My goal for this afternoon’s explore was the new Battery Park City library, analyzed at length in this New York Times story, which details its green credentials – LEED certification! Recycled-cardboard circulation desk! – but also raises an eyebrow over the role of Goldman Sachs in its financing, and questions why an already rich and well-served neighborhood should have benefitted from such a fabulous addition. My curiosity about the area and my love of public libraries, green architecture and orange furniture were enough to get me downtown. I hopped on a surprisingly zippy and largely empty 6 train to Brooklyn Bridge, and headed west, walking along Chambers street to the Hudson river. It was the early afternoon on a workday, warm but grey, and the streets were quiet enough that I could gaze on up at the skyscrapers and take pictures in peace.
This stretch has some scruffy blocks that show their age and the tenacity of some businesses, like this great discount-suit store fading gently on a quiet block.
In the distance you can see the polished-up, industrial-chic edges of Tribeca, into which Battery Park City blends, but I resisted the temptation to detour (except to the farmers’ market with a lavender-vendor. A la-vendor, if you will.)
I resisted the temptation to fill my arms with $7 bundles of the stuff, My Fair Lady-style, and walked on, getting to Washington Market park, the first hint that being a kid in these parts must be quite something.
There were fountains, there were bright red climbing frames shaped like trains, and a decent-sized grassy area backing onto Borough of Manhattan Community College, making me a little envious of the students as well. BMCC soars over the corner here, landscaped in that haphazard campus way, with mismatched buildings and weird sculptures that nevertheless hang together in a sort of whole. And it was about at this point that I started saying ‘wow’ under my breath at the inventiveness and confidence of the urban planning around here. I climbed the steps of the Tribeca Bridge to cross over North End Avenue:
and was rewarded with an interior straight out of a Dan Flavin piece:
At one end is an entrance for Stuyvesant High School, and at the other, an exit to another grassy walkway down the center of a road, casually executed and under construction in parts, but looking and feeling just right. I couldn’t shake this feeling for the rest of the afternoon, that this is how I imagine Scandinavia does urban planning. The condos start to soar overhead but perhaps because they’re clustered together and there’s so much effort to squeeze greenness into any little space – and because they’re right by the water – they don’t feel as canyon-like and impenetrable as they do in midtown. I found the secretive little Teardrop Park tucked in among the skyscrapers, landscaped with native Hudson valley plants and designed to evoke the landscape of that area through its high walls of slate and rushing water. I climbed a little hill at the center – Shadbush Hill – expecting to look at the plants and come back down, but I passed a park ranger and rounded a corner to find myself overlooking a children’s pool and fountains, a little oasis connected, via a steep slide, into a deep sandpit, making a tiny urban beach.
Past this park, it was inches to the river itself, and to a riverside park with more playgrounds – even a permanent pool table set up, where a couple of Asian punk kids with multicolored mohawks were playing against a sunny, steely backdrop of the river and the Jersey City skyline. Slightly further down is the docking station for ferries to Jersey, the water taxi, and tourist boats, and the harbour itself clinks gently with little yachts. You can even learn to sail!
All this neat efficiency, this harbor front redevelopment, comes together in the shadow of the vast glass winter garden of the World Financial Center, which looks like old illustrations of the Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London – before it burned down.
This area has quite a London feel, in fact – like Docklands or the South Bank, a financial district trying to pump life into its surroundings, and more or less succeeding, although at times the effort shows. It shows here, with the rather soulless mall interior of the Financial Center, the Gap and Banana Republic, the chain restaurants, and the rules. Feeling a little rebellious in my sneakers, I went in to cool off and bought a scoop of Sicilian blood-orange gelato from Ciao Bella and sat on the terrace outside eating it and feeling grateful that I was not in a suit or in a meeting like everyone around me.
From this point on a waterfront esplanade snakes five miles down to Liberty View and South Cove Park, and at several points seems like experiments in landscaping, or pavilions for the hell of it. And why not? With the views of the statue of Liberty, the river breeze, and the quiet, this is urban escapism at its best, which is to say, reassuringly backed up by walls of skyscrapers.
On my way back, determined finally to see the library I had come to see, but which I’d veered away from to walk by the river, I walked past the Irish Hunger Memorial, which teeters on a knife edge between public art, landscaping, and memorial. It rises out the paving slabs in a recreation of a patch of Irish hillside, planted with native grasses and flowers around the shell of a stone cottage.
Wrapping the whole thing are quotations about the famine it commemorates, of the late 1840s, and about hunger and poverty today, but the arrangement means that it’s impossible to read most of them in their entirety or build a narrative from them.
In the same way snatches of information about world hunger are piped through speakers as you walk through the tunnel, but the whole effect is fragmentary and confused. The statue of Liberty might make a stirring backdrop, but at the same time quotations about the conflict of need versus greed, and the tiny, empty hovel, make a jarring contrast with the condos and office blocks that are just as integral to its surroundings.
(Running out of time, I didn’t make it to the World Trade Center memorial site behind the Winter Garden, although it’s never really possible to forget when you’re in this part of town.)
And so, finally, back to North End Avenue and the library.
It was smaller than I’d expected, and the orange upholstery a little faded, but the building is light, spacious and gleaming. For all the fanfare it feels like a good public library should – quiet, but not too quiet, a little shambolic, and active, with plenty of visitors.
And for all the carping, I think an area like this really does need a library. Whether it’s the cost of living, the looming of office blocks, the sea of pastel shirts at PJ Clarke’s come five o’clock, or the lingering, palpable absence of the twin towers, Battery Park City still doesn’t feel quite like a neighbourhood. Its parks and its waterfront are beautiful – and I’m sure those condos are palaces – but it needs some things a little less carefully planned, a little more genuine New York urban chaos, to make it feel quite real.