The F-Word

Rebecca Solnit, in her dazzling history of walking, Wanderlust, Berkeley, 1998, writes of the Nevada desert: "Nothing happens here most of the time, except seasons, weather, light, and the workings of one's body and mind" - Upper Ojai is like that.....but not New York City, except that even amidst the urban tumult the mind can sometimes float free and perceive the earth's mantle beneath the civilizational infrastructure or catch light, weather and seasons at play within it.

And so it was. I walked along the northern edge of Prospect Park and realized that I was on a ridge line: heading south, slightly uphill towards the highest point in Brooklyn. In the mid nineteenth century, Green-Wood Cemetery was the most popular scenic destination in the United States, exceeding, by virtue of its proximate population that had swelled to become the third largest in the country, even Niagara Falls. Today, this high ground to the south of Park Slope remains bucolic but the almost 500 acres of mounding hills are littered with a one hundred and seventy five year accumulation of tomb stones, mausoleums and crypts, and is guarded at its perimeter with a double row of spiked cast-iron railings sufficient to deter even this intrepid trespasser seeking further topographical stimulus, distant watery vistas - even, perhaps, a hint of some yonder wildland. Disinclined to continue my circuit, (turns out I was only a couple of blocks shy of the gothic-spired entry), I lowered my sights to the surrounding frame houses which have in common only their mean front yards and their composite claddings that make determined, albeit unfortunate attempts to simulate a compendium of wood, stone and brick finishes, and turned back.

As you move north along the avenues, this surficial dissembling resolves itself once you hit the upper-middle class enclaves of Park Slope, where a dark tan cementitious render has been uniformly slathered on the three and four story 'brown-stones' whose original cladding has long fallen prey to the acidic assault of this borough's erstwhile heavy industries which, for a century or more, cast a noxious pall over the land. Green-Wood cemetery occasionally emerged, if early photographs can be believed, from said pall into a relatively un-besmirched stratosphere, its greensward enrobed in a sylvan filigree.

Returning along Fifth Avenue, alert to the happenstance that can befall the flâneur (whose guise I had adopted during this East coast sojourn) I glanced along 22nd Street as it falls down to the East River and saw, between dockland infrastructure, Gustave Eiffel's Statue of Liberty: appearing dwarfish but effulgent, she stood splendidly marooned in the greasy swells of the turbid waterway.

As I pointed out in Waterland, New York's urbanity exists in a liminal state between the gelid ocean waters of the north Atlantic and post-glacial sedimentary flatlands (occasionally pierced by granite outcroppings). The City's architecture and infrastructure responds to this precarious netherworld, where solid earth is encircled by liquid ocean, by going tall and throwing long: hence sky-scrapers and suspension bridges. In a post-Thanksgiving haze of alcohol, sugar and L-trytophan, it was decided that son Will, brother-in-law Mike and I would broach one such strand of connective tissue by walking across Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge and then visit the New Museum in the Bowery, early Saturday.

It was a brisk morning, the temperature hovering around freezing, when we joined the multi-cultural throng headed for Manhattan along the bridge's boardwalk. Cable and arch were the dominant tropes until David Child's Freedom Tower, rising out of Ground Zero, began to dominate the distant shore. This building, by dint of an extraordinarily tall spire, is North America's highest whilst also bidding to be its blandest. It is a pallid replacement for Yamasaki's taught, minimalist dolmen.The formal duties of remembering the fallen of 9/11 have been off-shored, so to speak, to a hole in the ground into which endless walls of water fall, which, as I have noted elsewhere (We are all Marsh Dwellers Now), is more effective as an oracle than a shrine: foretelling the recent (and perhaps future) fate of lower Manhattan.

To the right of Child's Freedom Fry, which stands carbonized and erect, is Gehry's shimmering luxury residential tower, the tallest such building in New York. The building's warped stainless steel cladding appears to fall like rivulets of molten ore down its facades to Spruce Street below and on this wintry morning the rays of a weak sun bounced deliriously amidst the flow. As iconography that celebrates life over death it is incomparably greater than its starchy neighbor.

Once over the bridge, after a glance down to the now abandoned Pier 17 Mall and the closed-up Fulton Market building in South Street Seaport, victims of superstorm Sandy, we were quickly pulled into the Chinatown vortex. If art's purpose is to hold a revelatory mirror to the world then Chris Burden's sculpture succeeds at the highest level: a retrospective of his work awaited us once we had pushed north into the Bowery and beheld the antic storey-stacking of Sanaa's New Museum - the artist's 'Ghost Ship' perched on a facet of its discontinuous facade. While still young, Burden (a long-time Topanga resident), used his body in an extraordinary series of performance pieces that probed the very essence of our corporeal reality within the complexities of space, time and civilization. At Cal State Long Beach, he immured himself in a locker for several days then, in the following years he had an accomplice shoot him with a .22; cast himself away on a remote Baja peninsula; and had himself dumped in traffic on Wilshire Boulevard in a body bag with only a few flares to protect him - fragments from a grand sequence of performances that pitted his body against the world in dialectical ripostes.

Now an aging art superstar, he uses meticulously crafted objects to continue his investigations. He sent the clinker built dory (that, for the duration of the Retrospective, serves as a sign of the show) on an epic autonomous sailing voyage from Fair Isle, in the Shetlands, to the old ship building port of Newcastle-on-Tyne in Northern England. His ghost ship, an ocean going drone - a surrogate for our own fated journeying.

My final New York voyage into the psycho-geographic realm (a place where the writer Will Self suggests opportunities for "disentangling the modern conundrum of psyche and place" exist) involved driving deep into Manhattan from Cobble Hill (no elevated land in sight) in pal Michael Moran's forest green Toyota Highlander (a recent replacement for his late lamented Wagoneer). Over brunch, the decision had been made to visit Todd William's and Billie Tsien's almost completed ice-skating rink in Prospect Park, but a return to the park - in the vicinity of my earlier walk, the site of two of my runs and Thanksgiving morning's five mile turkey-trot, which (proud parent alert) son Will won with a string of five minute miles vanquishing 2200 fellow Brooklyn bib-chipped hipsters and yours truly, ghost running and bib-less somewhere in the upper reaches of the master's divisions - was not, NPI, an altogether engaging prospect.

Once in the car the decision was made to visit Roosevelt island, erstwhile home to the borough's criminally insane and now, at its southern end, straight-jacketed by great sheets of grey-white granite and sea-walled with geometrically placed dark boulders: it was there that we watched this lithic islet resist the on-rushing tide as the lights of Manhattan, apparently ring-mastered by the down-turned rictus of the Chrysler building's flashing dentition, emerged in the deepening twilight. We stood in the prow of this much delayed memorial to FDR (designed four decades ago by Louis Kahn) described by three walls and opening to the island's southern shore with views of Brooklyn's waterfront beyond. Behind us were two large (mis-matched) granite panels on which were inscribed the nub of Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address in which he enumerated the four essential freedoms of speech, worship, want and fear. On the obverse side of this panel, facing the approach across a triangular lawn flanked by gravel walks and allées of little leaf Lindens (Tilia cordata) floats a giant bronze head of the man - greatest of the twentieth century's three great Presidents all of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, were known primarily by their initials - FDR, JFK and LBJ.

Moved by the place, moved by Roosevelt's humanist vision, and sharing in this experience with family and a friend, I reflected on the sad mis-use to which the word Freedom has been subjected over the last decade or so, mired as it has been in the tawdry imperialist program of a wounded state.