consent to an image of public authority far removed from American monuments or a tradition of political monumentality. The historical Columbus was of course with little sense to have “discovered” a new world with such a sense of recognition that the statue seems to assert; Columbus lacked this sense, either when he set of from Spain without any clear sense of what lay on the horizon, or even a clear sense of where he was, by the time he had championed the wonders of the Indies, which he believed lay in Asia, even returning from his first transatlantic voyage.

By casting the monument as a confirmation of the navigator’s role as a national figure who arrived, his right arm raised in acclamation, as if swearing fealty or in classical salutation, before the coast of the New World. The form of greeting worthy of Augustus belied that Columbus had not in fact travelled. Rather than being site specific or historic, the massive sculpture seemed a token and symbol–if not an idol–to an ideal of economic openness to international trade, a declaration of monarchical supremacy foreign to America political traditions. The multi-piece monument was a totem of economic grandeur and unbridled expenditure on funds, whose lavishness as a documentation of grandeur might obscure its role in a geopolitical chess board of global finances, that by then hinged on New York City’s financial markets. For the massive statue marked possibilities of money laundering, and foreign expropriation of wealth to offshore destinations, revealing terrifyingly modern global tentacles more than a language or intent of discovery.

The double entendre of the massive statue’s name, Birth of the New World, was inherited, but appealed, no doubt to Trump, who readily accepted the idea of promoting the monument on properties where he planned to build in 1997. He felt entitled to accept the gifted work to be erected in land he owned on the Hudson River, bought at low cost and converted to residential zoning, as an extension of his development scheme, announcing the imminent arrival of a colossal bronze Columbus, right arm raised in salutation as if hailing the New World he saw for the first time, from the Russian people.

The image of the fifteenth century navigator had been planned for the prevention to commemorate the quincentenary of the first transatlantic voyage of the fifteenth century navigator, a conceit that Zurab Tsereteli had worked on in models that he had presented to Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He had earlier given models to of the navigator in heroic form, and a statue of a standing Columbus he had presented to forty five meters tall, emerging in classical robes from an egg of bronze, displaying triumphantly an unscrolled map of the voyages of the three ships of his first voyage–Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria–as if to herald his nautical accomplishment referenced the legend of Columbus’ demonstration of the sphericity of the earth, “Birth of the New Man” (1995), which Tseretelli also designed, ever resourceful in the needs of exportable public statuary, to be presented to Mayagüez on the occasion of the XXI Central American and Caribbean Games. (Russia also gave a copy of this statue to Spain, installed in the park of San Jeronimo, Seville, used to smuggle soft high-grade raw soft copper from Ukraine of industrial value, evading export taxes. What, this leads us to ask, did this massive tube of a hollow statue actually contain?). Financial evasion of taxes may hint at the intention of the grander statue of Columbus offered Trump, saluting the island of Manhattan as if for the first time, of which the statue of Columbus unfurling a chart seems but the first draft.

Thirty Meter tall Columbus within Forty-Five Meter Tall Egg-Shaped Bronze Lattice in Seville

If the Seville image of Columbus emerging from an egg seemed to hold a map on which the three caravels slid to the New World, opening up its lattice of ship ropes cast in the form of an egg doubled as a Beryozka doll bearing high-grade copper evading export tax, what concealed agendas and private interests were within the taller, if strikingly similar, he vehicle of goods concealed within it bronze shell, like a Beryozka doll, of this Russian connection planted on the properties of real estate but mark a startling growth of laundered funds through international banking.

If the storied if apocryphal notion that Columbus had argued for the ease of the opening of an international trade route by taking an egg and breaking its end to balance it during dinner-time debate for skeptics who challenged his conviction that the cosmographic knowledge needed for his transatlantic voyage was an act of daring diminished by all who “had wondered at it as an impossibility” before he flattened one end of the eg to make it stand on its tip, as the sixteenth-century Milanese traveler Girolamo Benzoni had first recounted in 1565, revealing his ingenuity before a fictitious dinner party before Spanish nobility, the egg shaped cage recalled the cosmographic invention of Columbus as an act of daring, invention, and bravura–that recycled a solution Giorgio Vasari described in 1550 of how the engineer Filippo Brunelleschi in 1418 solved the problem to build a dome of Florence’s cathedral, S. Maria del Fiore, astonishing and besting the “most ingenious craftsmen of design.”

The global traffic in bronze statues of Columbus sought to announce the opening of Russia for trade during the post-Soviet period fit a trade in the kitschy recycling legends, myths, and folk tales that Tsereteli pioneered. The Seville statue recalled the challenge of design celebrated as underlying the logic of transatlantic discovery was repeatedly staged in statues as an individual bravura act.

Trump boasted rather fulsomely, as is his won’t, about the “gift” of a statue was taller–by six feet!–than New York’s Statue of Liberty,–as if, by happenstance, to suggest its transcendence of New York’s skyline and cement his legacy as a builder beyond Trump Tower itself. The statue’s fitting size seemed specific to the New York monument, to be the largest in the western hemisphere, was not serendipitous; it seemed to match Trump’s tastes and global appetite. Over the wreckage of the rail yards, would the heralded statue boasted to Mark Singer, in a remarkably unfiltered manner, Trump argued the three hundred and eleven foot statue to development where he remained a minor partner would be on its way soon, its head already in the United States, and the body, if it remained in Moscow, where it was forged, would arrive, he claimed in deadpan, as he was “working toward that end,” “favorably disposed toward” what he described as the “huge personal honor” of erecting the monument on his private land where he wanted to sell condominiums.

