Day 5/ 24th Aug. 2010: Detroit (Heidelberg Project)

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Day 5 / 24th Aug. 2010: Detroit (Belle Isle)

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Day 4: Detroit (Belle Isle, evening coda)

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Day 4: Detroit (Belle Isle)

Belle Isle

There appears to be no train into Detroit from the South (ironic or appropriate as that may be). After the red-eye from Buffalo, Amtrak transfers us to a bus for the service into Motor City.  A stuffed panda joins the group.

Waking up to Detroit.

On his journey to the South in 1853, on commission for the New-York Daily Times, Olmsted produced (his biographer Rybczynski notes) fourteen articles in two weeks in Virginia, and “only” four more in the following six weeks. I feel lucky to be able to squeeze off six blog posts in the first half of my journey; three weeks later, I am still writing the seventh installment.

The walk to my hotel: unimaginable destruction. The pedestrian view and the view from the car are different. Only the maimed and the insane walk the streets, it seems, leaning into the viscous air or sitting back on the slope. Even the revitalized downtown circulates on an elevated tramway, two stories above—from casino to casino. The first park I find is the Veterans Memorial Park of Detroit.

and a bit down Woodward, Detroit Condos

looking on eyeless buildings

with a camouflaged outhouse

The Fox

signal is strength.

“Several spheres are working together to create the single entity.”

On Fort, a police officer ditches her motorcycle into a mail truck.

Free Press


A ride to Belle Isle with the hotel shuttle. “Belle Isle!?” the driver exclaims, “What do you want to go there for?”

“We used to use it all the time in the ‘seventies.  I used to take my kids there—they loved the Giant Slide.  There’s a legend they called this snake island, then pig island.  They put the pigs there to eat the snakes.  They don’t keep it up no more.  Just, you know, if you want to drive your lady there, do some smoochin’.”

Central Avenue, Belle Isle

Wah-na-be-zze (White Swan) Island, according to the Ottowa and Ojibwa. Rattlesnake Island (1620). Isle lay Marguerite (1701). Isle au Ste. Clair (18th century). Isle aux Cochons (1759). Belle Isle (1845), in honor of Miss Isabelle Cass, daughter of Governor Lewis Cass.

Whether the hogs were put on the island to eat the snakes, or to protect the hogs from coyotes, or to protect crops from the hogs.

James Fisher’s family murdered there in Pontiac’s siege of Detroit 1763.

Lieutenant George McDougall occupies the island (by fiat of King George III) in 1768. Purchased from the Ojibwa and Ottawa for eight barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, six pounds of vermilion, and a wampum belt.

Belle Isle deed and Wampum belt from Ottawa and Chippewa nations to Lt. George McDougall for Hog Island in the Detroit River on May 5, 1769. The animal figures serve as the signatures of the Native Americans on the contract selling the island to the British. (Photo and caption from a Detroit News feature on the Detroit Public Library’s special collections.)

In 1780 the King’s cattle and a Mr. Riddle moved to the island.

After 1851 it became a summer resort, with ferry service.

Chief Sleeping Bear hid his beautiful daughter in a covered boat on the Detroit River. The winds blew the covers off that boat and it floated past the keeper of the water gates, who brought the young beauty into his tent. The enraged winds beat the keeper to death and returned the daughter to Chief Sleeping Bear, who placed her on an island in the Detroit River, surrounded with snakes. The Great Spirits immortalized her by transforming her into a white doe, also known as Snake Goddess of Belle Isle.

The water-gate keeper was buried on Isle au Peche, where his spirit remains. His voice is heard as wind in the trees, only by those prepared through fasting and meditation. Chief Pontiac spent a week on Isle au Peche, before his war against the English, to fast and seek the wisdom of the water-gate keeper.

The city of Detroit purchased the island for $180,000 in 1879 and changed the name to “Belle Isle Park” in 1881.

After building parks in Manhattan (1858-76), Brooklyn (1865-95), Buffalo (1868-), Chicago (1870-95), Montreal (1873-93), and Boston (1878-), amongst other projects, Olmsted is hired in 1881 to develop a plan for Belle Isle Park. He will resign from the project in 1885, although his plan was accepted by the Detroit City Council.

Olmsted’s Means

Olmsted approached Belle Isle as he did every project, with attention to the particular “genius” of the place. The prevalence of the three Brownian (after Capability Brown) landscape elements—great lawns, clumps of trees, sheets of water—in his park designs obscures their variety, the extent to which each proposes a unique solution to the particular opportunities and problems of a given site. “Trees, turf, rural beauty, and open air” would remain “essential” constants, yet Olmsted’s design for San Francisco (which the city chose not to adopt) differs as much from his designs for New York as the climate of the Bay Area differs from that of the lower Hudson valley. And both differ significantly from his plans for Belle Isle.

Olmsted’s designs also,  increasingly as his career develops, pursue a pragmatic notion of economy: “if economy lies in a close adaptation of means to ends, it equally lies in a close adaptation of ends to means” (The Park for Detroit;  all further Olmsted quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from this privately published open letter to Detroit). Economy is gauged to the effect the park’s “distant prospect” will have on its users—educating their imagination, their taste and habits of recreation.

The temporality of the “inner park” is bound to the extra-human time of trees. It is hard to imagine that Olmsted never fully experienced the grandeur of his parks as we know them. It is equally hard to imagine the resistance he met with, in proposing and executing his designs. The conundrum is that, “a plan for a park adapted to the conditions . . . and to the existing habits, demands, and expectations of the people . . . is unlikely to fully accord with views that will later be taken of the matter.” Economy of means entails taking into account not a fixed effect but a learning curve, hybrid, liminal: a spatialization of signs and a signifying space, in degrees of consciousness. “Those things in a park, which, when first seen, excite the most interest, soon fail, as a rule, to hold attention, and are often a disturbing element, rather than an enhancement, of the pleasure of its habitual frequenters.”

