Diane von Furstenberg told the WSJ that the newly erected Little Island was her husband Barry Diller’s dream. An aging billionaire who dreams of creating a makeshift tourist stop spot disguised as a park. Sure, ok. New Yorkers have gotten used to this. The couple donated more than $260 million to fund the project which opened this past May. Some celebrated. Others scratched their heads.
I, a scratcher.
A 2019 study ranked New York last in a sample of 15 U.S. cities with just 146 square feet of green space per resident. While New Yorkers were clamoring to be outdoors during the pandemic, the city cut the park department’s budget by 14%, or $84 million, making it the second largest cut last year. That’s why in 2020 the Open Streets program was a godsend. And although streets aren’t necessarily parks, urban parks aren’t necessarily organic nature, and so we can be game for the larping so long as it works.
Groups like New Yorkers for Parks as well as a coalition behind the Play Fair Campaign are working to restore the budget but politics has an obvious solid reputation for getting hardly anything done in a considerable amount of time.
I’ve lived around the world and have enjoyed public parks from London to Beijing. New York is something of an anomaly. Central Park and Prospect Park are the exceptions, products of 19th century visionaries. More contemporary public spaces, specifically parks, seemed to have lost that vision that parks can rely on the rustic beauty of nature to meet the needs of urbanites.
Both Central and Prospect Park, in all their simplicity, with lawns and waterways and natural-feeling walkways, prove what works. I even sit in little Herbert Von King Park and marvel at the endless benches and lawn space and dog parks and mixed-used space. It’s tiny but it serves our needs as residents.
Close to the High Line, another of the fashion mogul’s projects, the instagramable Little Island gives New Yorkers nothing they asked for or need. But we’ll feign thanks. We’re getting good at it.
When I visited Little Island, a woman was gushing to a park worker about how wonderful it was. “And it’s great on Instagram,” she said. Fab. Another tidy public space on the Hudson, Little Island is essentially a set of paths and staircases to observation decks overlooking the river. A pricey Peloton snapshot. Make no mistake, Little Island is about you. But not in the sense that it offers you escape or relaxation. It simply exists as a backdrop to your documentation. A real blight on experiencing modern society.
Maybe, eventually, we can sit on its sloping lawns, but I bet those “Our lawns are resting” signs are not temporary. I suppose it's better than fake astroturf. Good luck finding a bench to yourself, though the wooden amphitheater does provide ample seating to watch what may eventually be engaging concerts or performances.
It’s not the only green space that chafes those of us who want better public parks. Domino Park, in Williamsburg tries so hard to be a place that attracts locals. And it does. But it too relies heavily on an architecture that excludes nature’s influence. Too many people in too small a space creates a headache for many who would rather avoid it.
Brooklyn Bridge Park comes closer to success. Green lawn. Waterfront. Carefully crafted foliage. Still not quite there.
The High Line – praise be – is a fantastic reimagining of the old tracks. No ill-will. It’s a great stroll. But let’s be clear. The High Line is not really a park. It’s a bucolic catwalk that few would consider an escape.
No one is saying the Little Island or Domino Park should not exist but rather, it’s impossible to reclaim land and create anything as grandiose anymore, which is why it’s all the more important to be smart about what we do have left. New Yorkers need places they can go and rest, and sit, and gather.
The Little Island is more like a set of hamster tubes that you’re moving through, never stopping, always onto the next thing until you make it to the bar for food or drink. I didn’t want to stay there, and not just because there were too many people but because it doesn't actually invite you to stay. It’s an attraction, a Disneyfied experience complete with refreshments and lines and crowds, and like any Disney attraction, it never quite lives up to the hype. Enter. See. Photograph. Leave.
If we keep letting billionaires fund our public spaces – you know, the kinds of people who probably rarely go to a public space – we’re going to keep building ourselves into an urban window display.
Governor’s Island is next to face the wrath of development, a final semi-natural oasis where we felt like we could breathe. But soon as the rezoning is done, expect the propaganda of reclamation to override the banal reality of another amusement park ride.