Day 2: Buffalo (Part i)

I arrive at 6 am: a tour of Buffalo’s architecture.

Begining with public library landscaping (and a camera blue at Buffalo’s grey skies).

The adjacent Brisbane Building (1895), on Lafayette Square.

City Hall.

The new Federal Courthouse looks like a cuisinart.

City Court (Phohl, Roberts & Biggie, 1974)

Water falls over  marble at the lion fountain making a squeaking noise.  SqueakyFountain A large woman in pink does some kind of slow motion power walk.

A walk up Delaware, stopping to record some crickets singing (who tie the soundscape over, from night to day) against the back-up beeper of a construction crew.  CricketsAndBeeper

Admiring the faded glory.

The view from Spot Coffee, where I write up Day 1.

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Buffalo: Some Background

What does it mean to claim a “poetics” from Olmsted’s designs?  To oppose a set of facile analogies—rectilinear, orderly, industrial, urban as prosaic; curving, random, green, rural as poetic?  Against the stop signs of the city, a landscape without punctuation marks?

Olmsted complicates such distinctions.  The plantings and layout of his parks baffle the streets’ commotion, yet the transition from park to city is not meant to be abrupt, as in fact it is, stepping onto Fifth Avenue from Central Park.  The grid must have induced migraines, when Olmsted planned to join each park with green arteries, connecting up the different neighborhoods—as in Boston’s “Backbay Fens” or Cleveland’s “Emerald Necklace.”  For similar reasons, Olmsted considered Buffalo to be his “best-planned” park system, helped by the accommodating nature of Joseph Ellicott’s radial street design: Delaware Park adjoins Forest Lawn cemetary at the top, The Parade (now Martin Luther King Park) to the southeast, Front Park to the southwest (fronting the head of the Niagara River at Lake Erie), all linked by parkways.

Riverside Park overlooks the Niagara River to the north.  Cazenovia and South Parks were added later, in South Buffalo.  Olmsted also landscaped Goat Island, at Niagara Falls.

As Olmsted’s parks took shape, owners of the land to the north and east of Delaware Park commissioned the plan of the residential system from his firm.  At the time, this neighborhood looked toward country, the edge of town: Olmsted’s designs framed a distant prospect of urban growth.

“Parkside” was Olmsted’s “first opportunity to create a residential neighborhood that would complement the naturalistic landscape of a park”—the most fully realized example of the “sylvan districts” he imagined adjoining parkways within the city (Francis Kowsky).

In his letters to city planners, Olmsted explains how his plans attend to place, honoring curves of hills, placement of boulders, wet and dry, high and low spots, the growth conditions of vegetation; at the same time, he must reassure city officials appalled by the drastic moves—whether an alteration of terrain, or a removal of structures or vegetation—necessary to his design.  Olmsted’s Redbook sketches pull up their vegetation, demonstrating the value of removing a stand of trees—to enable a broader prospect.  This is no passive making space for “nature. ”

Olmsted makes the case for long-term transformation, urging city planners to see an eventual growth of stately trees, or a softening of the abrupt bank with vegetation.  Often he has to compromise, with impatient officials who want to plant quick-growing ornamentals.  Thus drawings and letters are integral to the rhetoric of his projects— “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of the Park” (Smithson).

Olmsted’s compositions play to what Leo Marx called the “middle landscape” in American art.  He was early to acknowledge industrialism’s inevitable “enlargement of towns”; in his attempts to mediate, has he paid the price of acquiescence to power?  Did Olmsted naturalize the class system, working with constraints of industry as though forces of nature?  (Olmsted’s plans for Buffalo’s South Park squeezed the project between the proliferation of railroad lines and poor drainage.)  The railroad too has a certain point of view.

Buffalo (except for ice fishermen, anglers and summer boaters) seems to have turned its back on the waterfront, and on its commanding position at the outflow of one of the world’s largest bodies of fresh water, at the head of the Niagara River—a strait, really, whose dramatic plunge over the Escarpment gets all the attention.  Buffalo, after all, reigns Queen of this Great (if shallow) Lake stretching from the Midwest to the east and defining a large stretch of the Canadian-American border.  (Buffalo also reigns as City of Lights, due to its early adoption of hydropower—a title purchased at the price of eternal fiefdom to Niagara Mohawk, in fact, selling the power downstream.)  The paving over of the old path of the Erie Canal to create the 190 Thruway (whose toll the New York State Thruway Authority collects, one of the legacies of Robert Moses) separates downtown Buffalo from its waterfront, reinforcing the indifference.  Many transient residents limit their comments to, “What lake?”