Olmsted objected when Detroit tied financing of the park to city politics and to regular appropriations from the city budget, subject each year to tax-payer approval: “the outlay shall be limited from  year to year by concurrent votes of both branches of the Council, to be taken in the midst of the park working-season; so that those in charge, when setting about work in the spring, will be uncertain of their means for carrying it on.”  This flawed arrangement would lead to Olmsted’s resigning from the project for Belle Isle (having learned his lessons from twenty-five years of dealing with Central Park).

Identifying the consistent, long range “genius of place,” and what aspects of it might be achieved economically in the short term, Olmsted pursues what he calls “The Necessity of Consistency of Style to Economy.” First moves are crucial, as when a housekeeper “sets out to furnish a room, the first article she [sic] buys for it, though but a single chair or table cover, settles much as to everything else.” The choice of investment must be long-range.

One invests not in things but in an effective sequence: “the degree and method of [the park’s] action [on the minds of those using it] will be more determined by the order, sequence, and relation one to another, of different objects, than by their intrinsic qualities.”

One invests not in a goal but in the efficacy of the gesture. The damage in “catchpenny, smart, ‘decorative’ things” is not in their cost but “in the injury to everything else which comes with their introduction.” Thus, “the constant complaints of shabbiness, and the futile attempts to relieve it by additional finery, in certain parks.” The park-maker, faced with present means, heeds the Morris injunction: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

The present means to which the park-maker adapts ends, then, is at once environmental, economic, social, cultural. Finances are only the beginning of means. And yet finances are fundamental. Olmsted would take the Pinchot path, appealing repeatedly to the bottom line; transcendentalism à la Muir creeps into his prose mainly as endless variations on “groups and masses and single outstanding trees, with glades giving light onto them.”

At the same time, the bottom line is transcendental. Identifying the economy of the park and locating the “general tone or character,” what Olmsted calls the “poetic theme” of the park, are one and the same: “economy . . . to avoid disturbances, interruptions, and discords of the poetic theme.”

Olmsted locates the work of the park-maker in the imaginary, in this phase of persuasion with limited means: “a critical period, during which the advantages to be attained by it will not be known by experience; when they will be wholly imaginary, and will be taxing imagination in fields far outside of the ordinary business experience of most Detroiters, when the taxation in behalf of the park will inevitably be large relatively, not only to the benefits immediately available, but even to those plainly recognized to be distantly coming due.”

An imaginary, but an imaginary with a price tag.

The practical and the poetic (or impractical) continually cross and fuse in Olmsted, like the two senses of “taxation,” a snake biting its own tail. The contortions and amplitude of his undulating syntax, taxed with orienting sensibility toward an imagination the writer ultimately doubts (“taxing imagination in fields far outside of the ordinary”), groan with the longhand work of arguing the impractical in practical terms. (“A sufficiently full verbal explanation . . . will better serve a sound public opinion than discussion of a finished drawing.”) In contradicting himself, he resembles his contemporary, Whitman.

Olmsted might have been happier writing poetry. Instead he chose to confront and resolve his contradictions in politics, in the sphere of material, public commitment.

“You must have a few simple, distinct objects in view, and must provide for these in a liberal, strong, quiet, and thoroughly satisfying way, guarding with all possible care against inconsistencies and discords.”

What long-lasting features of the site can be brought into play more quickly?

“By thus bringing considerable parts and features of a park rapidly into a condition of complete fitness for use, the public of all classes has been influenced to cheerfully accept at once whatever rules were necessary to the proper enjoyment of it, and thus to fall easily into customs, habits, and demands, harmonious with its design.”

If his arguments ring of the social engineering all too ingrained in so much urban planning, what’s notable is that Olmsted places blame for any failure of the park squarely on the shoulders of the park maker. And he subjects the design ultimately to the ratification (however teasingly “educated”) of the democratic masses.

Olmsted located the “poetic theme” of Belle Isle in its woods. “Shall it, for example, be fine, delicate, and subtile, like most written poems, or shall it have more of the quality of Burns’s verse, racy of the soil?” He was attracted to the unique geography of an island park (and indeed Belle Isle remains the largest island city park in the United States), where “the foil and vantage for perspective of broad openings of unbroken greensward . . .  is served by the broad expanses of water with which its woodland scenery must be associated.” Olmsted insists, “The essential merit of the park will lie in the extent, purity, congruity, and unsophisticated quality, of its main body of woodland.”

A year later, in his follow up pamphlet, Olmsted repeats the point: “An economical management of Belle Isle will never be possible if the necessity is forgotten, in discussions of its plan, of considering the relations of every feature to the purpose of maintaining the larger part of it, congruously, in the condition of a great, unencumbered, open-wooded, sun-penetrated, and breeze-swept pasture.”

Olmsted modeled most of his parks on spaces he had experienced in Europe; plans for Belle Isle emulate the tracts of forest plantation one finds throughout France and even in England, the original “parks,” or “parks-proper,” to be distinguished from the “kept grounds,” of great houses and chateaux. Olmsted specifically mentions the “Royal Park of Windsor”—where “large numbers of cows and sheep, as well as deer, are appropriately and profitably pastured”—also Fontainebleau.

Belle Isle, then, was to provide unadulterated forest, and country pasture (minus the typical picturesque features), for the relief of Detroit. Olmsted’s proposal would incorporate a third element—canals—with a nod to the “island park” of Stockholm: “highways of pleasure, in which boats would be used instead of carriages.” Canals would draw on the flow of the Detroit river to drain the low, wet areas of the island , eliminating pools “available to the propagation of typhoid, malarial, and other zymotic poisons.” For Olmsted—who in the couple of years prior to the Belle Isle commission had begun a massive drainage project disguised as a park in Boston’s Back Bay Fens, to improve a sewage overload on the Muddy River—the poetic theme almost always begins with drainage.

In some respects, Belle Isle today, in broad outlines, retains the key features of Olmsted’s proposal. It even has (or had, until recently) its white deer. The park must be measured not against what it was but against what it continually strives to be.

Naturally, I was eager to discover the woods.