The story of the “failed monument” has been told, but the gift that post-Soviet oligarchs long planned to offer as a gift to the United States, was cast by Trump as a final achievement, as if threading a needle, to the promotion of his own properties on a global scale greater than New Yorkers were accustomed to associate his brand. As the brash boy from Queens who had made good, the figure of Columbus, the scrappy sailor who had been dignified beside Trump International in Columbus Circle, which dwarfed the iconic image of Columbus since 1994. He may have even sought a new image of Columbus in 1997 to provide a model for the new symbol of his own internationalism, and international ambitions, and to mark the arrival of a new burst of financial energy to the empire of Trump Properties, and birth of Trump International–not backed by Spanish sovereigns whose emblem was on the bronze sails behind his back, but a faux national icon that concealed its own Russian backing.

Could the planned arrival of a generic piece of faux patriotic statuary also chart Trump’s persistent conflicts of interest as his first political ambitions emerged? The statue he described only as a “gift” from the Russian people to the United States that he had in 1997 boasted he had orchestrate in pursuit of real estate abroad, arrived from the very financiers of the post-soviet real estate market, and Moscow-based firm, who lured him to visit the city to attract funds to Moscow’s redevelopment. Re-imagined as a fifteenth-century navigator preposterously sailing into New York Harbor, or up the Hudson, mighty far from Columbus’ actual transatlantic route, against what any elementary school student might know of the voyages of discovery, if the statue demoted the place of the map was demoted to its base, the brazen rewriting of history was an act of kitsch few New Yorkers wanted to see: it seemed a means of simultaneously both attracting and repelling attention of observers in the gaudy monumentality in which Donald Trump had seemed to specialize.

The gifts of massive statuary designed by Zurab Konstantinovich Tsereteli, a Georgian sculptor with an active trading of public sculptures in Moscow, had become a sort of stock trade in monuments as gifts of state in the post-Soviet era. Highly generic in form, vaguely stripped of history, and persistently monumental, the monuments Tseretelli crafted were somehow a search for a new level of kitsch to respond to the kitsch of Soviet monumentalism, stripping figures from historical context and monumentalizing their grader. The gifting of monuments of Columbus to Mayagüez, Seville and–it was hoped–New York provided a celebration of a spirit discovery that were anonymously funded, but launched in a spree of international trading as Russia sought to open corridors of foreign trade, and Trump’s investment of Donald Trump in Moscow.

Trump announced the arrival of the hundred and ten meter bronze statue, including base as the result of his close ties to Russian elites–less as an image of American patriotism, than a means to dignify in the most opulent manner possible his most recent Manhattan property development. Did he intent it to replace the The iconic statue outside Time-Life–or Gulf + Western building seems to have been prized by Donald Trump that it became a target of his desires. Just in October, 1996, New York’s City Planning Department rejected the proposal to emblazon the orbital globe with “Trump International” on the orbital globe as a way to brand his new venture–but the developer took the shiny orbital globe, silhouetting the world’s continents on a thirty-foot wide globe, modeled after the Unisphere built for a 1964-65 World’s Fair, as fair game to brand his ambitions, as it lay on property he now owned, and even if the words “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL” were not emblazoned on it to reveal his new global ambitions, the shiny sphere was replicated, in Sunny Isles, as an icon of the global scope of Trump Properties.

Brandell Studios, Architectural Rendering

The provision of Trump with a new image of Columbus on his own Hudson Yards development would be, perhaps, an alternate glorification of hi self-fashioning and marketing as a truly international developer. Was the discussion of the arrival of Tsereteli’s monumental figure of the navigator meant to hold an image of the orbital globe that Trump saw as an emblem of his new expansive network of global real estate properties beyond New York City–as if to brand the statue that was located on his properties as an icon of its aspirations to an actual globalism, and as if a statue could bolster its claims to internationality by virtue of a monumental map.

Six Foot 1997 Model of Zurab Tsereteli’s Birth of the New World”

Was the figure of the fifteenth century navigator consisting of over 2,500 pieces of steel and bronze were more of a token or a pawn in a global Ponzi scheme of money laundering, cancelled debt–even as Trump accepted it eagerly to promote his buoyant reemergence on a global stage, having cleverly disburdened himself of abundant financial debt? Or would it conceal the greater debts that his involvement with Russian backers, canny on playing the fulsome developer for all he was worth, would itself conceal? The inflation of this “gift” of bronze that was in itself valued–or Trump boasted it was valued–as containing $40 million of raw bronze alone would be evidence of his success at the mythic “art of the deal,” if the construction of deal–and the deal that it meant for American tax payers, or for the tax board–have been rarely scrutinized. If the statue given to Seville was found to be a way of smuggling high-grade copper out of the country tax-free, was the image of Columbus something of a Trojan horse, as much as the boondoggle it is usually portrayed to be.

The idea of the arrival of the massive statuary that seemed a big win-win certainly left Trump in the mood for levity. At a time when he was ready to open his own private Club, the renamed and rebranded Mar-a-Lago, the figure of Columbus seemed a new validation of his global esteem, and gave him a sense of legitimacy, after the failure of his Atlantic City casinos, built for $1.2 billion, as a gaudily orientalist “Eight Wonder of the World” in 1990, whose “opulence” and “size” of its three casinos he boasted would make it “the most successful hotel anywhere in the world” went underwater after it failed to generate the needed $1.3 million daily to break even in overhead costs.

