Saturday, July 5, 2008

Landscape architecture in Brooklyn... pass the DeWar's

The streets of New York City are a veritable breeding ground of urban phenomena. The most ubiquitous of these is, of course, advertising. There is no limit to the ingenuity on display every day in every way to convince you to buy something, vote for something, or take up something as a cause. The neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, being a bit behind the times, is conspicuously lacking in messages to vote for Obama, buy SmartWater, and help save Darfur. However, there is this little beauty

Now I don’t drink DeWar’s, usually opting for something off the bottom shelf, but I am fascinated by this advertisement. The image is confounding- a very black man, impeccably dressed and carrying a doctor’s bag with a posture and a stride that suggests he is fleeing the scene with a purpose- all beside the motto “do nothing, be nothing, say nothing, and you will avoid criticism” with added emphasis on ‘nothing’.

I don’t know what this advertisement is saying- the conflicting metaphors and images drawn from our collective conscious and slammed together on the side of a brick wall are confusing- but I do know that I want to try some DeWar’s. Coincidentally, this also seems to be the motto adopted by ASLA and its allies. They seem to be much more interested in selling advertisements and facilitating the creation of benign and banal landscapes everywhere.

Despite being the self-proclaimed voice of a profession that is inherently cool- make places people like, plant trees, design stuff outside, all without the bothersome panache of being “important”- ASLA is content with a place at the back table in Washington or your local developer’s dining room. Save a few practitioners, the collective contribution of the profession tends to be places like this in Red Hook Brooklyn. In this new park, a couple of hallmarks of NYC park design are have been maintained including the ever-present chain-link fence surrounding the site and asphalt everywhere. I especially like the painted asphalt designs made to resemble a tiny baseball field or , made to look like a radiant rainbow sun emanating from a fence post. Some might say that painting a field on this space is a sensible urban solution that allows the flexibility to serve many more uses than a real field would. But those people are stupid people who lack imagination and the ability to think critically. I would often see people- both kids and adults- playing ball here before the ‘field’ was painted. We’ve all done it- you just pace off the distance of a base and drop a shirt and go from there. It’s insulting to insinuate that people need to have every opportunity to play spelled out for them. Indeed, I’ve never seen anyone playing ball there since the redesign. It communicates that if you play here now you’ve just played out the sophomoric vision of some poor bastard landscape architect. It‘s demeaning if anything.

It is perhaps not the worst place in the neighborhood, but most of its charm is borrowed from the Hope and Anchor across the street where you can get meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and a beer for $15. And on Sunday night, they have a 7 foot tall transvestite lead karaoke night.

Don’t know if they sell DeWar’s, however.

(For an example of interesting and meaningful reuse of a blacktop in Red Hook, check out the Red Hook Farm).

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