It turns out Olmsted had a similar experience in the 1860s:

“It was said that the lake brought to their minds, more prominently than anything else, harsh winds, wrecks and other disasters, dreary fields of ice and a tedious holding back of spring . . . More than once it was said to me, ‘We hate the lake’”.

Urging city officials to acquire the land between Front Park and the lake for an extension of the park, Olmsted observed that “the site commands a river effect such as can be seen, I believe, nowhere else—a certain quivering of the surface and a rare tone of color, the result of the crowding upward of the lake waters as they enter the deep portal of the Niagara.”

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Core Sample: Franklin Park

5 minutes of stereo audio (recorded with Marantz PMD 620 with built-in mics) from the bench at Schoolmaster Hill in Franklin Park, toward sunset.  Emerson lived here 1823-1825.  Cicada at two minutes.  Golfers teeing off from three and a half to end.  20 August 2010


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Day 1 (Part ii)

The Spoils

The train pulls out of Portland: one immature white egret startled from a salt marsh.

Friendly conversation in the café car on the Downeaster with two men from southern Maine, heading to Boston for the ball game: a trucker (now works for the turnpike authority) and a house builder looking for work (says he’ll drive as far as Texas–let me know if you have a job for him: Mainers build solid).  The truck driver took an interest in my blog and quizzed me about the trip.  The house builder listened on thoughtfully.  I delivered the three minute précis and they seemed genuinely interested.

Boston: commuters running up the escalators, popcorn smell.

On the Orange train to Green street.  Noise.  Lively conversations.

Bikes Not Bombs.

Ye olde handcrafted American sublime.

A bewitching community garden off William Street, founded on the manure of the Augean horses (stables dating back to the American Revolution, no doubt) by a Vietnam Vet named John Carroll.  (Let’s reclaim the real tea party!)  Carroll wrote poetry too.  Some of his words are inscribed on marble near the entrance to the garden.  I’ve never seen so many tomatoes, of so many different sizes, shapes and varieties, growing in one place.  And basil, lavender, frisée, chard, squash, all manner of vegetables.

Just to walk through that heavenly tomato smell.  I wanted to eat everything–but contented myself with two nice plum tomatoes fallen from their branch.  I did photograph the monumental heirlooms.  Spoke with a German woman who has lived here thirty years, says she doesn’t understand all these people who plant tomatoes then go on vacation in August.  The tomatoes sit there and rot.  Why would you want to do that?  Since she complained, someone now collects the tomatoes for community kitchens.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so shy.

I keep my office out of doors.

The entrance to Franklin Park at the end of William Street is classic Olmsted showmanship. A path leads into some nondescript woods, to a dale where a dilemma presents itself: to follow the enticing stairs up the rocky hill into the forest, or the path into the tunnel?  The path enters a wall of puddingstone, reminiscent of grottoes at Tivoli, which you can hear the traffic passing over.  Olmsted marked his parks with the crushed concrete of skyscrapers, to accent the green.

A grotesque frame for the “magic wardrobe” effect: on the other side of the tunnel you discover countryside as Browne or Repton might have sketched it.  “Country”: a broad open green, a valley that curves invitingly upward, toward masses of trees on the outcrops, framed by giant oaks.  One half-expects flaky-coated sheep to edge into the open.  But instead, here and there, the isolated figure of a golfer.

Note the sound of the traffic, on the “carriageway.”  Olmsted was a good carriage wrestler but didn’t think through the internal combustion engine.  Though the flows of traffic are cunningly separated, you can’t pull apart sound.

It is the hour of the conjugal stroll.  Couples on bicycles, debriefing the day.  The TB patients wear hospital smocks.  A facility operated by the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health was built at the foot of Olmsted’s park, an encroachment pitting against one another what Olmsted would have considered equally vital needs.   Public open space is particularly vulnerable to such divide-and-conquer tactics–to schools, public housing, hospitals, zoos . . . all such “spoils of the park” Olmsted exhausted himself fighting.  It is a lovely situation for the convalescents, though, and nice to see them here.

As one follows the rim of the gentle valley, traffic whizzing up the carriage way to one’s left, a textbook succession of beautiful landscape views, only missing the sheet of water, unfolds.  (Yet something a touch rough, even savage, haunts this composition.  The materials are not quite “right,” American picturesque.)  Olson preferred to speak of his parks in terms of music.

“Coming through” — calls a jogger, just outside my viewfinder.

At the crest of the valley I pay a visit to “Schoolmaster Hill,” where Emerson lived in a rented farmhouse with his mother and brother, while teaching school in Roxbury, from 1823 to 1825.