First, Union General Alpheus Starkey Williams, consulting a map. Williams was a general who never received much public recognition. Despite fighting in important commands, he remained — outside the West Point network, stationed in the Shenandoah Valley, not a self-promoter with the newspapers — a brigadier general throughout most of the war. Author of the well-regarded book, From the Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams.

Then the water slide

and the zoo.

Zoo Exit

These attractions Olmsted’s plan would have confined to the western end of the island, convenient to the ferry landing, the only means of access at that time. These were what the hotel chauffeur missed about the island. These were easy to photograph. However instinctively I did not photograph people.

The driver dropped me on Shadownook Street. The wild end

with its snakes

and its thickets hiding white deer.

“To this day, the maiden’s spirit can be seen . . .

dancing in the wind . . . the Snake Goddess of Belle Isle . . .

often mistaken . . . as a deer.”

Working together to restore our communities.

Sentences on Trees

“The essential merit of the park will lie in the extent, purity, congruity, and unsophisticated quality, of its main body of woodland”

“comparatively few completely fine, and many distorted, decaying, and sickly trees”

“of species the most valuable that could be selected, by openness to breezes, cooled and ozoned by passing over the adjoining flowing waters”

“characteristics that will always distinguish them from trees originally springing up apart, or in small groups in the open, and grown each with all the food and elbow-room and sunlight it could ask . . .

expressive of lawn-like luxury, dressiness, and fine accomplishments”

“a gradual process of development of beauty in groups and masses and single outstanding trees, with glades giving light to them”

“the disposition of the woods, the direct, truthful vigor of necessary constructions, and the refined fitness of details”

“other large parts are marshy; and in these there are constant pools, with rushy and bushy borders”

“a healthy, moderately open, and scattered but sturdy and umbrageous forest development”

“low and moist and poachy in the spring”

Nectar feeders on Belle Isle

I have reached Blue Heron Lagoon, at the east end of the island.

This must be the “nature” end of the park. With interpretive signage, sponsored by the Nature Zoo (sequel to the zoo).

Bringing the wilds of Michigan to the heart of Detroit

In armies

and knots

Aliens and


and answers

Gone fishing

by the boardwalk

around the lagoon.

“This ground would appear a simple meadow, with an umbrageous border on one side, and the river on the other.”

The road to the William Livingstone Memorial Light

listening for the water-gate keeper

Carbon Neutral Superbowl XL

plants 2,500 seedlings (in 2006)

The Greening of Detroit

Albert Kahn’s marble lighthouse, completed in 1930, the only all marble light in the nation—a gift from the Lake Carriers Association and the citizens of Detroit.

Beyond the lighthouse, looking toward Lake St. Clair. The water gates

the waves, crickets, and cicadas grinding their scissors. Motor City traffic.

Droning hypnotists competing for your sleep.

Grilling station. “To restore the balance

these plants must be removed.”

The lagoon, from the east end

More interpretation

and sumac.

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Day 3: Buffalo (Part iv: Delaware Park)

No parking in the park. I am in The Park, as Olmsted called it. (The name did not stick; built 1868-1876, it would come to be called Delaware Park.) The trees have thinned, no longer sheltering The Park from traffic—traffic that, in any case, cuts through The Park.

“Four Trees – opon a solitary / Acre – / Without Design / Or Order, or Apparent / Action – / Maintain – ”

These are young trees, probably planted to replace giants destroyed during the 2006 October Surprise Storm. (Also known as Lake Storm “Aphid,” Arborgeddon, Columbus Day Massacre, Octoblizzard, Thundersnow—indeed, as Robin Blaser pronounced the word “God,” in the Episcopal Church on the first night of the Robert Creeley conference during that storm, the blizzard did clap with thunder.)

At least eighty percent of the city’s trees were damaged in the October storm, and many trees lost. Even at that time, the city’s estimated canopy cover was only twelve percent, well below the national average of a third.

Crossing the greensward from one group of trees to another is like crossing a bay: the distances hard to judge. What seemed empty and smooth is in fact full of singularities. (The greensward’s lack of flocks or unstructured human wandering accentuates the illusion—walkers stick to the perimeter road, golfers rule the green.)

In one bay the green organizes itself to reveal a sort of tumulus.

But I move on, drawn to a Natural Regeneration Area (a recent addition to the park). This wedge of wildness, out in the midst of the green, manifests a future landscape.

The soundscape is dense—populated with insects.

what is the park to me
spots of time
on the edges of the fairway
I know a place

some mower with a sense
of humor left

a weedy island
city of clover and iris flag
datura thistle & daisies

queen anne’s lace
sumac    brown-eyed susans

big oaks on two sides

Gilles Clément might call this a Planetary Garden, with its index of global diversity, a privileged site for intercrossing: “the result of a ceaseless agitation of flows around the planet—winds, marine currents, animal and human migrations—through which the species transported find themselves constantly mixed and redistributed.”

The fairway however feels striated, as one walks across the courses. Crossing territories. Lines.

I am heading for a bench under a tree.

Am I ruining a drive? The bench itself seems oriented to the golf course, not the view. Must I yield the bench to those approaching golfers?

There are some birds here: a yowling bunch of nestlings. Then one bird, a song. I listen—flattery? Or, get the fuck away.

A golf cart, driven by a parks official, arcs past, for a look see. I am watched, stop the recording.

But this park will continue to disclose itself. More than when I pedaled the ring road, for years.

Olmsted selected a site for his park—in the Bertie Waterlime, on glacier-churned bones of Neosiluric coral, not far from the pool of eurypterids. Geology that exemplifies what is special about the landscape of Western New York: scraped bare, rubbed against the sky, exposed. It is a place for watching clouds. Cecilia Vicuña: “Buffalo is a claahhhoud place.”

Looking from the Devonian right onto the Silurian, from I.’s sculpture studio in the Tri-Main Building onto the Onondaga limestone parking lot. Right where the tracks from Canada cross Main Street. “The Devonian is a precise Route 20 limit, for example, of Western New York.” (Charles Olson)

D.M.: “this is Buffalo”—crushing an invisible cigarette butt, on the back of his hand.