The addition of a statue of Columbus would seem not only emulate one of the lost seven wonders of the world, erected in Rhodes as the tallest statue of the ancient world, but would be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. Would the figure of Columbus moreover offer the developer, in a true win-win, the desired logo for branding Trump International. It might have rebranded Trump in American politics, with Russian sponsorship, at a cost with which the nation has been saddled.

Trump on Links at Recently Opened Private Club, Mar-a-Lago, 1997/Max Vadukul

The ties of the realtor who had been interested in shifting his game from Atlantic City, after the failure of a large Casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, went under, led him to set sights on more majestic and still more mythic goals of worldly grandeur, and why would not Columbus fit the bill? The authoritarian statue certainly suggests a newfound proximity to post-soviet Russian funders, as the global financial game that Trump orchestrated seem to grow in its disconnect from America, and its concentration on the fabrication of an ideal America, with little correspondence to the actual nation and its interests. Although Trump asserts never to have had or sought or even want assistance from Russia in his Presidential campaign in increasingly strident tones, the attempt to persuade New York City to relocate a monumental bronze glorifying the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus suggests otherwise.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, Donald J. Trump, globalization, globalized economy, national monuments

Global Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani, more than anyone else, evokes the national trauma of September 11, 2001. If the trauma 9/11 has been a poster for increased federal powers, an excuse for violating civil rights, and a remaking of the New World Order, it is striking how much recent resurgent if hoary myths of the national values of 9/11 contributed significant spin to the careers of members of the Trump administration. Indeed, the trauma of 9/11 has been recycled in ways that have affirmed nationalist credentials and pride.

It is especially striking how the former New York mayor, and and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was able to successfully pivot from being a figure of local fame and prestige–indeed, a defender of the hope of returning New York to a lost time he seemed to embody as the locally schooled tough-talking upright son of a family composed of cops and firefighters, who seemed to tap a tradition of legal-minded public service of which he posed as champion. But 9/11 provided the optic by which Giuliani acquired a resonance and career that became wierdly global–and hardly local–as if by the alchemy of the global need for security. The miracle of the alchemical transformation of Giuliani from a local figure–imbued in a sense of neighborhood that was incarnated in the tavern his father ran in Brooklyn–became not a guarantor of a local past, which may not have ever existed, but was transmuted into a global career of posing as a strongman.

In many ways, the position that Giuliani occupied after 9/11 allowed him to claim the almost fantasy position of a warrior for good on a global stage. The transformation of the former public attorney and lawman who seemed to stand as a stalwart defendant of local values as a global figure was not quick, but endured over decades, in ways that have not been fully traced, as Giuliani converted his prestige in the global media after 9/11, as he seemed to carry the nation through trauma, into a global mercenary of something like the New World Order. For after the terrifying punctuating event of 9/11, and after he left office, the former New York Mayor rode the surface of the global media to promote his brand as a means of guaranteeing security, desalination projects, police reform, judicial reform, and even unrelated areas as investment banking.

Giuliani toured the world with an expense account, speaking for broad Neo-nationalist audiences across the world that manufactured greater credibility for a ridiculously globally broadened sense of his license, capacities, and legal expertise, in ways that his actual career as mayor or attorney would hardly have predicted or confirmed. After years of being rooted in the defense of a local moral economy, and tough-guy persona rooted in Brooklyn as well as New York City, and the NYPD, the vey mediatization of 9/11 improbably shot Giuliani to the global in ways that we are still coming to terms with in our national trajectory: emboldening Giuliani to hoc his newfound fame on a global marketplace in truly mercenary fashion, coasting on the publicity that global media platforms had generated, and surrounding Giuliani with more wealth than he had ever enjoyed–its dark backdrop catapulting the mayor to the global stage as a “tower of strength” that replaced the global status the Twin Towers had once occupied. Over the devastated New York skyline, Giuliani towered, proclaimed a true “tower of Strength” no longer a Mayor, but an advocate for global calm before menacing darkened nocturnal skies.

The New York poet Michael Brownstein–no relation!–conjured a vision of a gypsy that the very hijackers who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, men who had famously fashioned themselves as martyrs, accompanied the souls of many men, women, and children who died as a result of their actions into the afterlife, somehow acting as agents of peace as much as visiting a traumatic vision of mortality. The diabolical vision Brownstein described in the years after 9/11 must have shocked his readers, but presented what he wanted to be a healing poetic image of devastation. The Angel of Death himself must have accompanied Giuliani, a former altar boy himself who had recast himself in global media as selected to fulfill his role as a defender of the city, expanding his narcissism as he promoted himself as a symbol of security on a global stage, able to advise on crime rates, manage security, and maintain peace on a global stage that had not ever existed before with any comparable concreteness.

The searing image of a redemption after the destruction visited on New York became a means for Giuliani to be turned to as a figure of trust, a center of stability, that the world seemed to need–but on which his own. Rudy Giluiani’s huge sense of himself saw magnified on a global stage, and able to cast in global terms, a a spokesperson, lobbyist, agitator, instigator and legitimizer who could hector, yell, and barge his way onto any global stage, and command total attention for any agenda that would pay his way. Did the unweildly narcissism that Giuliani promoted in America and on such a global stage prepare the way for Trump?

