Day 3: Buffalo (Part i: Niagara Falls)

No trip to Olmsted’s Buffalo would be complete without a visit to Niagara Falls.  In the 1870s Olmsted (and Calvert Vaux) had marked the head of the Niagara River, and by association all the waters of the Great Lakes, with Front Park.  In the late 1880’s Olmsted and Vaux would influence the landscape where those waters drop over the Niagara Escarpment on their way to Lake Ontario, at a major hydrological and aesthetic power spot, the Goat Island Niagara Reserve.

By 1882, Jacob Schoellkopf’s Hydraulic Power Company (later Niagara Falls Power) had attracted seven mills along the high bank (the top edge of the Niagara Gorge north of the American Falls) all producing power from his hydraulic canal.

[General View of Power Development by the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company, from The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook: Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 36.

In part thanks to Nikola Tesla and his development of an alternating current transmission system, which Westinghouse produced, the power of Niagara Falls reached Buffalo on November 15th, 1896–completing a loop of water and electricity (sent back upstream), the first long distance transmission for commercial purposes.  New industry (including the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, whose canals and railyards are now the Tifft Preserve) moved to Buffalo: the Steel Belt was underway.  Buffalo soon became the City of Lights, when Niagara Falls power lit up the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.


Frederick Church, whose huge painting “Niagara Falls” was first shown in 1857, lectured sometime before 1869 on the Falls’ impending ruin.

As Olmsted’s biographer, Laura Wood Roper, describes it, “mills, flumes, shops, icehouses, signboards, hotels, and fences gradually defaced and crowded the once natural riverbank” and “visitors grew increasingly exasperated by the horde of peddlers, guides, photographers, gatekeepers, hack drivers and assorted sharpers who importuned them at every step” (FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted 379).  People paid a fee to look through holes in a fence to see the Falls.

(Man and woman on Canadian side: note development above American Falls.)

In 1864 President Lincoln had signed a bill “withdrawing the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove from the public lands and ceding them to California to be held for ‘public use, resort and recreation . . . inalienable for all time'” (Roper 268).  It was the first official recognition by the US of the obligation of a democratic government to preserve natural beauty for the enjoyment of all people, not just for an elite class.

Appointed to the Yosemite Commission, Olmsted drafted and delivered a report in 1865 that articulated the philosophical basis for state and national parks: “For the same reason that the water of rivers should be guarded against private appropriation and the use of it for the purpose of navigation and otherwise protected against obstruction, portions of natural scenery may therefore properly be guarded and cared for by government.  To simply reserve them from monopoly by individuals” is not enough, though.  They also should be “laid open to the use of the body of the people” (Roper 284-285).  Olmsted thus considered magnificent natural scenery a “commons,” equivalent to other natural resources and deserving of the same protection, resources, stewardship and infrastructure for accessibility.

While working on the Buffalo parks, Olmsted would visit the Falls–where in August 1869 he met with the architect Henry Hobbs Richardson, NY State lieutenant governor William Dorsheimer and his colleague Calvert Vaux to discuss what might be done to preserve the scenery.  But it wasn’t until 1878 that the subject was first broached in public, by Lord Dufferin, then Governor General of Canada, in an address to the Ontario Society of Artists (Roper 379).

By 1880 a campaign on the American side had begun, led by Olmsted, for the establishment of a “reservation” to preserve the natural beauty of the Falls and to facilitate access by the public.  The NY State Legislature passed a bill providing for the selection and appropriation of land around the falls in 1883 and a bond bill to finance the purchase of the land in 1885, officially creating the Niagara Reservation (often referred to as the nation’s oldest State Park, though technically Yosemite Valley, under California State control 1864-1906, came first).  Olmsted and Vaux were subsequently employed to prepare a plan for the state reservation, which they presented in 1887.  In their report, they mention the changing public attitude toward natural scenery: a century before, the Falls might have been termed hideous or awful, while sixty years before, they were looked at chiefly as a source of power.  Now their particular weather was sublime.

Calvert and Vaux’s plan to “restore the landscape around Niagara Falls,” including Goat Island, provides “only such constructions as would forward the enjoyment of it” (Roper 397).

