Friday, January 13, 2012

Gateway: National Parks and the Making of the Territory

Towards the end of 2011 the good folks over at PAP released a book about New York City’s best big park- Gateway National Park!  Gateway is seemingly unique among national parks; rather than an image of pristine wilderness offered up for the consumption of national tourists, it is marked by the ruins and wasted infrastructures of the old airfield and chimera-ecologies materializing in theleftover places around the edges of Jamaica Bay, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook.  Here the primary patrons are not busloads of tourists from afar, but locals living on the outer rim of New York City.  Outfall sewers and obsolete cold war defenses are as important as rock outcroppings and maritime forests.

[A few years ago we made our affections for the slice of Gateway known as Floyd Bennett Field known by penning a few rough verses on the future of recreation for the Urban Omnibus.  Popular contemporary conceptions of the American landscape might be characterized as “Europe on steroids”.  We think this doesn’t go far enough into the heavy and psychoactive drugs.  It is better characterized variously as “Europe on steroids, cocaine, peyote, and meth-amphetamine”.]]

The book features some solid essays by FASLANYC-favorites Ethan Carr and Kate Orff and publishes the results of the 2007 ideas competition held by the Van Alen Institute.  The format and price approach the scary-in-more-ways-than-one realm of coffee table tome and begs the question: wouldn't the objectives of this project be better served through an internet platform?  Nonetheless, the essays are comprehensive and daring, and while the competition entries already seem dated- featuring all the stuff that all the competitions in 2007 featured- together they serve as a powerful ode to the potentiality of the place.  Part activist propaganda, part speculative exercise, with just a dash of serious scholarship, the book is a good bookend to the first phase of Gateway’s rebirth.  

The Gateway book adds to the frothy ferment surrounding National Parks in recent years.  Since 2007 there have been two competitions by the Van Alen Institute, the St. LouisArch grounds project, and the hallmark that any historical fact needs to be considered significant- a Ken Burns documentary.  These are all part of a larger environmental and economic conversation, thrown in to relief by the Great Recession and slashing of government budgets, about the future of our federal lands.  The dialogue surrounding these huge swaths of our patrimony is typically focused on wilderness conservation and the public good of recreation and tourism as an antidote to the ills of 19th century urbanism.  No doubt there is much truth to this, and many folks smarter than ourselves have spent their considerable careers crafting the narrative.  But that is not what interests us today. 

[We can say from experience that what Floyd Bennett Field needs is not further study, but some people out there flying more model planes, playing soccer, growing and building habitat, and racing bicycles.  Here’s to the hope that future academic articles on the Gateway National Park don’t end with the familiar “needs more study”, but rather “do some shit.”]

Focusing on national parks, a quick survey of the history of the wider American landscape brings an alarming historical trend to the surface.  The idea for national parks originated in the United States as the country was quickly expanding west, seizing lands fromMexico and staking claims in California to ward off British Imperial designs (at that time Canada was still British).  The official history states that they were an outgrowth of a philosophy articulated by Olmsted in his 1865 report on Yosemite.  According to National Park Service HistorianDwight T. Pitcaithly the idea was one of:
leisure based on nature's regenerative powers for an urbanizing society. [Olmsted] believed… that the essence of park land should be in establishing a contrast to the pace of the modern world…  Olmsted envisioned a need for ordinary citizens to maintain perspective in their daily lives by being exposed to, and encouraged to contemplate, the natural [sic] rhythms of the natural world. 
This official history is generally accepted, despite the extremely suspect reading of Olmsted (did he really think that parks were anti-modern, providing only contrast to everything that was contemporary?  Did he really think that ordinary citizens in their daily lives were just going to hop on horseback at the end of a tough day at the mill and head down for a breath of fresh air at Yosemite?  Methinks not.)

Well, this is all well and good.  Never mind that these national parks were located several days travel from any nearby populations, much less those of a verifiable city- at that time San Francisco was the only population center in the top 100 in the West, and that thanks to the Gold Rush of 1849.  What is more, getting to these places was exceedingly difficult, as the Golden Spike wouldn’t be driven for four more years, and the car was not yet a twinkle in eye of a prepubescent Henry Ford.  It would be decades before National Parks were created within a day or two of the urban populations- all of the pre-depression parks were west of the continental divide, save one or two exceptions.  The argument has been made that this was a far-sighted move, one in which Olmsted and others anticipated a future in which these areas would be near urban populations.  What is more, they foresaw that these places would be under threat from those urban populations they were meant to serve if not protected.  And that is true.  So we made some national parks.  Took city parks, scaled them up, and put them under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

[a 1956 NPS map showing the nation's national parks and monuments.  By far the majority of the parks were in the West, though this has changed a bit post WWII]

This was America’s best idea!  Our greatest invention!  Our mountains and forest and rivers were bigger, more drastic, more majestic!  An entire art-historical theory- the sublime- found its footing and took off on the strength of these natural objects.  This was the raw material of our future society which we could put up against the great cultural monuments of Europe and the Far East!  Unfortunately it does not explain why no national parks were created east of the Mississippi until half a century later and why many of them were located at the edges of contested terrains which had been taken from Mexico or were loosely controlled territories with no state governments and sparse national populations.