When we ponder how Giuliani emerged–indeed remade himself–as an unregistered agent of other governments, allied with a law office (Greenberg Traurig, most recently, or a partner at Bracewell & Harrison, in Houston, then transformed to capitalize on his name as Bracewell & Giuliani), he skirted the law while capitalizing on his image as a hardened lawman; the contradictions were not contradictions for a man whose media image was so impressive and had gained such global currency to be hard to question. The bonds of trust that seemed forge in the years after 9/11, and the sense of cathecting with Giuliani as “America’s Mayor” truly seemed exploited, as his own historical narcissism led to a thirst for further attention, and to remove all limits from his own propriety. He extended this credibility in a failed bid for the Presidency in 2008 and after it folded sought to keep alive his image of himself as a global fix-it man.

In this post, I want to sketch the map of the bizarre global travels of Giuliani as a man who promised to accommodate any interest, promote a vision of global security who parlayed his status to a talking head on any media. He should have been far less assuring than we were willing to accord: but Giuliani’s skill at exploiting an endless reserve of symbolic capital seemed endless, allowing him to stake Presidential campaigns, and earn massive retaining fees, without much attention to what credibility the ex-Mayor ever merited. The very transnationality of the commemoration of 9/11 transformed it into a global event, and not a local one, offered a means for Rudy to travel through the looking glass, and for Giuliani to gain a global credibility that was eerily universal. We didn’t pay much attention. We discounted Giuliani’s neediness for attention as self-generated, and not itself of global impact, but it increasingly exercised influence that mirrored the very trans-nationality of the commemoration of 9/11. Their trans-nationality Rudy a truly unprecedented global carte blanche of unprecedented character.

This credibitliy was a carte blanche appealing to foreign strongmen, to be sure, who sought to fashion themselves as comparable “good guys” in a global stage demanding a way to map security in the face of terrorists, and seek a figure of calm in the swirling fears of insecurity, even if that very figure would continue to do his best to provoke our deepest fears.

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Filed under 9/11, American Politics, global terror, globalization, September 11, World Trade Center

Mapping Our Shrinking Shores

Coasts have provided the primary cartographical invention to understand the risks that erosion pose to property:  the coast-line is the boundary of the known land, and determines the outer bound of the real estate.  But the coastal fixation of the landlubber privileges the illusion of the fixity of the shore.  More than ever, assumptions about the fixity of shorelines must fall away.  Perhaps the most haunting take away from the Surging Seas web-based map of global shorelines forces us to take into account the inevitable mutability that must be accepted with the rising of ocean-level associated with climate change.

The web-map presents itself as a set of tools of analysis, as much as cartographical techniques, by which the rise of sea-level that has already risen globally some eight inches since 1880 stands to accelerate–emphasizing the alternate scenarios that the acceleration of sea-level rise stands to bring over the next hundred years, introducing a new concept of risk due to coastal flooding.  The availability of accurate GPS images of the elevations of homes have provided the possibility of sketching scenarios of sea-level rise to create readily zoomable maps of elevated ocean levels that confront us with at least the image of the options which we still theoretically have.  The contrasting futures created in this cartographical comparison shocks viewers with a salutary sort of operational paranoia only increased as one fiddles with a slider bar to grant greater specificity to the disastrous local consequences of rising sea-levels world-wide.

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In ways quite unlike the wonderfully detailed old NOAA Topographic Surveys which map shorelines at regular transects, or T-Sheets, recording the high waterline of tides across 95,000 coastal miles and 3.4 million square miles of open sea, the coastline is less the subject of these web maps than levels of potential inundation.  In a negative-mapping of possibilities of human habitation, blue hues invade the landscape in a monitory metric emphasizing the regions at risk of being underwater in a century.  Whereas scanned T-Sheets can now be viewed by a historical time-bar slider, the fixity of space or time are less relevant to the web maps than the gradients of possible sea-level rise caused by carbon emissions might force us to confront.

Surging Seas forces us to confront the possibilities of the future underwater world.  The infiltration of a deep shade of blue commands the eye by its intensity, deeper shades signifying greater depth, in ways that eerily underscore the deep connection that all land has to the sea that we are apt to turn our backs upon in most land maps, showing the extent to which a changing world will have to familiarize itself to water-level rise in the not-distant future.  It’s almost paradoxical that the national frontiers we have inscribed on maps has until recently effectually made impossible such a global view, but the attraction of imagining the somewhat apocalyptic possibility of sea-level rise seems almost to map a forbidden future we are not usually allowed to see, and has a weirdly pleasurable (if also terrifying) aspect of viewing the extensive consequences of what might be with a stunning level of specific and zoomable local detail we would not otherwise be able to imagine, in what almost seems a fantasia of the possibilities of mapping an otherwise unforeseen loss, not to speak of the apparent lack of coherence of a post-modern world.

For the variety of potential consequences of disastrous scenarios of sea-level rise posed can be readily compared with surprisingly effective and accurate degrees of precision, in maps that illustrate the depths at which specific regions stand to be submerged underwater should sea-level rise continue or accelerate:  zooming into neighborhoods one knows, or cities with which one is familiar, the rapid alteration of two to seven feet in sea-level can be imagined–as can the fates of the some 5 million people worldwide who live less than four feet above sea-level.  For if the shores have long been among the most crowded and popular sites of human habitation–from New York to London to Hong Kong to Mumbai to Jakarta to Venice–the increasing rapidity of polar melting due to climate change stands to produce up to a seven feet rise in sea-level if current rates of carbon emissions, and a mere four degree centigrade rise in global temperature stands to put the homes of over 450 million underwater, which even the most aggressive cutting in carbon emissions might lower to only 130 million, if rates of warming are limited to but 2°C.   (If things continues as they stand, the homes of some 145 million who currently dwell on land in China alone are threatened with inundation.)