In1763, Seneca Indians killed eighty citizens and British soldiers who were transporting material along the Niagara Gorge; the next year to make amends they ceded to the British a four mile wide strip of land along the east side of the Niagara River from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie.  (Thus Buffalo’s Allen Street, which touches the southern end of that grant, marks what Jack Foran has termed a “schizogeographic fault line,” clearly sensible in the displacement of street blocks north and south of Allen.)  John Stedman, one of only two survivors of the Devil’s Hole Massacre, claimed the land and islands above the Falls for himself.  In the 1770s, he raised a herd of goats on the island, “Goat Island.”

From my first visit to the Falls–on a cross-country drive with a gentleman who had offered me a lift to Boston in exchange for early morning driving shifts behind the wheel of his VW camper–I remember the crazy blossoms of the Linden trees (or Basswood), a phenomenon I noticed for the first time there, not the grandeur of the Falls.

The paths and walks at Niagara Reservation–on Goat Island, Luna and Green Islands, with views of Bird, Robinson, Chapin Islands, and their Three Sisters and one Brother–are calculated to draw the walker back from the Falls, to linger in this beauty.  (There is an account of Olmsted leading H.H. Richardson around the woods of Goat Island for a long time, before showing him the Falls.)  The pools, riffles and rapids by Luna just above the Bridal Falls are intimately seductive, without effective barrier.

A terrifying intimacy, when you know where it leads: “the densest region of shade merges its identity into a desperate kiss” (Aragon, Paris Peasant).  Listen, and you will hear the massive ground tone of the Falls, just downstream, offstage.

The design is radically intact, the extent to which it invites “an all-consuming thirst for open air and danger.”  The state cops keep an eye on “people they see standing in the same place for long periods of time or walking about aimlessly, muttering to themselves or looking distraught.”  One study has logged 20-25 suicides a year, and notes that the most popular time is Monday at 4pm  Honeymooners flock to the pools above the Falls in a spirit of contradiction.

When Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated, I was waiting for some dubious tacos in a restaurant in Niagara Falls’ economic drop-out zone.  You may never in your life see a more busted-up town.  The driver of a pickup truck here hit a drunk and dragged his body under the truck all the way to the border.  Here is where Elon Hooker built the ideal workers’ village, on a toxic waste dump.  Here is where the Manhattan Project shipped its dirty steel.  Here is sickness and misery.  Here also is heroism, where Lois Gibbs organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association, nursing her children in front of national television cameras.

Skipping the blight of Niagara Falls, many prefer to focus on Clifton Hill on the Canadian side, its gambling and amusements.

And yet, the Falls is a magnificent spot.  Amidst land scraped bare by retreating glaciers and thrust under the sky, tabula rasa between two Great Lakes, Niagara Falls channels one-fifth the planet’s fresh surface water.  Maybe it’s the ions, static in the gorge that lifts the hair from your skull.

When you think about it, the Canadians played it right.  Lord Dufferin campaigned for a reservation, then backed off, once the US ran with it.  It was only a matter of time before the USA would preserve Goat Island, and erase industry along the gorge, restoring a natural look to the Falls, as seen from the Canadian side.  The Triscuit factory

hides–or hid–behind the tallest trees.

Canadians have framed this view with landscaping of their own, for a doubly green promenade–over which Frankenstein lifts a Clifton Hill cheeseburger, grinning back at the toothless storefronts of Niagara Falls, USA.

The economic gradient feels steep: Canada gets the view, the US builds a bridge to nowhere, for a bit of it.  At the same time, the tourist economy that drops through Niagara Falls (and its casino) makes few stops in Buffalo.

My forbearing and fun host, Robin Brox, drives me to the Falls.  We can’t resist the draw to Terrapin Point beside Horseshoe Falls.  As soon as we are taking it in, we hear frantic shouting: right in front of us appears a man, lunging for his son smiling and leaning from the other side of the barrier.  A boy with Down’s Syndrome, he had been dangling his foot in the water, a few feet upstream from the Falls.  The father’s heart in throat communicates instantly to ours.

Every park has its rangers

and its Mennonites.

Its group of communicants

receiving instruction from the Cave of the Winds.

In a gentler dell, at a wooded bit opposite Crow Island, upstream of Bridal Falls, the watery mirrors caused us to reflect on the mythology in the course of our lives.  Thanatos held our ankles as we contemplated the riffles.

At the Bridal Falls, a marriage.  I hid behind the viewfinder and captured the kiss.

