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How a Renovation Ruined a West Village Pocket Park

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Be not afeared: Defenestrated is Curbed's new architecture column, from the minds of Thomas de Monchaux and/or Philip Nobel. Send thoughts and leads to Here now, Thomas de Monchaux on Bleecker Street Park and Playground.

[All photos by Will Femia.]

Last August, Hurricane Irene swept through the city and, among other things, removed some of the monumental ginko trees that are the glorious canopy over Bleecker Street Park and Playground, a half-acre pocket park in the West Village then undergoing a renovation. When the park recently reopened, it was clear that the Act of God was nothing compared to the ruination visited on the park by the renovation itself.

It's hard, at first glance, to care. And even to see what the problem is. A sub-par renovation of a tiny patch of public land at the corner of Marc Jacobs and Magnolia Bakery seems like an effete disappointment at best, and at worst a distraction from the continual crises with which public agencies like the Parks Department must contend. Denizens of today's West Village are not starved, generally, for comfort and natural beauty. And a quick look at the park, as it now stands, yields a catalogue of palatable-seeming stuff: picturesque gaslight-ish lamps, metal-and-wood benches that sort of look like the lovely metal-and-wood benches in Central and Prospect Parks, flower beds with low looping fencing, a couple of cement tables with chessboards built-in, a sandy patch with, during a recent visit, a handful of unchained folding chairs and a tiny folding table. What's not to like? The familiar statue on the corner, a gymnastically modernist abstraction, is unchanged, as is the beloved playground on the North half of the site. People sit on the benches and eat cupcakes, as before. Maybe they even play chess. And yet if you look more closely, and consult a little history, you begin to feel an undertow, and to suspect that a small but precious inheritance has been squandered.

The original park dated to 1966, the result of a multi-year tangle between a city proposal to condemn a dilapidated warehouse and public restroom then on the site, to radically widen Bleecker Street to funnel Holland Tunnel traffic from adjacent Hudson Street and 8th Avenue, and a lively consortium of locals who organized against the idea, and pushed instead for a park to accommodate an under-served population of elderly and children in what was then a considerably less privileged part of the city.  It was a very early instance of the kind of community advocacy against bombastic top-down planning that we've come to associate with the legendary urbanist and public intellectual Jane Jacobs, who lived thirty steps away from the park, on Hudson street, and whose husband Robert Jacobs, (along with Robert Nichols, whose similar historic work for Washington Square Park in 1969 has been similarly destroyed by farcical renovation), was one of several local designers who contributed to envisioning what the park could be and do.

The presence of acute design intelligence, maybe theirs, was vivid in the landscaping that resulted. The original park achieved powerful effects with delicate, even minimal, means. It showed big thinking in small things. A fine-grained cobble-like paving surface of red brick echoed the red brick of adjacent townhouses near Bank Street, incorporating them as part of the visual field and public life of the park, and introducing a small-scale rhythm underfoot that was sympathetic to the small steps of toddlers and old folks alike. Under those magnificent ginkos, a dappled constellation of benches, L-shaped in plan, pinwheeled tetris-like across the site into the kinds of intimate clusters that people naturally make for themselves when they're sitting on a beach or a field; depending on how you leaned or turned, the benches provided intimacy or eyes-on-the-street extroversion and interraction. Their configuration also allowed and inspired pedestrians on adjacent sidewalks to drift and angle into the park, to enliven it with their shortcuts and detours, pauses and passes. Those benches were slightly lower than the ergonomic norm, practically easier for kids, but also inspiring a faint feeling of leisure—reminding you not to sit, quite so much, at attention. The chessboard-topped tables were subtly undersized, establishing, if you wanted it, an intensity of gameplay or an intimacy of partnership with your lunch date. Extraordinary refinements of ordinary things—the heights of benches, the angles of their backs, the patterns of bricks, the distances between things—established a set of social and spatial effects that even if you couldn't name them (especially if you couldn't name them), did all the things a little pocket park should do: slow you down, stir you up, give back to you, for a moment, the sky, the day, the city.  