The recent review of the disastrous consequences of a rise of two degrees Centigrade on the land-sea boundary of the United States led Climate Central to plot the effects of a-level rise of at least 20 feet on the country–and foreground those regions that were most at risk.   The webmap serves as something like a window into the possible futures of climate change, whose slider allows us to create elevations in sea-level that the ongoing melting of the polar ice-cap seems poised to create.  As much as offer compare and contrast catastrophes, the immediacy of recognizing the degree to which places of particular familiarity may soon stand to lie underwater performs a neat trick: for whereas a map might be said to bring closer the regions from which one is spatially removed or stands apart, making present the far-off by allowing one to navigate its spatial disposition in systematic fashion, the opacity of those light blue layers of rising seas obscures and subtracts potentially once-familiar site of settlement, effectively removing land from one’s ken as it is subtracted from the content of the map, and charting land losses as much as allowing its observation.

The result is dependably eery.  The encroachment of the oceans consequent to rising sea-level propose a future worthy of disaster films.  But the risks can be viewed in a more measured ways in the maps of sea-level on the shores of the United States calculated and mapped by Stamen design in the Surging Seas project that allows us to imagine different scenarios of sea-level rise on actual neighborhoods–the set of interactive maps, now aptly retitled Mapping Choices, will not only cause us to rethink different scenarios of shifting shorelines by revisiting our favorite low-lying regions, or allow us to create our own videos of Google Earth Flyovers of different areas of the world.  Mapping Choices provides a way to view the risks and vulnerabilities to climate change made particularly graphic in centers of population particularly low-lying, where they testify to the clarity with which web maps can create a vision of imagined experience as we imagine the actual losses that global warming is poised to create.  And although the recent expansion of the map to a global research report, allowing us to examine possible global futures that are otherwise difficult to comprehend or process the potential risks posed by the inundation of low-lying inhabited regions for a stretch of thirty meters, the potential risk of inundation is perhaps most metaphorically powerful for that region that one best knows, where the efficacy of a simple side-by-side juxtaposition of alternate potential realities has the unexpected effect of hitting one in one’s gut:  for debates about the possibilities of climate change suddenly gain a specificity that command a level of attention one can only wonder why one never before confronted as an actual reality.

Alternate Scenarios

Maps are rarely seen as surrogates for observation, and web maps often offer something like a set of directions, or way finding tools.  But the predicted scenarios of sea-levle rise allows one to grasp the local levels of inundation with a specificity that allow risk to be seen in terms of actual buildings–block by block–and wrestle with the risks that climate change portends.  The lack of defenses of populations in many regions are definitely also at great risk, but to envision the loss of property and known space seems oddly more affecting in such an iconic map of Manhattan–and somewhat more poetic as an illustration of the fungibility of its hypertrophied real estate and property values.

Of course, the data of Climate Change allows a terrifying view of the future of four degrees centigrade warming on low-lying Boston and the shores of the Charles, as the city is reduced to a rump of an archipelago–

Boston

or the disastrous scenarios for the populations in the lower lying areas of Jakarta–

Jakarta

or, indeed, in Mumbai–

Mumbai

Viewers are encouraged to imagine the risks of the possible alternate futures of just two degrees with an immediacy that worms into one’s mind.  The possibilities that GPS offers of instantaneous calculations of shoreline position and elevations allow one to view a potential reality where one can focus on individual streets with inspirational urgency.

But such scenarios seem somehow particularly graphic illustrations of risk for those regions where there has been a huge investment of human capital, as New York City, where it might seem credible enough to be mapped that they are poised to melt not into air but vanish beneath ocean waves.  For if Marx predicted with spirited apocalypticism at the very start of the Communist Manifesto that capitalism would destroy value to money as it expanded into future markets, as market forces abstracted all things into money–and “all that is solid melts into air”–the twentieth-century expansion of possibilities of environmental and human destruction have lent unprecedented urgency.  While for Marx the metaphor of melting of inherent value was the product of the capitalist system, the capitalist system bodes a strikingly similar image of sinking into the seas.  For huge expanses of the old industrial city–the piers and the old manufacturing zones, most all of the Jersey shore and area around Newark, Long Island City and the Gowanus canal seem sink apart from the shoreline in the future New York that Surging Seas creates, in ways that seem the consequence of industrial production and carbon surging far beyond 400 parts per million (ppm), with the addition of some 2 ppm per year, in ways that make it a challenge to return to the levels deemed healthy–let alone the levels of 275 ppm which the planet long held through the mid-eighteenth century.

That drought, hurricanes, disappearance of arctic ice (up to 80% in summertime) and rising sea levels are tied to the growth of greenhouse gasses hint how global capital might be closely linked to the sinking into the seas, and suggest the surpassing of a tipping point of climate change that is the counterpart to melting into air might be viewed, in New York City’s economic geography, as if to offer a poetic reflection of the migration of capital into the financial centers of the city downtown from its piers or areas of industry–

NY:NJ

–although half-hearted joking references to Marxist maxims (or geographers) is hardly the topic of this post, and the island of high finance that would be created in downtown Manhattan would hardly have ever been planned as an island.