B.L. Hawkins, drawing a line with her finger and sparkling eyes: “ah, that long northern light.”

There are vast quantities of it in the air immediately above The Park, reflected off the lake.

Charles Burchfield would have loved this tree. His painting The Three Trees captures the essence of this landscape for me. How the sky towers over the towering trees.

Flaneur of the lakeshore and foothill scapes of Lake Erie, Alleghenies, Salem to Buffalo. Sunflower mystic. Painter of nightmoth tantras. Steps into the ordinary kingdom of open country. Like Olmsted, Burchfield walked all hours and watches.

Out there, on grad school weekday sorties, I sometimes felt it was just me and Burchfield, boxcars shifting, and the thousand eyed creatures.

Notice how the trees have lost their secondary branches and are tufted with leaves.

Like desert plants, or some Dr. Seuss scape. The atmosphere a form of water.

Across the par, a deskeined flock of geese, fertilizing.

Tennis: mother and son.

On the track one experiences the park in relation to a lane, to the relative velocity of other walkers. Catching up, passing, getting passed. Bicycles. This side of the loop is open to cars. (The other side, closed to cars, happens to parallel the Scajaquada Expressway.)

And beside me, Jack Foran. Jack is an interesting guy. This is not the first time I have run into him here.

Jack has a theory about the psychogeographical fault line that jogs Elmwood at Allen Street—trace of the Devil’s Hole Massacre, the Seneca cession, and a displacement of Buffalo mind and matter, some ten meters west and east of center. (See Goat Island entry on this blog.) Jack wrote the “Niagara Falls and Electricity” essay for a collection on the Pan-American Expo of 1901 that I used when writing about the Falls on this blog.

Jack and I take up as if no time had passed between this and our last conversation here, years ago. Olson’s park of eternal events. We discuss Jack’s dissertation on Homer. Our dissatisfaction with academia. What would Olmsted, who sought to “civilize” American cities, think of American civilization now?

Jack updates me on some recent controversy around the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. In 2004, one year before I left Buffalo, the city in the midst of a budgetary crisis turned management of its parks over to Erie County (Intermunicipal Cooperation Agreement for Operation, Management and Improvement of City of Buffalo Parklands), an agreement that eventually contracted the management and maintenance of the Olmsted park system to the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy.  After six years, the agreement seems to be working well for the parks—at least in regards to appearance and physical ecology, and despite the devastating October 2007 storm that did so much damage. The parks, including the natural regeneration areas, have never looked better.

In 2008 the Conservancy “adopted the Plan for the 21st Century, the comprehensive blueprint necessary to restore the [Buffalo] parks to Olmsted’s original vision while expanding and completing the system as originally conceived, a ‘city within a park.’  The plan calls for systematic reinvestment in the parks over time with 300 capital projects providing a new investment in Buffalo’s historic parks and parkways.”

Disaster capitalism? The Buffalo Olmsted Park System: Plan for the 21st Century is a concise and comprehensive introduction to Olmsted’s aesthetics.

According to the contract with Erie County, management of the parks would revert to the City of Buffalo at the end of 2009. But it was expected the City would renew the Conservancy’s contract. As it happens, renewal of the contract was held up for more than a year over some push-back from mayor Byron Brown’s office. On labor issues: would non-unionized Conservancy workers be allowed to work alongside the unionized City parks workers? Would the Conservancy be required to pay the City-ordained “living wage” to its temporary and seasonal workers And on cultural politics: Brown, Buffalo’s first African American mayor, took issue with the racial homogeneity of the Conservancy’s board of trustees and its staff.

Some of the recommendations in the master plan seem to underlay this tension. As in regards to Delaware Park: “Reconsider the golf course—maintain, downgrade to a 9-hole course, or remove.”

Over five years, I noted a vastly predominant African American use of this public golf course. Apart from the exercise loop, the playing fields and the ball courts, also enjoyed largely by African Americans, golfing seems one of the more popular uses of Delaware Park. Even though the park sits on the white (west) side of the Main Street color line.

This line was reinforced when Humboldt Parkway, originally built as a green artery connecting The Park with The Parade (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park) to the east, was obliterated by the four lanes of route 33, funneling white collar workers from the suburbs downtown, and creating formidable moat (what Jane Jacobs would call a “border vacuum”) between West and East Buffalo.

The Master Plan’s recommendation to remove the golf course follows the first of its stated guiding principles—to “Protect and rehabilitate the Buffalo Olmsted Park System to preserve and restore the historic integrity of Olmsted’s vision.” In Buffalo, Olmsted unpacks the superimposed layers of his New York City parks and spreads them across different, specialized spaces: Front Park for gregarious congregation and admiring the Lake and headwaters of the Niagara River, The Parade for civic and athletic gatherings, Delaware Park for boating and an “oasis of green” in the City. Olmsted even argues for a new park in South Buffalo as a way to protect the unique, “passive” recreational character of Delaware Park (under his son’s management, the firm would design and build a version of South Park):

“Your present North Park [Delaware Park] is presently well adapted to certain quiet forms of recreation, favoring a contemplative or musing turn of mind and restful refreshment. . . . But it is not always that merely soothing, out-of-door refreshment is wanted. Occasionally by all, but oftenest by those who pass most of their time in monotonous occupations and amid sombre surroundings, tranquilizing natural scenes are less demanded than those by which gayety, liveliness, and a slight spirit of adventure are stimulated. . . . It will follow that unless comprehensive provision for it is soon undertaken elsewhere, you will be constrained to meet the requirement by a succession of small, feeble, imperfect and desultory interpolations upon the design of the North Park. . . . Twenty years hence shall Buffalo have one park, of a poor, confused character, or two, each of a good, distinct character?” (Civilizing American Cities 131-132).

