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February 18, 2008

Landscape, Loss [of Sleep] and Robert Moses

Emotionally entangled but generally unrelated.

Beard Street: April 2007 & January 2008 (yes, I am aware that these are two different stretches of Beard Street)

If one must be tasked with reading 500 pages in seven days, I highly recommend The Power Broker. I will confess that until this week I had not read the work cover-to-cover, choosing instead to read sections out of order, usually when I was doing research or looking for background on a specific topic. My homework assignment this week was to read the first half of the book and, aside from having to carry 1,200+ bound pages back and forth to work each day, the experience has been great...with one major exception. For whatever reason, Caro's prose has stuck in my head on repeat. Last night I slept for perhaps two hours.* The rest was spent rehashing Moses' early political maneuvers surrounding the creation of Long Island parks.

The Power Broker seems to be a timely tome to tackle, mainly because I have been thinking a lot about landscape and the concept of loss, whether it be political, social or environmental...and mostly all of the above. While jogging home from the local track this weekend, I paused on Beard Street to take in the newest changes to the IKEA site. Although I pass by at least once a week, for some reason I was struck had by the massive change in landscape that has occurred over the past year.

Regardless of how you feel about the demolition of the shipyard and the sugar refinery, the physical contrast from February 2007 to February 2008 is quite drastic. I don't think that I have ever experienced this type of reorganization of landscape in such a short period of time before. It is as if part of the area's physical history has been completely erased. As I stood in the middle of the newly paved street thinking about this, I experienced an incredible sense of loss. I have watched a number of landscapes change over time. In the past fifteen years the area surrounding my childhood home has been ruthlessly developed. When I walk around in the neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn that I have lived, many blocks look nothing like they did five, eight years ago. Nowhere, however, has that feeling of emptiness hit me harder than in Red Hook, though I know it is probably minor as compared to other spaces, here or abroad.

And so I wonder...has anyone else ever felt this loss? What was the change?

* During this time I had a dream in which Alexis and I were trying to decide if we should buy a house. It had four sinks in the kitchen, along with a giant steel bathtub. The master bedroom looked out over a bus stop and the house had four oddly placed staircases, all of which were falling apart. Despite all of this, the only thing we seemed to discuss was where we would put all of the cats.

Posted by callalillie at February 18, 2008 7:45 AM | City Life , I Love Buildings


hey corie,

i think massive demolition and dirt pushing really transforms a space, moving it much farther away from where we "knew" it. to resculpt the landscape is to really do away with the underlying structure of the space - something that may go unnoticed until it disappears. subtle, ongoing, "evolutionary" transformations of neighborhoods still maintain various aspects of what once was. there's the ability to recall what was there, we still have reference, we can still frame the space in a familiar context.

maybe this is why you sense loss in the IKEA site?


Posted by: margot at February 18, 2008 4:25 PM

margot, that was really beautifully put. i do think that is part of the loss. in many ways, the change is amazing- you can see things in the skyline never visible before. but it is also as if someone repainted the landscape. the difference is quite jarring, especially the contrast between what was, which was cobblestoned and old, to what is, which is brightly colored, modular and new. like you said, there's not much to grasp onto from the past except memory and a few sensory cues. thank goodness for photographs, i guess.

Posted by: corie at February 18, 2008 4:53 PM

The people of New Orleans (and the entire gulf region) understand what you are going through.

Posted by: LJL at February 18, 2008 5:10 PM

I had the exact same reaction to the Power Broker. What is it about that Robert Caro?

And don't you think it's interesting that people are trying to rehabilitate Moses's reputation right now, in the middle of a building boom?

Posted by: sarah at February 18, 2008 6:08 PM

Your dream made me laugh out loud. Where to put the cats really is the most important part of home buying, after all.

Posted by: craige at February 19, 2008 1:31 PM

I haven't read Caro, but I think you've convinced me I should.

In Vancouver, Canada, where I live, the act of tearing things down and building them back up is at an all-time high. What's at stake, besides the fact the city is being reconstructed for the well-to-do and forcing out renters, etc, is the history. Vancouver rarely keeps any of its average-size buildings for longer than 20 years. The city wipes the slate clean and starts over again, piece by piece, with similar styles of architecture taking the older buildings' place.

The downtown neighbourhood that holds the most history, interestingly, has disintegrated into a slum, with high crime, prostitution, and drug rates. Parts of this area are beginning to be reclaimed, as it's called, and gentrified, which only serves to put a glossy coat over everything. It doesn't seem so much reinvention or progress as it does disguise. Seeing Vancouver in archived photos, which I've looked at quite extensively, and then walking through those same areas is like hunting for ghosts.

Everytime I look at the construction going on for the upcoming 2010 Olympics, with one major street ripped to pieces, businesses along it closing shop, and at times a dozen cranes hanging over one particular spot, I can't believe Vancouver was once a logging town.

Posted by: MD at February 19, 2008 3:40 PM

The people of New Orleans?
Give me a break. Please.
New Orleans was and still is a disaster area, in a munlti-leveled way. Brought on by a natural disaster no resident of the Crescent City would choose.
Beard Street in Red Hook is only a casualty of economics. Companies that refined sugar and repaired ships found it more cost effective to work elsewhere.
It's the ebb and flow of the free enterprise system at work, for better or worse.

Posted by: TJ at February 19, 2008 7:01 PM

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