Lower Manhattan Island?

What one might someday see as the lopping off of much of lower Manhattan might be far better tied to the runaway markets of a free-trade economy, rather than rational planning, and has no clear correspondence to property values.

lopped off lower Manhattan

Indeed, the mapping of the prospective loss of those residential parts of the city “where poor people dwell” (as do minorities) is undeniable, if one looks at the 2010 American Community Survey, regarding either in the city’s distribution of ethnic groups or households earning below $30,000, who remain the most vulnerable to the danger of rising ocean levels.

ACS 2005?

Income under 30,000American Community Survey (2010)/New York Times

But the disappearance of the Eastern Parkway and the Jersey shore are a blunt reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the built environment that lies close to sea-level–

Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue above the seas

–and an actually not-too-apocalyptic reminder, but the mapping of consequences of man-made change that goes under the rubric of anthropocene, and is most apparent in the increasing quotient of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the warming that this may bring.  For if it has been approximated that there has already been a rise of sea-levels by some eight inches since 1880, the unprecedented acceleration of that rate, which will increase the dangers of floods from storms and place many of the some three thousand coastal towns at risk, are likely to increase as the sea level may rise from two to over seven feet during the new century.

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The distribution is by no means uniform, and more industrialized countries, like the United States, are producing far more particulate matter, although they have been recently overtaken by China from 2007, and have atmospheres above 380 ppm in the Spring, making them more responsible for rendering higher temperatures–although the lower-lying lands below the equator may be most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

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Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.44 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.22.35 PMVox– A visual tour of the world’s CO2 emissions

The increasing levels of particulate matter are attempted to be more locally mapped in Surging Seas.

The changes extend, in a nice dramatic detail, into the Central Park Meer rejoining the East River with the predicted inundation of much of the posh residential area of Manhattan’s East Side, all the way to Fifth Avenue.

Truncated NJ and absent upper East side

It is difficult not to compare the scenarios sketched in Surging Seas maps to some of the maps of those future islands of New York that Map Box and others allowed Sarah Levine to create maps of the heights of buildings from open data after the pioneering maps of Bill Rankin’s 2006 “Building Heights.”   When Rankin remapped Manhattan by taking building height as an indirect index of land value, he saw the island as clustered in distinct islands of elevation above 600 feet:

manhattan-heights

Radical Cartography (2006)

Levine used similar data to chart the fruits of Mammon in buildings above sixty stories.  Maps of skyscrapers beside the gloom of Surging Seas suggest those towers able to withstand the rising seas brought by global temperatures jumping by just two degrees Centigrade.  If one moves from the map of the bulk of lowest sections of lower Manhattan–

Two Inches in Lower Manhattan

with reference to Levine’s brilliantly colored carmine mapping of the highest buildings in the Big Apple, above forty-seven or fifty-nine stories, which one imagines might provide the best vantage points that rise above the rising waves, especially when located on the island’s shores.

Mapping NYC by Sarah

Sarah Levine Maps Manhattan

There’s a mashup begging to be made, in which the tallest buildings of over fifty stories at the tip of the island peak up above the cresting waves, and the rump of buildings in lower Manhattan offer contrasting vistas of the city’s contracting shores.  The buildings that create the canyons of urban life, the buildings of elevation surpassing sixty stories might suggest the true islands of Manhattan’s future, as much as the points that punctuate its skyline.

Sarah's Lower Manhattan

The realization of this possible apocalypse of property made present in these maps offer the ability to visit impending disasters that await our shorelines and coasts, and imagine the consuming of property long considered the most valuable on the shore–as rising seas threaten to render a whispy shoreline of the past, lying under some six meters of rising seas.  The prospect of this curtailing of the ecumene, if it would bring an expansion of our nation’s estuaries, presents an image of the shrinking of the shores that suggests, with the authority of a map, just how far underwater we soon stand to be.

Eastern USASurging Seas: sea level rise after 2 degrees centigrade warming

All actual maps, including Levine’s, provide authoritative reporting of accurate measures with a promise of minimal distortions.  But visualizations such Surging Seas offer frightening windows into a future not yet arrived, using spatial modeling to predict the effects of a rise in sea-level of just five feet, and the potentially disastrous scale such a limited sea-level change would bring:  the coasts are accurate, but their inundation is a conservative guess, on the lower spectrum of possibilities.  For in a country in which 2.6 million homes are less than four feet above current sea-levels, the spectral outlines of chilly blue former coastlines peak at a future world are still terrifying and seem all too possible, as much as potential cautionary tale.  The concretization of likely scenarios of climate change remind us that however much we really don’t want to get there, how potentially destructive the possibility of a several degree rise in ocean temperatures would be.