The phrase “those who pass most of their time in monotonous occupations and amid sombre surroundings” seems code for working class occupations, and “gayety, liveliness, and a slight spirit of adventure” for working class pastimes. In an uncharitable reading, Olmsted might be construed to say, “we need to build a park for the hoi polloi, otherwise, our ‘tranquilizing natural scenes’ will be compromised by their lowbrow activities.” I walk his parks to discredit, or at least to complicate, such an easy reduction of Olmsted’s politics.

The first intrusions on Olmsted’s designs were not single-use sports facilities (those came later) but the Albright Knox Art Gallery and the New York State Building (now the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society). Construction of these imposing edifices, vigorously opposed by Olmsted’s sons who considered them “deductions” from the park proper, entailed cutting down several hundred mature trees. Only then, in addition to the zoo (formalizing what had been a deer paddock), and the “lovely but incongruously formal” rose garden, came the sports facilities:

“In the newly renamed Delaware Park, golf, football, and baseball had all secured a foothold in the Meadow as early as 1899. By 1913, sixteen hundred golfers had permits, and two years later the course was enlarged to 18 holes. Formal baseball diamonds appeared in 1914” (The Buffalo Olmsted Park System 43).

There do not seem to be statistics on the diversity of these early Olmsted park golfers. In Olmsted’s parks the open space system, the progressive era, and the reform park are layered, in tension.

(Caption at bottom reads: “The areas [golfing fairways] in white are major obstacles to the realization of the full restoration plan. Without their removal, the park can only partially be restored. However, non-historic structures and uses in any park will not be removed without community input, and if removed will be replaced outside of the park as community needs dictate.”)

In the early 1960s NY State Route 198 (the Scajaquada Expressway) cut through Olmsted’s green oasis, on its 50 mph rush to join I-190 along the lake.

These bridges, in the northeast corner of the park, used to span the Quarry Garden, since filled with debris from the construction of Route 198. Such bridge architecture would in any case not have been rustic enough for Olmsted.


not Olmstedian!

More natural regeneration areas, and Olmstedian curves.


and compost.

Rhizomes and roots

and crazy Dr. Seuss trees.

Buffalo’s bison—caught in the English mishearing of “Beau Fleuve” (Beautiful River)? Or guardians of Buffalo’s lost connections with the Great Plains?

A flight of Branta canadensis.


and moonrise.

Traffic (and radio lights) on the Scajaquada.

Standing, in the very middle of this park I have known well but never so well as today, on the threshold of a journey West, across the continent, to discover the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted’s parks, and of the public, green open space bequeathed to some of this nation’s great cities, I feel I have already arrived. Suspended between setting sun and rising moon, head in the sky, practically above clouds, I observe the distant jeweled traffic.  I could stand here for hours, on the edge of some perpetual Olmstedian insomnia, or soaking in nostalgia — where else to go? Many places. Let epiphany be beginning not end.

Under branch

and over par.

Past the leaf compost

and the cone choreography (with rustic bridge restoration)

invasive species removing “Invasive Species Removal”

to Hoyt Lake sunset.

Staring at the fading, triffid-like shapes of these weeping willows, I hear the city’s wails drowned in water voices. The Scajaquada, pouring from a culvert into the lake.

Buffalo gals go round the outside (my hosts Robin and Todd dancing).

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Day 3: Buffalo (Part iii: Delaware Park, Parkside / Olmsted’s Park Psychology)

I have just visited South Park (in South Buffalo) with poet Robin Brox.  Robin drives me up to Delaware Park, for my final Buffalo Olmsted rendezvous.  Buffalo is the first stop on a ten-city journey across the country.  “Instant Everything,” a billboard reads, next to the General Mills elevator–responsible under certain meteorological conditions for making the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve (and most of downtown Buffalo) redolent of Cheerios.

On our way to Delaware Park we turn right off Niagara Street onto Lafayette, past Santasiero’s.  The best Pasta Fasoola in town.  My favorite dish is the Pasta Santanesca (garlic, anyone?)  I remember having dinner here with Susan Howe and fellow grad students, back in the late 1990s.

A couple of blocks down Lafayette

we pass the house where Anya Lewin and Lara Odell lived.  This was Cornershop: an amazing, “ground up” space for art, poetry, film and other media that Anya ran when I moved to Buffalo.  Many of us gave our first Buffalo readings here.  My partner Isabelle had her first Buffalo show at Cornershop.  I remember poets Robert Creeley and Susan Howe in attendance for several of those events (and heard Howe herself read in this space, from Pierce Arrow).  The Ronald Johnson symposium that Joel Bettridge organized kicked off at Cornershop.  Graham Foust ran his Scratch & Dent reading series out of Cornershop, inviting many now illustrious writers.  Tony Conrad made music at Cornershop.  Cornershop was Creeley’s favorite cultural space in Buffalo; he would later write a beautiful poem, “For Anya,” published in his book, If I Were Writing This. It may be my favorite poem in that volume.

“An ‘outside’ was always what I wanted / to get to, the proverbial opening / in the clearing, plain church with massed, / seated persons, the bright water / dense with white caps and happy children . . .”

(I should note that Creeley was NOT a fan of Olmsted, but I will return to his thoughts on proverbial openings.)  If you want to learn more about Cornershop, check out the beautiful website Anya constructed for it:

We drive through Colonial Circle

and along Bidwell Parkway, one of the green arteries that made Olmsted call Buffalo his “best-planned city.”

Olmsted’s notion was that no neighborhood should be more than “many minutes’ walk” from one of these parkways, “so that in necessarily passing through them, whether in going to or from the park, or to and from business, some substantial recreative advantage may be incidentally gained” (Civilizing American Cities [hereafter CW] 83).  Here we approach Soldier’s Place, at the conjunction of Bidwell, Chapin, and Lincoln Parkways.

Soldier’s Place is the hub of the three spokes near the center of the following map of Olmsted’s Buffalo plan, which demonstrates how the parks were conceived as part of a connected network, the arteries as much a part of the system as its lungs or heart: “It is a common error to regard a park as something to be produced complete in itself, as a picture to be painted on a canvas.  It should rather be planned as one to be done in fresco, with constant consideration of exterior objects, some of them quite at a distance and even existing as yet only in the imagination of the painter” (CW 83).

