Friday, October 28, 2011

Waste Space to Public Space

By Matt Tarleton, Project Manager.  

This past weekend I traveled to New York City to visit friends and family. It was a wonderful trip. While I can’t quite picture myself living there, it is such an incredible place to explore, especially for someone that is interested in cities and food (that’s me). There are countless lessons to be learned in every borough and corner of the city and the larger metropolitan area. I wish I had more time to explore the transformation happening at Governor’s Island, the degree to which Little Italy has been overtaken by Chinatown, and the impact of the High Line on redevelopment in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. There’s always next time. But on this most recent trip, I did get to experience Socrates Sculpture Park, an impressive story of environmental remediation, revitalization, and community engagement. 

Located along the East River in Long Island City (Queens), the park is filled with multiple large installations by various artists, with exhibitions rotating throughout the year. Adjacent to the park is a large area where resident artists and sculptors can design, weld, and assemble their pieces, some of which are as large as your average American home. It possesses and incredible view of the Upper East Side. On a slightly chilly and breezy Sunday afternoon, I think we were the only non-residents. This is not a destination; it is a place for the community. It’s a place for residents, their children, and their dogs; dogs like Nero, an English Mastiff that, according to his owner, could speak five languages.

In 1986, a group of artists and community leaders developed a vision for the Socrates Sculpture Park. At the time it was an abandoned landfill and illegal dumpsite. Twenty five years later it has grown into more than simply a park. It is an artist residency program, an operator of arts education programs for local youth, and a provider or community employment and training programs. It is home to bike rehabilitation programs, international film screenings, and a farmers market. Its Community Works Initiative Program teaches landscaping and horticultural skills to local residents, including those in nearby Astoria and Queensbridge housing projects, and provides employment to program participants as grounds maintenance workers. 

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement is simply the vision to transform a previously dilapidated and hazardous space into such a vibrant public space. The park was primarily the vision of Mark di Suvero, a sculptor and founder of the Athena Foundation. As a former landfill turned illegal dumpsite, the nearly five acre site required a year to clean up and prepare for public use. The site was leased from the Department of Ports and Trade for one dollar each year. After roughly seven years of operation as a sculpture garden, the area was officially designated as a park within the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 1993. Since that time, Socrates has received numerous awards for its transformative effect on the neighborhood and its successful transition from waste space to public space.

There are sites like this all over the country that have tremendous potential. Communities simply need to have the vision and the will. New York City saw that the nearly five-acre Socrates Sculpture Park was a successful project. Today, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is working ardently to transform the 2,200 acre Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island into a public park. Yes, you read that correctly. At 2,200 acres it was the largest landfill in the world. Upon completion the park will be nearly three times as large as Central Park. But it’s a project that should take thirty years to finish. I guess that won’t be on the agenda for next year’s trip.