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Filed under Climate Change, coastal flooding, data visualization, Global Warming

Urban Modernity, RIP: Mapping Marshall Berman Mapping Modernism

The meaning of place seems especially difficult to retain in an age of increased mobility, when information flows are increasingly removed from any site, and offer multiplying perspectives.  The work of cultural critic Marshall Berman (1940-2013) provides a clear eyed way to recuperate modernism through the inhabitation of place.  Berman, a long-time New York City resident and echt urbanite, created rich qualitative maps of literary modernism that rhapsodized cities as places–as privileged and vital sites of generating meanings that were rooted in place.  Even after his recent death, it’s hard not to be struck by the vitality that he mapped as rooted in cities, and whose existence he never stopped reminding us about and celebrating.  A native New Yorker, Berman wrote from committed engagement in New York’s space and shifting fluidity, and in his works mapped the sense of fluidity or perpetual permutability of urban life.  He showed us, in so doing, that maps are not only imposition from above, or Olympian views, but can map daily encounters best registered on city streets.  Even when I best knew Marshall in the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the inveterate street-walker of the Upper West Side and Broadway who exulted in most everything he noticed on the street.  Marshall maybe increasingly became an inveterate street-walker who took pleasure in public space, and enjoyed claiming for himself a spot on the street, finding a sort of release and liberation on the night-time sidewalks, in Times Square, or at the diners where he so loved to sit.

In retrospect, I imagine his championing of the street’s energy came from the magnum opus he was then completing, All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982)–but that his love of street-life also shaped his voracious exploration of the space of literary modernism through the act of being in public.  For Berman quickly recognized that the depersonalization of urban life was not only the trauma and drama of modernity, but, transfigured by literary expression, also a privileged site for individuality.  In ways that are still resonant, his generous mapping of the modernity among cities extended from the city that he loved to the modern urbanism.  R.I.P., Marshall.

Berman’s sudden and unexpected death in a booth at the Metro Diner, at the heart of the Manhattan Upper West Side, can’t but provoke a reflection on his relation to the concept of urban space, from the sense of public space he lived and explored relentlessly as an observer and city-dweller to that which he read so very widely to excavate and explore with a canny sense of the personalized human geography.  For Marshall loved the lived urban environments and continued a life-long fascination he had with the living nature of a streetscape illuminated by electric lights, as if an ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef, whose deeply modern possibilities he always felt beckoned and invited and which he was eager to explore.  Marshall’s recent death has prompted several emotional reflections that note the inescapably autobiographical aspects of his work, some of which he would himself, surely, be the first not to hesitate to note.  Marshall’s work was, first and foremost, that of a public intellectual who bridged personal criticism with urbanism.  For Berman often described his engaged writing on modernism and modernist projects of urban space as part of the creative projects of his life.

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November 22, 2013 · 4:02 pm

Mapping Each and Every Tree

How to call attention to the variety of trees that have come to fill that unpredictable planned greenspace of Central Park? Central Park is glorified as modeling the abundance of urban nature.  We map the space of the park, whose green provides a pause and respite from the grey concrete facades of buildings, as well as a site for strolling, by a flat lime-green interruption of the urban grid in the public maps of the city park, as if the repose offered by the park was an abrupt interruption of the tan city blocks, cool blue ponds creating a shared space of reflection in a landscape dominated by private property and expensive residences.

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 It is an oasis of sorts, ringed by a tan frame of muted buildings–as if a place to experience wilderness, rendered almost life-like in the rain–even if the muted green seems to suggest a “greenspace” to be valued, as a distinct interruption of the built environment.  Created in the parks movement that redesigned urban space removed from unsavory elements and moral lassitude, and restored as a reprieve from the pace of urban life, the rebirth of the parks as open green-space has recently occasioned the first complete census of individual trees, those often uncounted inhabitants of Manhattan island. And each tree has been mapped, in recent years, to allow one to voyage through the space of planned trees, migrants, and recent arrivals of conifers and other volunteers, joining the staid oaks, elm, and London Plane tree.

The trees have been counted in Central Park, unpacking this light green space in an enumeration or ‘green census’ cartographers Ken Chaya and Edward Sibley Barnard created.  The result is a deeply ethical way of directing our attention to urban space, in a comprehensive map of the tree space often rendered as a stretch of undifferentiated lime green.  Indeed, the counting of large-trunked oaks, maples, individual pines, and sturdy sycamores in all their varieties offers a detailed abundance that is rarely evident in the parks maps that adopt a single cool shade of idyllic green, and offer a sort of palimpsest that will reward map-readers to pause over, examine, and explore–and indeed pore over, with the botanical level of detail and connoisseurship that the earliest planners of the park might well have appreciated and enjoyed–if not expected of city-dwellers.

Who wouldn’t have expected as much from urban sophisticates?

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Map of Central Park: printed for the Department of Public Parks, 1873 (detail)

Yet today, the often-internalized map of the park of light green, far more familiar to all city-dwellers, may risk perpetuating an alienation from its dynamic urban forest, and obscuring the careful level of its botanical detail, or the accumulated palimpsest of urban habitats of its biodiversity.

Green aPark

In part, the duality of Central Park as rural and urban captures the hybrid identity as an urban park.  Even though the park seems to lie somewhat incongruously at the very center of Manhattan, as if the apparent preserve of trees and urban wildlife is defined by its porous relation to the urbanized setting of the park.  If Central Park was designed in the movement of urban greening and public space, as a site of health and interruption of urban life, the park is increasingly more of a heterotypic combination of urban activity, designed built spaces, and manicured wooded areas, a refuge where Manhattan is in a sense perpetually present, not only bur urban sounds, traffic, and lifestyles, in a dyadic relationship that seems captured by the fact that it offers not only the sole open space to inscribe the toponym of the island in subway maps.