An idyll enshrined in the poem “Good-Bye.”  I have a copy of the poem with me (the last stanza of which is on the plaque).

I read it.  It’s pretty bad–“Long through the weary crowds I roam; A river-ark on the ocean brine”–including references to frozen hearts and hasting feet, driven foam, secret nooks, frolic fairies, and groves “Where arches green, the livelong day,/ Echo the blackbird’s roundelay.”

But it’s nice to see transcendental juvenalia embedded here.  An origin myth for Olmsted?  On spiritual maps an “origin” can mask the true point of emergence.

From the bench–the best view at Franklin Park–I watch the golfers (mostly African Americans), tee off in succession.

Props to NPS Ranger Mark Schwartz, who first introduced me (along with my students in the course Imagining Open Space) to these dimensions of Franklin Park.

I have just under an hour left to make it to South Station.  I ask directions of a man playing with his daughters, who sends me into the woods across the carriage way.  (“Just follow it until you see the stadium on your right.  Continue to your left and it will take you down to Egleston Square.  You can catch a cab there.”)  I follow a curving path.  It curves some more.  I follow it, curving.  I am getting Olmsteded.

Olmsted’s park designs are delightful when you have leisure but a nightmare when you have to get somewhere.  (Can I have some leisure please?)  I see a greensward at the end of the curve and can only hope against all odds that it is not the same greensward I just left.

Hopes dashed.  Closed system dumping me back into itself.  Reminds me of those “planned neighborhoods” one sometimes mistakenly turns into, when trying to get across town.  It’s like watching an accident unfold in slow motion.  You spend a lot of time going nowhere.  There’s nothing you can do about it.

I want to read Frederick Law Olmsted as I might read one of the great American poets.  “This may seem a contradiction in terms.  It is not.  When an artist puts a stick in the ground, and nature in time makes it a tree, art and nature are not to be seen apart in the result” (Civilizing American Cities 204).   Olmsted was an artist with the mind of an engineer and the will of a politician.  Certainly, it takes some stretching the notion of poetry, if not modern aesthetics.

These loops have a fascist quality: proto simulacra.  There is something monstrous about the loop.  Olmsted as great artist or poet?  How far off is Riefenstahl?  What lurks beyond the green screen?  How do I get out of this damn park?

That was the Skeptic.  He shies from exposure to history and the twentieth-century’s traumatic conjunction of aesthetics, social engineering and politics.

And yet we shy, answers the Enthusiast, at what cost?  Perhaps only we poets are to blame for what has taken the field instead (a massive failure of imagination).  Olmsted was not without problems.  But he dared to create, on a large, material and vastly social scale.  He did not buy into the phantasmagoria of the “private.”

For all your study of this park, retorts the Skeptic, see how lost you are?  Your true displacement is social (asking directions, this time of a group of Jamaican men settling in to a tailgate party).  Your knowledge of Olmsted’s parks is only as good as your knowledge of the park’s neighborhoods.  i.e. zilch.  Jane Jacobs said that almost half a century ago.  She also demonstrated the negativity of green space (at least when abstracted from a larger social vision).  Olmsted’s parks are only as good as the neighborhoods around them.

Yet, objects the Enthusiast, parks confer value on neighborhoods, do they not?

A world of problems lies wrapped up in that phrase, “confer value.”

The Skeptic and the Enthusiast will argue back and forth throughout this journey.  We will have to get used to their debate, tiresome as it can be.

I have lost fifteen minutes and really am going to miss my bus.

Why I am boarding a bus–shall we be British and call it a “coach”–instead of a train is a long story.  In short, your traveler was overly confident in the abundance–an illusion of continuity approaching infinity–of the nation’s vast rail networks.  How could a train to Buffalo SELL OUT?  Many on that train will no doubt be sauntering through Olmsted’s picturesque drapery tomorrow, on a once brick-mill lined site, squinting hard for the expected sublime behind the bridal veil, the little rainbows dancing over Niagara Falls.  I will be nursing sore feet, figuring out how to mend my schedule.

Having plunged into the heart of Olmsted’s designs, is it possible, good readers, to be routed so quickly!?  Can a few Arcadian loops so quickly dispatch my well set plans?  Is Google no match for the Ramble?

Following the Jamaican gentleman’s directions (right on), and after a bit of run-walking (my park idyll has become something of a trial, I find), I reach the median strip of a busy avenue, with double parked cars stopped for take out food.

No cab in sight.  Twenty minutes till my coach leaves.  I have been fully Olmsteded.  Third round of directions, and I am told to flag down a taxi in front of the clinic.  Heading that way I see an airport taxi van in front of the Dominican chicken joint.  I ask the driver if he can take me to South Station: I need to be there in less than twenty minutes.