After the incidental recreation of the parkways, Robin drops me off at Delaware Park.  It has been hard to approach this park in the context of this project; for seven years it was my park, my neighborhood, my workout.  I didn’t really treat it as a park in Olmsted’s sense of the word, which indicates either my blindness or what has changed, or some combination.  Here is Olmsted’s “park”:

“Practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade.  This we want as a central feature.  We want depth of wood enough about it not only for comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes.  The word park, in town nomenclature, should, I think, be reserved for grounds of the character and purpose thus described.”

(“Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” CW 81; see also Olmsted’s encyclopedia entry, “Park”)

I remember Isabelle’s and my first exploration of Buffalo, from the foothold of the Red Roof Inn near the North Campus.  By chance, we found ourselves driving around the Parkside neighborhood, a neighborhood Olmsted planned.  “Hey, this doesn’t look so bad!”  But I would end up living further south in Allentown, on College Street, thanks to the poet Mike Kelleher, who found me an apartment in the house where he himself was living.

Isabelle stayed in New Mexico to complete a welding apprenticeship.  A year later, when she came to Buffalo, we found an apartment inside the northern edge of Parkside, on a street that essentially made a “backside” to the big houses on Starin.  These houses were about half the size of the big houses, packed more closely together, and split into apartments.  We had the upper flat at 106 Huntington Avenue, a lovely apartment, with a big backyard.

Like Riverside (Illinois), which Olmsted had started four years earlier, Parkside invents the suburbs.  As I visit Riverside on this trip (a bit later), I remember Parkside’s green islands and finally recognize their purpose: a green commons.  In Parkside they now serve to show off ornamental fountains and flower plantations, almost like traffic circle plantings.  At Riverside, however, the extensive open concept islands, with their greenswards, tree-shaded niches and obliquely placed benches, continue to invite the walker in, as spaces in their own right.  These islands also partly screen the houses on either side of the street from each other; the big houses on Parkside’s avenues face off quite nakedly, in open competition.

Parkside is the area to the northeast of Delaware Park in this map, the section between Hertel Avenue (the red line) and the railway crescent (the curving black line), bounded on the west by Parkside Avenue and on the east by Main Street (at two o’clock):

To reach Delaware Park I would bicycle or run through the Parkside neighborhood, past the big houses.  Once at the park, I was ready to get into lap mode and would immediately join the perambulation on the loop road.  (“A Promenade may, with great advantage, be carried along the outer part of the surrounding groves of a park,” CW 81).  Like so many others, I approached Delaware Park as a giant treadmill.

With its ersatz open space, the 18-hole golf course.

Here is the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s description of the site:

“Delaware Park, originally called simply The Park, is the centerpiece of the Buffalo park system—the city’s own Central Park.  In its original state, it was one of the purest expressions of Olmsted’s vision in the United States.  He hand-picked the site, and, because he conceived of it as one element of a larger park system, he made no compromises as to its character.  Other parks could hold stages, parade grounds, formal gardens, and other amenities.  The Park would be entirely devoted to a natural landscape of wide rolling meadows, wooded thickets penetrated by winding paths, and a large lake full of islands and inlets—perfect for leisurely boat rides. . . .  Planning for The Park began in August 1868, when Olmsted toured the countryside north of Buffalo looking for large park sites.  He ultimately chose an undeveloped, sloping landscape traversed by the peacefully meandering Scajaquada Creek.  This mixture of elements—wide, sloping, grassy areas with water and stands of mature trees—seemed the perfect place for Olmsted to realize his dream of creating a natural oasis within the city” (Olmsted Conservancy Master Plan 40-41).

The “large lake full of islands and inlets” (sans islands) I covered in Day 2, Part ii of this blog.  These “wide, sloping, grassy areas with water and stands of mature trees” lie on the other side of the Scajaquada from the golf course.  The Scajaquada was once  a creek that peacefully meandered, but that has since been replaced by an expressway, dividing the park in two and imposing its sound of rushing traffic.

I had always been aware of an inner ring of trees around the golf course, which some paths encouraged visiting, but today I was free to approach them as destinations in themselves, rather than detours.  The Master Plan makes note of “wooded thickets that once fully enveloped the park”: many of those that had not been removed over the years were damaged in the 2007 freak October snow storm (the “treepocalypse”).  Now a few groups of stately oaks stand out in the middle of the golf course.

What has happened to Delaware Park since it was completed in 1876 and “four to five hundred carriages visited the park on an average day” (1000 on summer Sundays) exposes the tensions at the heart of Olmsted’s approach to park design.  In his first major exposition of that approach, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns” (1870), Olmsted says there are two forms of recreation:

“One will include all of which the predominating influence is to stimulate exertion of any part or parts needing it; the other, all which cause us to receive pleasure without conscious exertion.  Games chiefly of mental skill, as chess, or athletic sports, as baseball, are examples of means of recreation of the first class, which may be termed that of exertive recreation; music and the fine arts generally of the second or receptive division” (CW 73).

Olmsted’s park designs aimed chiefly to affect, beyond the body or the faculty of reason, the imagination: “A great object of all that is done in a park, of all the art of a park, is to influence the mind of men through their imagination” (82).

Olmsted saw his parks as settings for “unconscious or indirect recreation.”  In his designs, he sought an effect on the human organism by “an action of what [the park] presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given the form of words” (“Notes on the Plan of Franklin Park and Related Matters”; Boston, 1886, p. 107).  He frequently resorted to musical metaphors when describing the effects of his park designs.