In such maps of urban transit, it may be that Central Park acts less as a park, than it serves as a totem of urban space; the park holds the bold-faced word “MANHATTAN” that identifies the city, its flat green spaces and clear light blue lakes crossed by ribbons of white roads, indicating its nicely settled position as secure in an urban grid, as if fastened by crosstown routes, yet readily available to urbanites at multiple entrances as a site of repose.  The image of the interruption of urban space we encounter on subway cars with regularity reminds us of the existence of open greenspace which we can access, even while we ride in eardrum shattering rumbles of subway cars coursing on old tracks while winding one’s way downtown to one’s destination.  Is it an important reassuring reminder of the existence of open spaces that are in fact accessible, even while we may not feel it, nearby?

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The combination of nature and skyscrapers was a unitary construction, several ecopoets have observed, a conundrum or urban nature explored by ecopoets who take up the gauntlet that the urban spaces throw down.   When the poet Gary Snyder described his arrival in New York City, he evoked an ecosystem blending nature and culture that began form its trees and moved settle throughout the island’s sidewalks, streets and skyscrapers, even as it clung to the edges of its shores.  

The “park” was long promoted as the primary shared greenspace in the city–and a space where city-dwellers retreat, at times, to smoke some green stuff in a meadow or on a hill, the definition of the park as a set of individual trees has rarely been mapped in detail, examining the arboreal space that inheres within this interruption of the built environment–if only to excavate and explore its complex past.  

Even if the landscape was built on granite and was defined by concrete and brick, the trees defined its space, however paradoxically, in ways that capture the serendipitous presence of the arboreal variety in the city  “Maple, oak, poplar, gingko,” ecopoet Gary Snyder mapped New York’s trees in syllabic feet, “New leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge,” taking the arboreal collage on Manhattan’s bedrock as a metaphorical ecosystem, an artificial reef of the human scheme of the “Sea of Information” filled with streams of “keen-eyed people,” “cadres of educated youth,” howling sirens, and squirrels, that peregrines sail above, whose gridlock opens like a sea anemone of which wind sends a shudder that “shakes the limbs on the/planted trees” beside “Glass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,/Iron. Stainless steel.” Rhapsodically evoking a heterogeneous admixture of natural and artificial between paved concrete, Snyder incants the varieties of urban trees encountered on foot in “Walking the New York Bedrock in the Sea of Information” (1987), an island whose gods are capitalists and whose plate glass windows shine as white birch leaves shiver and gleam.  A modern Whitman, Snyder embraced walled urban canyon walked by curb and traffic light, counting trees among built space seamlessly, from ginkgo trees of Gondwanaland or built bodies to the pictographs and petroglyphs of subways, beside cable and pipe, erasing any distinction of natural and artificial, as “beautiful buildings we float in, we feed in,/Foam, steel, and gray/Alive, in the Sea of Information.” Snyder’s metaphorical recasting of the urban ecology is an ecstatic wilderness, underpinned by a tabulation of trees that echoes, in contrast of the natural and the built city how Herman Melville described the city in mid-century exultantly as “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs,” but naturalized the built walled canyons where sirens echo streets as a built landscape where urban trees and wildlife abound. 

The discrete trees of the rusticated interval of Central Park that interrupts the cityscape of New York City is rarely counted, but the attention that is suggested in the list of trees offer a sense of Snyder’s skill as a naturalist, and  the surprising application of an arboreal register of variety in an urban environment.  For Snyder explores the city by seamlessly blending of nature and culture in New York City in ways that never stops to entertain, in a metaphorical map blurring canyons of skyscrapers, plate glass, and electric lights buzzing in an ecosystem driven by big finance that might be submarine.  Amidst streams of subways, cars, taxis, rolling carts, people and birds, trees peak out prominently.  While each and every tree is inscribed with a detail that might be dwarfed by the old, hulking trunks that serve as hide-outs with dark passages in the Tisch Children’s Zoo–a reminder of the forest before the park–the Park is a hotspot and mirror of the built park.

The public maps posted in the park invite exploration of its paths note its paths in a paler green beside white roads, snaking around its uniform field, Barnard and Chaya open those Kelly green spaces to the delectation of wanderers who it invites to explore the park’s arboreal variety.

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As ever the eloquent naturalist, Snyder poetically turns to how trees resiliently populate the city’s built environment.  He traces an environment partly forest, but hybrid, neither natural or artificial.  In a cartographical compliment to his poem, or a modern Georgics of the park, Edward Sibley Barnard and his accomplice in crime Ken Chaya open up a richly bucolic vision of vegetal copia across what is the densest site of urban trees in Central Park Entire (2011).  The map provides a complete account and comprehensive tabulation of tree varieties within the city’s Central Park, the serves to celebrate the variety of trees that this special spot in the city preserves, counting the over 19, 630 trees within Central Park that will stand as a modern monument for years–until someone again tries to undertake the counting all over again–presenting it for the visual delectation of viewers in a durable fold-out paper map.

The detailed catalogue of trees and plants in New York’s Central Park displays virtuosity in evoking the variety, range, and density of trees in the city’s largest greenspace, rendering in detail an ecosystem often vaguely mapped, often suggested as a green space amidst built environment.  In the heart of the city lies the park.  Its odd combination of nature and culture is central to most city maps.  When you look at most public maps of New York City that grace public transit, tourist kiosks, or other venues of spatial orientation, the area of Central Park is a monolithic green, less rooted in a survey or in a source of public data, but a light green box, set apart form the city’s streets–a block of greenspace located framed by the overbuilt grey of residences that crowd Manhattan island since the mid-nineteenth century, and landscaped from 1858.

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Filed under Google Earth, greenspace, New York City, open space, urban parks