In contrast, today's configuration smears all the seating to the edge of the site, where it becomes a kind of inward-facing barrier to casual traffic. Benches, spaced far apart from each other between haphazard plantings, don't seat the critical density of people that bring a sense of audience and performance to public life. To sit on the flimsy chairs at the center of this ring of benches is to feel merely surveilled. Overbright sodium-jaundiced light from faux gas lamps does not encourage lingering on a languid summer evening, under stars. Overscaled slabs of yellowish stone pavers establish an institutional feeling, in constrast to the domestic scale of the bricks they replace. Those shin-high flower fences running along most of the periphery, a tripping hazard, project up an intangible psychological boundary that discourages the kind of drift and wander with which public space is animated and confirmed—a discouragement reinforced elsewhere by actual chains between bollards. The two chessboard-topped tables, also shoved into a fortifying position at the sidewalk's edge, are oversized: players, if any, would be five or more feet apart. Those wood-and-metal benches look vaguely like Olmstead and Vaux's masterful originals, but emphatically are not. Their curves are stumpier and their legs spindlier, their treatment of the body more cursory and less welcoming. They're too short for a reclining nap. The message of the whole seems to be: stop and stay if you must, but not for too long, and especially not if you have no home to go to.

Some of the park's failures may be a matter of taste: the particular curves of the flowerbeds and tree surrounds appear to be neither circular arcs nor ellipses, but instead the kind of spline-corner-curve that you get when you don't change the default settings on Adobe Illustrator. Their awkward and already-dated early-aughts shape, embodied in the built environment, is the equivalent to a sighting of that bugbear typeface of graphic designers, Comic Sans. It means somebody didn't think twice, or better, or much at all.

[Abingdon Square Park]

Fake gas lamps and reproduction benches are not always bad news. Historicist pastiche, though often the design recourse of the craven, mendacious, and indolent, is not inherently problematic. Just north of the Bleecker Street Playground, in the adjacent Abingdon Square Park, also recently renovated, a similar vocabulary of old-timey elements has been deployed with far greater skill. Where the Bleecker Street Park is, (or should be), languidly extroverted and woven hospitably into the adjacent sidewalks and streets, Abingdon Square presents a more insular sanctuary against the higher-speed-and-frequency traffic that surrounds it: iron fencing, high plantings, and a continuous inward-facing ring of similar faux-Olmsteadian benches surround an unmistakably modern micro-meadow of grass, an improbable blobbish hillock whose raised teardrop profile provides more surface area for verdant contemplation than would a more conventional flat clearing. The whole composition offers a balance between historical reference and contemporary ingenuity that is, for its time and place, just right. Or at least almost okay.

The lament for Bleecker Street is not, one hopes, that nobody cared. Or that there was not some kind of publicly accountable process in the shaping of the new design. The lament is that such a process can enable, or perhaps even encourage, the kind of bamboozling mediocrity that the current park has achieved. This is worse and weirder than the death-by-committee and tendency toward least-common-denominator banalities that are the general hazards of institutional decision-making. It is a kind of codependency between a calculating designer and a cautious client, in which even good intentions can be progressively diffused and even rich imaginations impoverished. A cycle of caution and calculation can engender a process in which both clients and designers operate defensively: willfully mistaking the merely familiar for the truly time-tested. Or settling for a visual mishmash as the stand-in or signifier for the urbane eventfulness or communal joy for which that mishmash, because it has not been deployed with the care and expertise and ambition and sincerity of a Jacobs or a Nichols, is precisely not the tool.

The result, as at Bleecker Street, is not a design, but a design-like object. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, the writer Michael Pollan famously distinguished between food and food-like objects, manufactured artifacts calculated to resemble the shape and texture and taste of real food, but missing all the sap and blood and transformative power of the real thing. As a cluster of nouns: benches, lights, tables, trees, the new park is indistinguishable from the old. But in its verbs and adjectives, in how it feels and what it does and what it's made of, it betrays its predecessor entirely. The work of design is not the assemblage of things you can name. Or even of things you can see. And designing is not shopping. It is something weirder and harder. The process of design is a choreography of tangible causes toward intangible effects, of motion toward emotion, of space toward spaciousness. It's esoteric yet empirical. It deploys science and art, but is emphatically neither, and is at its rare best entirely a form of public service?the means by which the world as it should be is scintillatingly yet methodically incorporated into the world as it is.

People are robust in their use of urban space, especially in New York. Locals and tourists will use Bleecker Street, more or less, the same as before, albeit with less unconscious ease and fewer unexpected joys. They will find workarounds and hacks for the park's many shortcomings. And maybe, in another half century, after some literal or figurative hurricane brings a wind of change, all will be set right. But meanwhile, as the kids say, it's an epic fail. And a lesson in what happens when in our caution and calculation we mistake, innocently or willfully, a design-like object for the work of design, a checklist of features for a leap of faith.
?Thomas de Monchaux
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