Like the poet, the artist or the composer, the park-maker works with materials of the unconscious, and in particular with what we now might call the environmental unconscious (ecocritic Lawrence Buell coined this phrase).  In an essay on trees, Olmsted compares a wild flower on a grassy bank to an imported flower blooming under glass in an enameled vase: “the former, while we have passed it by without stopping, and while it has not interrupted our conversation or called for remark, may possibly . . . have had a more soothing and refreshing sanitary influence” (“Trees in Streets and Parks,” The Sanitarian X, No. 114; September, 1882: 518).  What touches our senses peripherally most affects our health—for good or for ill?  Fleurs du mal aside, Olmsted’s might be an ambient poetics.

The “scenery” Olmsted sought was not clear and well defined in outline.  It had to contain either “considerable complexity of light and shadow near the eye” (picturesque, dark, entangled foreground) or “obscurity of detail father away” (clumps) (Draft of “Address to Civil Engineers”).

Olmsted’s work with the Sanitary Commission, a wartime relief effort he headed 1861-1863, put him into contact with the asylum reform movement and psychiatric theories associated with “moral treatment.”  As Robert Hewitt recounts, William Tuke’s concept of moral treatment “was largely synonymous with the creation of specific environments that would promote recovery through the use of environmental settings promoting productive activity, rural beauty and edifying pastimes” (“The Influence of Somatic and Psychiatric Medical Theory on the Design of Nineteenth Century American Cities”).  The aim of the asylum is to present a “class of objects agreeable as possible and at the same time entirely different from the objects connected to tasked faculties”: the old “change of scenery” cure.  In America, Thomas Story Kirkebride’s reformed asylums would enact Tuke’s settings-based theories.

For the park maker, treatment entails designs that “withdraw the mind to an infinite distance” from all “objects associated with streets and walls of the city,” and “the constant suggestion to the imagination of an unlimited range of rural conditions.”  At work here is a kind of environmental and somatic allopathy—in response to the physical toll of city living, as miasma theory understood it, and to the psychological cost, evident through a supposed increase of “urban insanity.”  Olmsted loved cities but unlike Whitman found sidewalk contact stressful.

Hewitt notes that this “separation and antithetical visual differentiation of therapeutic environments from pathogenic environments” is a notion derived from period “Lockean” conceptual models of the mind.  Olmsted followed Locke in his belief that the imagination was a faculty directly (physically) acted upon by visual stimulation, and that the imagination would in turn affect the body:

“tending, more than any single form of medication we can use, to establish sound minds in sound bodies – the foundation of all wealth.  But to this process of recuperation a condition is necessary, known . . . as the unbending of the faculties which have been tasked, and this unbending of the faculties we find is impossible, except by the occupation of the imagination with objects and reflections of quite different character from those which are associated with their bent condition” (“A Classic Park Plan,” 1866 Report on Prospect Park).

The park, which “unbends the faculties,” was Olmsted’s prescription for neurasthenic stress: “men who have been breaking down frequently recover tone rapidly and are able to retain an active and controlling influence in an important business, from which they would have otherwise been forced to retire.  I direct school-girls, under certain circumstances, to be taken wholly, or in part, from their studies, and sent to spend several hours a day rambling on foot in the Park” (CW 93).  The utilitarian tone of Olmsted’s argument is part and parcel of a rhetoric inseparable from the design and aim of his parks.  At the same time, critics of Olmsted will read phrases like “sound minds in sound bodies – the foundation of all wealth” as reflective of Olmsted’s “own” values, rather than in their rhetorical context, directed at the moneyed classes Olmsted lobbied for material support.  The gendered prescriptions may, or may not, be more contingent.

The difference between the park and the asylum, for Olmsted, is that the park makes therapeutic atmosphere available to the masses:  “It is thus, in medical phrase, a prophylactic and therapeutic agent of vital value. . . .  And to the mass of people it is practically available only through such means as are provided through parks”  (Olmsted 1881).  (This was well before Big Pharma.)  The title of the collection of Olmsted writings I have with me, edited by E.B. Sutton, is Civilizing American Cities.

While Olmsted was not insensible to the therapeutic aims of exertive recreation, he did not think such recreation needed a beautiful, composed setting.  His park designs all include exertive facilities but subordinated to the principal, passive recreational design, and often as a compromise with civic demands.

The fact that his greenswards have largely been preserved as golf courses is one of the great ironies of Olmsted’s country landscape legacy.

The tension between the exertive and the passive, or “rambling,” uses of Olmsted’s parks has affected their evolution over time and remains an index of the success (or failure) of particular Olmsted parks.  The extent to which they happily coexist in many of the parks is often surprising.

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Day 3: Buffalo (Part ii: South Park)

We follow the Niagara River back upstream, under the Peace Bridge, to Lake Erie south of Buffalo.  Here is a view of the Niagara River from the Robert Moses Parkway, south of Niagara Falls.

A pumping station on the Parkway.

The head of the Niagara River, at Lake Erie (with a bit of Canada and the Riverwalk zig-zagging into the lake) seen from I-190, just south of the Peace Bridge.

A view of Lake Erie, past the Outer Harbor, from the Skyway, South Buffalo.

Our destination is South Park, the landlocked and diminished version of a grand park Olmsted had designed for the shore of Lake Erie, connecting its waters with those of a lagoon plotted with “islands, savannas, capes and peninsulas” (Civilizing American Cities 139).  So far as Olmsted honors the lake, courses of waterways and associated wetlands, and employs them as a principal resource in his design, he perhaps sees the landscape as the Kahkwa or Seneca did.  (Though maybe with less wildlife.)  The sixth Olmsted park, not far from South Park, called Cazenovia, is built near the original site of the Kahkwa village and Seneca Buffalo Creek Reservation: Mary Jamieson was buried there, a settler captured by the Seneca as a child, who as an adult chose to stay.

In his 1888 proposal for South Park, Olmsted cites the success of Delaware Park, as a model conducive to “a contemplative or musing turn of mind and restful refreshment.”  But, he continues, “those who pass most of their time in monotonous occupations and amid sombre surroundings” tend to seek out “gayety, liveliness, and a slight spirit of adventure.”  Hence, the encroachment of structured activities on park space–“small, feeble, imperfect and desultory interpolations,” according to Olmsted–including museum edifices and zoo complexes.