Isabelle and I were married twelve years and two days ago: we actually drove to the Falls for our “honeymoon” (I moved to Buffalo for grad school right after we got hitched in New Mexico) and enjoyed champagne in a plastic ice bucket at the Econolodge.  Little did we know at the time that, five years later, Isabelle would create one of her first large-scale steel pieces, a”Post-Car” for the Buffalo Art on Wheels initiative, to be exhibited in the autumn of 2003 on the State Reservation near Prospect Point.


At one point, the piece was vandalized and Isabelle had to do some onsite repair work, running an enormous extension cord from the Visitor’s Center.  I accompanied her there and enjoyed watching the flow of couples as they circled round the piece and the guys (typically) did a double take at the sight of Isabelle’s arc flashing.

We missed the statue of Nicola Tesla.

Tesla suffered a peculiar affliction in which blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by visions.  In 1926, Tesla commented on the ills of the social subservience of women and the struggle of women toward gender equality, indicating that humanity’s future would be run by “Queen Bees.”  He believed that women would become the dominant sex in the future.

The “American Electrician” gives a description of an early tesla coil wherein a glass battery jar, 15 x 20 cm (6 x 8 in) is wound with 60 to 80 turns of AWG No. 18 B & S magnet wire (0.823 mm²). Into this is slipped a primary consisting of eight to ten turns of AWG No. 6 B & S wire (13.3 mm²) and the whole combination immersed in a vessel containing linseed or mineral oil.

Robin describes a phenomenon she had once seen: “It’s called the reverse waterfall.  Essentially, the shape of the land underneath the surface of this very narrow inland bay.  It’s really deep in the middle, much more shallow on the sides.  So, when the tide changes, the middle surges upward and turns into this churning white water, in the middle of, like, very smooth, placid sort of flow on either side.  Really insane roiling bubbling nastiness.”

Some weeds toss in the winds of the Falls.

As Robin talks to me, the Falls make their own weather.  The weather drifts.  At the heart of power and contradiction a delicate spiral rises turning toward the sky.


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A Note on Tifft

The Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, which I mentioned in my last post, is 264 acres of wetlands and ponds (former shipping canals), shrubby thickets and grassy mounds (former landfill) in the (post-)industrial wilds of South Buffalo. Formerly George Washington Tifft’s dairy farm, then the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company’s transshipment terminal, Tifft fell into disuse (i.e. re-wilded) and eventually was acquired by the city to dispose of municipal waste displaced by a new sewage treatment facility built on Squaw Island (a site I also mentioned in my last post).  A handful of engaged citizens (who had been visiting the Tifft wilderness over the intervening years) agitated for a preserve, and the city complied: from 1973-1975 the refuse was shaped into mounds that were capped and seeded, the runoff of which is captured for water treatment.  It is now a spectacular spot from which to view Lake Erie and the monumental grain elevators, looming at the edge of the marsh like Wordsworthian cliffs.

Tifft also is classed an “important bird area,” with 240 species of birds logged.  A great place to “get away.”  I often had the entire preserve to myself, when I went there on weekdays: “the more humble or even degraded sites . . . offer . . . possibility for being in solitude” (Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”).  In fact, I spent much more time at Tifft than in the Olmsted Parks.  Spoils of the Parks, perhaps, is my attempt to atone for that, in revisiting the American landscape through Olmsted’s (rather than Thoreau’s) eyes.

Tifft and Olmsted’s projects share ancestry in Adolphe Alphand’s Parc Buttes Chaumont, one of my favorite green city spaces, in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.  Alphand created the Bois de Boulogne, which inspired Olmsted and Vaux in their designs for Central Park and for Prospect Park.  (Olmsted visited the Bois de Boulogne eight times during his 1859 working tour of European parks, while he was building Central Park.)  Alphand’s design for l’Avenue de l’Imperatrice (now Avenue Foch) would inspire Olmsted’s and Vaux’s plans for Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn (and other parkways that were part of the Prospect Park design but never built).  But Alphand’s 1867 Buttes Chaumont, built on a crescent-shaped piece of land the city had used as a quarry, a dump, and even a mass grave, realized an early (and successful) model of the remediation or reclamation park.  Louis Aragon later immortalized the park as, along with the covered 19th-century “passage,” a site for the city’s unconscious, a machine for dreaming and surrealist revolt, in his diptych masterpiece, Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant): “Here is the palace you need, big thinking mechanism, to learn at last who you are.”

