Tag Archives: Robert Moses

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

The green-space of 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.

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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, whose enumeration in a sort of ‘green census’ offers cartographers Ken Chaya and Edwar Sibley Barnard 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.

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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.  

If the “park” is a 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,” the poet Gary Snyder began rhapsodically and rhythmically incanting the varieties of urban trees he encountered in “Walking the New York Bedrock in the Sea of Information” (1987).  

The discrete trees of Central Park are 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 the reader.  “New leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge/ of steep uplift,” lead to”Glass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,/ Iron.  Stainless steel,” 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–as “white birch leaves shiver in the breeze” and gingko trees.  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.

If the current maps posted in the park invite exploration of its paths, noted in a paler green beside white roadways, snaking around its uniform field, Barnard and Chaya open those Kelly green spaces to the delectation of wanderers who will be able to explore the park in all its 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