No problem.  We can get you there.  Hop in.  My wife is picking up some food.

The driver is calm, way too calm for my taste, but I am no longer running this show.  I hop in and the driver tells me the benefits of sharing the shift with his wife.  (She is my navigator, my caterer, my money changer, my everything–I just drive.)  I have entered “the zone.”

The inevitable crawl through twisty Boston neighborhoods.  A fire engine slows traffic.  Construction.  Drivers shifting lanes without signals.  Bad Boston etiquette.  The husband and wife are talking some beautiful Boston jive (with hand gestures).  All outcome is suspended.

We talk about trains and how expensive they’ve become, as opposed to Greyhound.  (In many cases it’s even cheaper to fly.)  Cabbie and his wife say they haven’t ridden Amtrak in years.  It’s become an “upgrade.”  One remove from the public ground of Greyhound.

I realize that I missed my train to gain the social perspective of the lurching coach: if I make it, I will spend the night on a narrow seat with no pocket (a rudimentary loop for the water bottle), no foot rest, free wifi.

The next thing I know we are on a roundabout (those interminable Boston roundabouts), the airport van’s tires barely gripping the pavement as they squeal toward 70 mph.  A leaning “flyover” of the highway, and quick back and forth between husband and wife as to presence or absence of traffic.  Time seems to slow to a standstill.  (The speedometer lays hard against its upper limit, holding back the second hand.)  On his copilot’s quick confirmation that traffic is fluid, the driver guns it all the way, to slinghot us onto four lanes.  At which point he says, we are three minutes away, fasten your seatbelt.

Folks, I have taken a few scary taxi rides in my life.  I can’t even locate this one on the chart of taxi terror.  Yet I feel oddly enveloped in a bubble of calm, as the van surges, lurches, decelerates, jumps lanes and surges again.  My sangfroid driver gets me to the station with three minutes to spare.  (Tipped generously.)  It takes a lot longer for the blood to rise back from the soles of my feet.  Passengers waiting twelve deep at the will call line let me cut in, shamelessly.  The bus station red-eye crowd is noticeably younger.  I reach the gate with a severe case of cottonmouth: the kind driver (a one in ten chance with Greyhound) lets me run for a drink of water.

On the bus I take my seat next to a young Tuffts student, enrolled at SUNY Oneonta for the semester for the Cuba program.  She is on her way to Cuba (flight out of Toronto) for four months.  An economics major.  Wants to see it all before “the change.”

I tell her all about my time there in 2000, with the poets from Buffalo, for the First International Festival of Language Poetry put on by Reina Maria Rodriguez.  The Azotea institutionalized, at the Case del Libro.  The long drive Isabelle and I made to the Western end of the island.  How time slowed the further we got from Havana.

Before I left home today, at the threshold, I picked three animals (randomly, out of a book of animal oracles Isabelle painted for me that I keep near the door): an iguana licking the wall, which Isa says is the marriage of heaven and earth.  One must follow the flow, learn to stop and enjoy the sun.  A mouse, heading toward its wedge of cheese (no comment).  A grasshopper, ready to jump . . .

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The Spoils of the Park: Day 1

This is the blog for my journey across the U.S., to visit the major Olmsted parks, as well as some of the cities and landscapes that inspired the great park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted.  I am traveling as Olmsted would have, mostly by train.  I will write in the parks, engage the public and edit on the train.  The goal is to produce a book written in and on Olmsted’s open spaces: a reflection on the history of “green” aesthetics (including notions of the picturesque, the beautiful, the sublime, etc. that underly American feelings about “nature”) as well an investigation of the current status of public space in the U.S. (including that of public transport).  I also hope to dialogue with many characters in these public spaces.  The journey will take five weeks and includes stops in twelve cities: Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Louisville, New Orleans, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York.  (I will spend roughly two days in each city, writing in the parks and, in some cases, exploring the environs–such as a visit to Riverside outside Chicago, the first planned suburban community that Olmsted designed, and a visit to Fredericksburg north of San Antonio, which Olmsted passed through on horseback with his brother.)  I will also visit some sites important to Olmsted’s history such as Yosemite and the Biltmore Estate.  I will have to reach Louisville by car and I will fly back to the East Coast from San Francisco.  Otherwise, the journey proceeds by rail.  (I am also interested in the oddly pastoral mythos of trains.)  My journey begins in Boston, where I am writing this (on the Downeaster, to be precise, about a half hour north of the city.)  I am heading to Franklin Park late this afternoon, one of Olmsted’s grandest parks . . .

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