Contemporary landscape architects, given blighted sites like defunct steel mills, sanitary landfills, polluted riverfronts, brownfields and exhausted quarries to work with, strive to transform them into places that challenge not only our preconception of what makes a park but also what makes a landscape beautiful.  It took one Robert Smithson (especially in his essays “A Brief Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,” and “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”) to draw attention to Olmsted’s role as an early land artist, a shaper of wastelands, helping us to see his parks as overgrown earthworks.  (Part of Delaware Park’s design, in Buffalo, included an old quarry converted into gardens–sadly since filled in.  More on that later.)

Tifft thus joins sites like Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park (Seattle, 1971-1975) and Mount Trashmore Park (Virginia, 1973), and contemporary projects like Hargreaves Associates’ Crissy Fields (San Francisco), Abalos’s and Herreros’s Northeast Coastal Park (Barcelona), Desvigne’s “intermediate landscapes” plans for the Greenwich Peninsula (London) and for the Garonne River (Bordeaux), Peter Latz’s awesome Duisburg-Nord Landschaftpark (in the Emscher region rustbelt) and, finally (perhaps the most ambitious example, still in its nascent stage), Field Operation’s reclamation project for the Freshkills landfill on Staten Island, as a state of the art urban landscape in the Open Space era of urban planning.  (Some landscape historians divide urban open space planning into four eras: the 19th-century Pleasure Park, the progressive era Reform Park, the 1930-1965 Recreation Facility, and the post 1965 Open Space System.)

Part of what is fascinating about these Open Space System projects is what one might call the negative capability of the design: as planners cannot possibly control such large and complex sites, and as budgets are often quite limited anyways, natural processes will to some (or even a great) extent determine the qualities of the changing landscape.  Tifft was not designed: its layout is probably haphazard, and the Buffalo Museum of Science adheres to a policy of minimal intervention.  And yet it functions and evolves dynamically.  That said, the Buffalo Museum of Science has just issued a new comprehensive management plan, prepared by David Spiering, the ecologist at Tifft Farm Nature Preserve.  It is an impressive document that I look forward to studying more closely:

You can also read all about Tifft in my forthcoming poetry collection, Birds of Tifft (BlazeVox, 2010).

The areas of Olmsted’s parks that have been neglected or abandoned look and function more like Tifft than like Capability Brown’s country designs.  Central Park looked this way when Smithson explored it, at its managerial nadir, in the late 1960s.

Olmsted might have classed these rougher aspects of his parks under “pleasure ground,” in the category of the “picturesque.”  Central Park’s “The Ramble” is probably the most famous example, though its roughness was closely planned, and currently is undergoing some heavy restoration.  “All the roughness of the process arises out of the park’s earlier condition” (Smithson, op cit).

A tour of Olmsted’s parks, in their current condition, views them not just as well preserved, faded or even mutilated beauties, or as classical artworks in need of restoration, but also as multi-layered ecodynamic sites, teeming with semi-realized potential, evolving emergencies in the open space system.

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Day 2: Buffalo (Part ii)

Note: this project has turned out to be all about the walking.  I have been walking a lot, folks.  In Buffalo’s Delaware Park.  On Belle Isle, in Detroit.  In Chicago, at Washington and Jackson Parks.  Walking, taking pictures, recording sounds, making notes.  Talking to people, when I meet them.  Food and rest are about all I can manage, at the end of the day.  As there are plenty of images and sounds to process, and notes to compile, it is taking some time to get the material up.  I decided to cut out the Louisville leg.  This is too bad, as Louisville sports three great Olmsted parks, but visiting them would have entailed more Greyhound rides (as Amtrak does not serve Louisville by rail), less sleep, less time to write and ride the rails, as originally intended.  Another day!  Instead, I will board “The City of New Orleans” this evening and enjoy my first “roomette” overnight, traveling down the great “Mississippi valley” to reach the Big Easy by three in the afternoon tomorrow.  This should give me time to catch up on the blog.

For now, more Buffalo.

A walk up Niagara, my favorite street in Buffalo.  (Creeley, shaking his head when I mentioned that: “Oh, Niagara street . . .”)

Different languages–Spanish, French, Ivoirien, Portuguese–people sitting outside.  The Rendezvous still there but (I later learn) now a Puerto Rican joint.  Used to be a great bar with a cajun theme.  Where I first saw Buffalo’s own country & western band (never played west of the Mississippi).  The Steam Donkey’s anthem, “Northern Border Town,” shaped a lot of my philosophy about Buffalo.