A similar trend can be observed throughout the Americas.  Huge swaths of Hawaii were made national parks before it was ever a state.  The majority of the lands of the Darien Gap on the border between Panama and Colombia are administered as a national park, a phenomenon that holds true for most modern Central American borders.  The massive Venezuela-Brazil border is almost entirely national park, as is much of the border between Peru and Bolivia. 

Our thesis here today is that national parks in the American landscape are more than conservation-recreation machines; their primary purpose is geo-political.  Creating national parks was first and foremost a historical act of territorialization of the American landscape.  Recreation for future populations and the conservation of natural objects and ecosystems was a major factor, but this was of secondary importance to the acts of territorialization needed to construct a national landscape in the expanses of the Americas where populations were thinand heterogeneous, capital was concentrated in a few hands, and borders werecontested.  Take the case of Parque Nacional Iguazu in the Argentine portion of the Triple Frontera zone of South America.

The falls of Iguazu had been known to Europeans at least since their discovery by Spanish explorer de Vaca in 1541.  A Jesuit mission was established ten years later, but the population remained entirely indigenous until 1881.  The territory was under Paraguayan jurisdiction until it was ceded to Argentina as an outcome of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864.  The area remained a contested zone and largely unsettled by Argentines until 1902 excursions into the area, much like those undertaken in Yosemite30 years prior, convinced authorities in Buenos Aires of its importance.  Despite an almost non-existent national population, its strategic location at the border with Paraguay and Brazil as well as the recreational possibilities the area might one day offer to tourists was enough to convince the government to buy the land and build a tourist town and military port.  

In subsequent decades landscape designers Carlos Thays and Benito Carrasco authored reports on the potential of the place and editorialized in the national newspapers about the importance of conserving the falls and the surrounding jungle.  Eventually the land was purchased and designated a future national park and zona militar (military base), a vision which came to fruition in 1928 as Argentina’s first national park.  Thays was chosen to provide the urban plan for the city located in the new national territory with the objectives of supporting the touristic-military objectives in the national interest.

[the contested zones of the land-locked nation of Paraguay- Puerto Iguazu is in the little elbow where the pink and orange meet to the far right; the orange zone is now part of Argentina, the various other orange areas were also once claimed by Paraguay but have been ceded to or taken by other South American countries since 1811]

This particular case makes even more clear the geo-political role of national parks in the American landscape and suggests that parks are not only landscapes themselves, but are also mechanisms for the construction of larger landscapes- national territories.  In the Americas they not only accommodate tourists and conserve natural objects and ecosystems, they also offer a way for the national government to establish a control regime in a contested zone which creates new and different opportunities for populations, economies, and ecologies to develop.

Of course, that could all be crap, so much horseshit on the side of the trail to Old Faithful.  But we think that this reading of national parks in the American landscape might offer a potent lens to view the urban national parks that have been getting so much attention in recent years, be they the DC forts, Gateway National Recreation Area, or the St. Louis Arch Grounds. 

We have suggested before that the frontier is now in our cities.  This relation seems even more tightly coupled in places like Gateway and the DC forts, where military installations preceded the creation of a park.  If national parks are a uniquely pan-American instrument for dealing with the American frontier, and the frontier is an urban fact in our post-industrial cities, then what are the means by which an urban park constructs the national territory?

[given the contested history of the Falkland Island/Islas Malvinas and their potential to one day serve as a stopover on South Seas trading routes and a point of departure to the warming Antarctic Peninsula, we are guessing there is a decent chance that one day huge chunks of them will be designated as a national park]


  1. I want to design landscapes that are "Europe on steroids, cocaine, peyote, and meth-amphetamine".

  2. "It is better characterized" it here being the American landscape referred to earlier in sentence?

    Furthermore re: territorialization in the USA at least in might then be interesting to look at the overlay between Native American Heritage Sites and the sites of the lands of the U.S. National Park Service.

    Finally, put differently could "then what are the means by which an urban park constructs the national territory?" be re-focused to look at the who/what the urban park was constructed against? Or in taking from.

  3. Hi Nam- it's not any landscape in particular, which is why I tried to offer an array of drugs. I think it might be an interesting analysis to compare a European and American landscape through the lens of a specific drug. So the Biltmore in Asheville, NC is Versaille stoned out of its mind, or the la brea tar pits are the Dordonne region of France on a bad acid trip...

    That is a great tip on looking at native american heritage sites and national parks- i'll bet there is a relationship there. it's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about here- thank you for the suggestion.

    As to your last question... I don't know. That would be a very interesting, long discussion I think. You could look at it that way, which would be a critical stance, right? But just because you are creating a territory doesn't necessarily mean you are taking it from someone/thing else, right? (although there are certainly tons of historical examples of what you refer to- such as Central Park kicking out the black Americans and Irish Americans so a public space constructed according to republican ideals could be made.)

    You could be making a new thing, somehow, without necessarily taking away from what was there. Although it seems you would necessarily change it in some way (taking being just one option).


  4. Sorry for the delay in response but I have been working 5 12s for last week.

    I think it would be interesting to look critically at how territory is constructed and the opportunities for constructing a territory without "taking away from what was there".

    It would be possible i think but would involve a level of involvement by/with the community that is difficult and tedious, to many.
    The key i think would the issue of power/politics in terms of the drivers of the process.