Where to start writing about New York City? The center of the universe? The greatest City? Home to the best art museums; the best theater; the best park; the best food; the best everything? I don’t know that any of that is true but I don’t know that any of it isn’t.
My wife and I had gone to New York to see the Christo installation in Central Park. After years and years of trying, Christo had finally persuaded the high panjandrums in New York to let him drape the park.
Christo is the man made famous for wrapping various large buildings in fabric and more recently for stringing large umbrellas up and down both California and Japan. In all cases, the fabric goes up to some level of local fanfare, stays up for a few days or weeks, and then comes down only to disappear to wherever it is you dispose of a million yards of laundry. It’s like the brain teaser, “If a tree falls in the woods and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If Christo wraps a building and then unwraps it, what really happened?
There are some who would argue that his work isn’t art just like there are those who would argue that anything that doesn’t involve a ball isn’t a sport. If your definition of art is some pleasing dabs of paint on a canvass in a gallery, then Christo’s work probably doesn’t get it done for you. If you think art should have some sort of clear purpose—like a portrait—you’ll probably be similarly frustrated. Or maybe not. Hold that thought.
The way the story is now told, several New York City administrations ago Christo approached the elected, appointed, and employed keepers of the Big Apple’s virtue about placing a series of temporary orange fabric banners (supported by steel) across some significant portion of Central Park’s walking paths. Christo conceived of them as a series of gates that would usher people here and there through the park. He would raise the money and pay for everything. People would come and have a look around. Later the whole thing would come down and go away. Presumably there would be nothing but upside for the city.
For whatever reason, the protectors found this an unappealing idea: they didn’t want people in the park; it would damage the park; it would set some sort of precedent; the gates would clutter the view; they didn’t like the color; etc. Christo was roundly turned him away, time after time after time.
It’s funny how things change. Twenty years ago, the masters of the universe were plying their trade down on Wall Street; gorging on the fat of the Reagan landscape (it was morning in America after all, and according to Michael Douglas, greed was good). But the city was on edge, the Park wasn’t safe, the garbage wasn’t getting picked up, and the subways were a war zone.
Today New York most definitely has that “I’m back and I’m proud” swagger to it. It’s been three and a half years since 9.11.01. It was impossible not to feel the contrast on President’s Weekend 2005: There wasn’t a hotel room to be found in midtown; Central Park was overflowing with people perambulating beneath the Christo gates; Fifth Avenue was shoulder to shoulder with shoppers and strollers from literally around the world. At any point, day or night, you could close your eyes and feel the hum of it all passing through your bones. Yes, the City is back in a way many thought it would never be.
Mayor B. is now credited with the vision to say “yes” to Christo’s slimmed down plans for gating the park. Judging from the results, the mayor should be canonized. Whatever you think of the color (saffron), routing, configuration, aesthetic, purpose, use of $21 million dollars (the total cost of the installation, none of which was borne by the city), or anything else, you simply have to regard it as a public triumph, or perhaps a triumphal march of the public.
The City, from what I could tell, poured itself into Central Park to see the gates. The Park, in turn, paid its visitor’s back with clear skies and sparkling vistas through the barren trees—at least until the snowfall on President’s day and thereafter. The three times we were in the Park—Friday night late, Saturday, and Sunday—it was between cold and bitter cold, but who cared? We were part of a true 21st century happening.
My sense of the whole thing was that it was all about the story and less about the actual gates: The story of getting the project sold in. The story about all the steel, fabric, nuts, and bolts that went into the fabrication. The story about putting it all up, maintaining it, and ultimately recycling all the bits and pieces. The story about all the people who came to see it.
To see the gates was ultimately to photograph the gates. I suppose there was someone there at some point without a camera but I didn’t see them. There were throwaway cameras, digital cameras of every type and description, video cameras, and film cameras. There were professionals and amateurs and all the stripes in between. Some came to shoot the gates, some to take pictures of themselves and their pals standing by or near the gates. Every dip or turn of the path brought some new sweep or angle to view and out the cameras would come again. I know because I was doing the same thing.
It would be interesting to gather a collection of all those photos to see what it was people saw in the gates. For me, it was the color and the juxtaposition of the saffron of the gates with the blackness of the trees, the gray of the rocks and paths, and the emerging green of the pre-spring grass. Ultimately I alternated between what I would describe as “standard” shots and defocused impressionist images of color and indistinct shape. Personally I think I like the later best.
I’m off to London and Paris as I write this, two cities that comfortably lay claim to every epithet of “greatest” anyone would care to throw around. I like both very much but for different reasons. The gates have made me a believer though. For all that is wrong with big cities in general, and perhaps New York in particular—for all the surliness and silliness—Christo and his million yards of fabric turned the City into a global village for a brief glimpse of time. We came from all over the world and marveled at the cloth and steel and the city surrounding it all. Mostly though, I had the sense that we marveled at each other, the hundreds of thousands of us walking through Central Park, freezing our collective bottoms off, to look at art. For that, at least for that slice of time, New York has my vote as the greatest.