Choppers parked in front of the Niagara Cafe.  Used to go there for the chicken stew, when I lived on the West Side.  Mayor Byron Brown’s favorite restaurant, apparently.

I meet my host, Robin Brox at Front Park–Robin is skeptical of its Olmstedian values, until I describe a plan to put a green roof over the thruway, lawn to lake.

What’s left of Front Park is now stuck between the U.S. border apparatus and Robert Moses’s river of concrete.

At the end of the nineteenth century this was the sunset rendezvous for all of Buffalo’s fresh air society.

A couple with a red pickup truck seem to be at work restoring the pilasters around the monument to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the “Hero of Lake Erie” who led American forces in a decisive naval victory over the British in the War of 1812.  Peter Hare, Susan Howe’s late husband, was a descendent of Commodore Perry and contributed to the upkeep of this statue.

Now, Perry oversees the battle between Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses.

Views from the Front of the lake and river are also impeded by the Colonel Francis Ward Pumping Station (1915) at LaSalle park.  (There was, additionally, a utility structure at this site, about five years ago, which seems to have been removed.)  Olmsted’s plans were impractical but founded on phenomena: “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.”

You can catch this effect best by walking out the long pier (or “mole”) off Squaw Island (now Bird Island, I believe) at the end of West Ferry.

After lunch, I meet up with Christopher Fritton at P22 type foundry.  Christopher has set a broadside of my poem “In the split-shake booth,” from Birds of Tifft (BlazeVox, 2010).

Here are some of the pictures Chris took while setting it.

Thanks, Chris!  The broadside is to be auctioned this evening at the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, for a fundraiser for their educational programs, administered by the Buffalo Museum of Science.  We drive to Tifft, to deliver the broadside.  Traffic to the preserve, off Route 5, is being rerouted, with new underpasses and a more pedestrian and bicycle (and perhaps wildlife) friendly design.

Caryn Corriere at Tifft tells us about the latest infestation, Myrmica rubric ants.  The southern end of the preserve is practically unwalkable.

A Beer at the Swannie House.

I’m glad to see things haven’t changed here.  “Beer: helping people have sex since 1862.”

Christopher drives me to Martin Luther King, Jr. Park (The Parade).  I once wrote an angry letter to the editor of the Buffalo News about the condition of this park (as contrasted with Delaware Park, on the wealthier side of town).  This park adjoins the Buffalo Museum of Science.  “Among the purposes for which public grounds are used . . . is that of a ground for parades, reviews, drills, processions and public meetings and ceremonies in which large spaces are required” (Olmsted, Vaux & Co. “Report Accompanying the Plan for Laying Out the South Park”).  In his documentary, Claiming Open Space, Austin Allen (who I will see in New Orleans) covers the close connections between public parks and the Civil Rights Movement: marches in Birmingham were sparked when the mayor closed (rather than desegregate) the parks.  Kelly Ingram Park served as a central staging ground for civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham in the 1960s.

When we were living in Buffalo, the Common Council had committed to restoring the fountain here–designed by Olmsted as an immense wading pool, eventually closed due to “hygeine” concerns.  (Replaced by a swimming pool, which you can note at the back of the first photo.)  The fountains are now working (though the wading pool remains dry), to the delight of these nymphs.

(Note the Dr. Seuss trees–survivors of the great storm of October, 2007.  The trees in this park are generally dishevelled.)

Later, Robin accompanies me into the South part of Delaware Park.  We drop into the vale and walk under the bridge.  Another Olmsted transition.

This part of the park feels like a miniature earthwork.

With its sheet of water (Hoyt Lake).

Its mysterious hatches and markings.

And, of course, its views, sealed with picturesque plantings and a rustic bridge.

Other news: the city has repaired the plaque of the reproduction of David, at the end of the park, facing away from the city: no longer sculpted by Michael Angelo.

Robin and her husband Todd Mattina throw a lovely party at their house: it’s wonderful to see old friends.  Ben Bedard, Aaron and Rebekah Lowinger, Geoffrey Gatza, Donna White, Mike Kelleher, Lori Desormeau, Margaret Konkol (with her mom), David Hadbawnik, others . . .  The rain drives us from the backyard into the kitchen, where we read poetry aloud from some books Robin brings down.  At one point in the evening David does an interpretive dance of my poem, “Midway.”  The Greyhound red-eye catches up with me: I begin to  babble incoherently, before passing out in Robin’s office.

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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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