To meet this desire for adventure, while protecting the North Park, another park of a distinct character should be built in South Buffalo.  “Twenty years hence,” Olmsted asks, “shall Buffalo have one park, of a poor, confused character, or two, each of a good, distinct character?” (132).  Doing so would also give Buffalo another chance to connect with the lake waters–a city which “has no work of art and can have no work of art that will compare” with Lake Erie (132).

Olmsted deploys utilitarian rhetoric at the service of an aesthetic aim: to imagine water taking the place of turf, in the kind of landscape composition he has mastered but is eager to adapt to a watery environment, where park goers enter by boat rather than foot.  (Buffalo has been called Little Venice for its canal system.)  This would be a first: “No example of a realized design of such a character can be pointed to” (141-142).  Olmsted aims to bridge the domestic with the wild, the bounded with the open horizon.  His parks were harbors for possibility.

Olmsted’s Northern designs also shelter memories of the bayou and the “restful, dreamy nature of the South” (164).  Such was the language Olmsted used in 1871–a language not immune to irony, given Olmsted’s extensive travels in the South to report on slavery–when proposing a water park for Chicago’s South Side (now Jackson Park).  These dreams would not mature with Buffalo’s South Park.  Instead, Jackson Park, finally completed in 1892 for the Chicago World Columbian Expo, would first realize a lagoon interface with a Great Lake.  (It was at the Columbia Exposition that Westinghouse exhibited its technological innovations on the path to transmitting alternating current over distance:

In the Buffalo South Park proposal, packet boats were to ferry park-goers through islands marked out by windmill-powered lights.

Here are some windmills over Lackawanna, the Steel Winds wind farm.

The boaters would discover “an extended series of interesting passages of scenery.  At intervals there will open long vistas over water under broad leafy canopies . . . verdant grottoes . . . spacious forest glades . . . nurseries for song birds” (140).  The islands would enclose spaces ranging from broad open meadows to secluded picnic spots and migratory bird exclosures.  Olmsted’s plan is unique for balancing water with land, in an imbricated yet simple pattern.

As the design entailed excavating more than half a million yards of land, Buffalo’s park commissioners deemed it too expensive.  Olmsted’s son John and his partners in the Olmsted firm took over the project.  Their 1892 plan outlined a smaller inland park, in the “English deer park” mode, that eventually would include a 21-acre water feature, a conservatory, botanical garden and arboretum.

In Frederick Omsted’s 1888 proposal, he decries “the present railroad evil” and “the barbarity of a great number of deadly grade railroad crossings, within which no provision has yet been made for a single open space” (151, 153).  Ironically, what fuels urban growth also constrains healthy development–the profusion of uncrossable railway lines and their adjacent border vacuums.  Olmsted proposed a counter-system of parkways, which he considered as much the duty of Park Commissioners as the parks themselves:

“parkways are not to be dealt with on the principle that they are local affairs any more than the parks with which they connect.  They are to be laid out primarily even with less regard for the people who are to live in quarters of the city near the park than for those at a distance, because the fatigue and inconvenience of an approach to the park independently of any new ways to it would be of much less consequence to those living near it than to the main body of citizens” (147).

Olmsted argues for the private benefit such a public utility would bring to neighborhoods adjoining the parkways. Such a benefit was cruelly reversed when some of these parkways were turned into high speed thruways–most destructively in the case of the Humboldt Parkway (the “33”), which now separates the Parade from Delaware Park and isolates Buffalo’s east side from its west side, effectively segregating the city’s population.  Olmsted considered the Buffalo parks his “best-planned” system, due to the city’s extensively realized parkways.  Modern “parkways” reverse Olmsted’s intended aim.   The Scajaquada Parkway races through Delaware Park, impairing a large part of the design (including soundscape) and splitting the park in two.

We drive around in circles, past Father Baker’s Basilica (where the stations of the cross are lit in neon), looking for South Park.

The famous Lackawanna Six sent money home from here, drawing the attention of the Ashcroft justice department.  Even the public transportation is virtual.

After finally asking directions of a woman and her granddaughter who give me three tomatoes from their garden, we find the turn into the park, and the botanical gardens.  I used to come here in the winter to sit in the cactus greenhouse.  And to see the orchids.

Drive-through park.

The carriage way in the park plan turned out to be  convenient short-cut, connecting to Tifft Street via Hopkins Road, which was connected to the park in 1940 and has about a third the lights of South Park Avenue.  So this end of the park has traffic.  And Golf.

Clumps of trees casting their shade on virtually “open” greensward.


and country views.  (This is in the midst of residential and industrial South Buffalo, between rail yards, scrap yards and brownfields, a few miles north of the Ford Stamping Plant.)

The trees are decidedly less well kept than at Delaware Park.  Dead snags stand at the edge of the water feature, which is lily choked.

The park has a somewhat wild aspect, except for the traffic.  Robin and I talk about geo casing–tracking via time and place stamps.  Also, about how it takes three to bird: a human, a bird, and one other.  On the way out of the park, I photograph a mysterious mailbox, standing in the grass.

South Park is an intact Olmsted (Firm) design surrounded on two sieds by dense, low-income housing in a mixed use neighborhood.  The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has put together an impressive master plan, The Buffalo Olmsted Park System: Plan for the 21st Century. In it, the authors note, “Located within a thriving downtown and boasting one of the best-preserved Olmsted water parks in the country, South Park could easily be a model for the restoration of the Buffalo Olmsted Park System and a signature destination in Buffalo” (78).  For this to happen, we need to reconsider Olmsted’s parkway vision, to explore “green” ways to reconnect South Buffalo to the rest of the city.

I came here often, when I lived in Buffalo, but always regretted the use of a private automobile to do so.  As part of Buffalo’s emerging master plan and redevelopment of the Inner Harbor and waterfront, under mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration, the bike paths that run along the Niagara River north into Tonawanda are being connected to South Buffalo, the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve and, hopefully, to South Park.  That will be a big step forward.  Please visit South Park.

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