Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The soundscape of Columbia’s Butler Library


Silence is the ultimate weapon of power

Charles de Gaulle

There is no such thing as silence

John Cage

Every place in the world has a specific ambient noise that creates a uniform sound. The notion of soundscape, first introduced by the composer R. Murray Schafer in 1977, has proven a useful and powerful tool in understanding the everyday life coming out of that sound.

In this post I seek to explore one commonly omitted aspect in landscape analysis: the encultured nature of the sound that is present in a particular space. Or, in other words, the relationship between sounds, environments and culture.

A soundscape can be considered as “a total appreciation of the acoustic environment” (Ref, p. 4). Based on this, the notion of soundscape considers not only the physical characteristics of the sounds present in an specific acoustic environment, but the cultural context in which these are heard. That is to say, sounds acquire particular social significance.

The composer John Cage (1961) considered that our listening experience was shaped, principally, by our exposure to noise. In this sense, Cage was convinced that “wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise" (Cage 1961) and so silence, at least when understood as an “absolute absence of sound”, does not exist. However, silence is often framed as positive and creating a sense of safety and serenity (Carlyle 2007).

Inspired by this powerful idea of Cage, I decided to explore the soundscapes of an area explicitly devoted to silence at Columbia University: the Butler library the main library in the Morningside campus. It is my intention here to expose the reader to an intense experience of the sound sphere of these areas through recordings made in the Butler library on a rainy Monday afternoon

Butler lounge (link to recording)

This room is located on the western side of the ground floor of Butler Library. It has a high ceiling, marble floor and concrete walls that are covered with wood on their lower section. The room is furnished with armchairs and coffee tables

This first soundscape manifests an impressive acoustic richness. This area is “the only place you can eat and talk” in Butler Library, so voices are one of the central elements we perceive in this soundscape. However, if we listen carefully, we can identify closing doors, footsteps, a chair scraping the floor, opening food packets, pens falling onto the floor… all of them causing reverberations through the acoustic structure of the building.

Milstein 211 reading room (link to recording)

This is a relatively small reading room located at the western wing of the Butler Library. The room has a marble floor and high ceilings. There are six tables in the center of room surrounded by bookshelves.

After listening to this soundscape carefully, we rapidly notice the presence of a prolonged and unchanging sound that comes from the heating system. This rhythmic sound, or more precisely, a low “flat-line pitched noise” (Schafer 1977), emerges from the recording and can be considered one of central components of all of the “silent” environments in the Butler Library.

Additionally, other irregular sounds are present in this environment: the sound of someone getting up, someone coughing, footsteps over the marble floor, zippers, and the click of an opening door. Focusing our attention further other subtle sounds appear in our recording: the sound of turning pages and of fingers typing a computer keyboard.

Ancient & Medieval Studies 603 Reading Room (link to recording)

This room is located in the sixth floor of the Butler Library. It has very strict noise regulation standards and it is, definitely, one of quietest areas in the Butler Library and in the Columbia campus in general.

The room has a marble floor and its ceilings are lower than the reading rooms located in the first floor which has the effect of dampening the acoustics. As in the case of the Milstein 211 reading room, this space is composed of wooden tables surrounded by bookshelves.

Silence as an absence of sound does not exist here either. First of all, the heating system can be clearly noticed, but it does not resonate with the same intensity as in the other rooms. This allows the more subtle sounds, almost imperceptible in the other rooms, to play to a greater role in the soundscape, with scratching, breathing and sighs clearly audible.

***

In summary, the sounds present in these recordings might be normally dismissed by someone who is familiar with these spaces. However, once we listen to them carefully, these sounds become more than just everyday noise and provide us with a more vibrant view of these spaces and their dynamics. These soundscapes provide an intimate portrayal of the ways in which material spaces are being used at a particular moment in Columbia´s history.

In the City of New York

The first time I came to Columbia was for a mock trial tournament when I was an undergraduate. It was an immediately intimidating campus: I remember entering through the gates at 116th and Broadway and ambling down College Walk feeling very dwarfed, very aware of being on a campus. Coming from the George Washington University in D.C.-- a university whose campus feels seamlessly integrated into the city—walking through a true collegiate campus smack in the middle of a huge city felt very strange. In this blog post I will be reflecting beyond Broadway and Amsterdam and thinking about the university’s full name: Columbia University in the City of New York.

Reading Dolkart’s history and looking at old maps of Columbia caused me to think about the impact of the southern half of campus on its feeling of integration into the city. For a campus definitively within city limits, Columbia in many ways feels like a very isolated segment of the city. Early designs for campus show Low Library looking downtown with a view of the city unimpeded by Butler Library. Would this design-- the absence of Butler and the other southern buildings-- have changed the feel of campus? I believe it would have. As it is, the Columbia campus feels like an island in the surrounding landscape. If someone were to magically appear outside of Butler Library and walk inside the perimeter of campus, they would never even glimpse the skyscrapers of downtown. Looking out from either end of College Walk, they would see the street dip out of sight but would not grasp the breadth of the city in which they stood.


Without the southern section of campus, sitting on the steps at Low Library would have (at least at the time of construction, when the intervening buildings would have been much smaller) afforded a view of downtown Manhattan. Students and faculty would see the skyscrapers of midtown rather than the face of Butler. It would be a subtle but frequent reminder of where the school is seated and would have expanded, in a psychological sense, the “boundaries” of campus. Sitting on the steps at Low, one sees Butler and mentally draws the boundary there. With a farther vantage point, I believe people would internalize the cityscape as a part of campus, not something outside of it.

I currently work at SIPA, and until recently my office was on the 15th floor. Every day, I would come out of the elevators and instantly be greeted by a panoramic of downtown Manhattan: everything from the more immediately close parts of campus down to the distant buildings on Wall Street. I walked past this view dozens of times a day and it was always a subtle but powerful reminder of where exactly I was: not just Columbia University, but Columbia University in the City of New York.

When I look at the old designs of campus without that southern section, I believe it was this sense of scale the designers intended. The presence of the southern buildings, to me, boxes campus in and dwarfs those within it instead of broadening the scale of campus to visually include the city. Without those southern buildings, to be fair, I believe Columbia would feel less like a campus than it does, and that feeling of “campus-ness” is very important to the atmosphere of the university. Whether the addition of those buildings is good or bad is entirely a matter of personal perspective, but this alteration to campus’s original design had a definitive effect on the perceived landscape of Columbia’s campus.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"New York was his town, and it always would be". - Cinematographic Representation of Morningside Heights

It seems that the engagement between art techniques and human responses to landscape still remains partially explored. How has the Columbia landscape in Morningside Heights been depicted in fiction arts? If the critiques we have looked at all through the discussion on the rise of the “Picturesque” as a category of landscape would be applicable in a different way, what are spatial practices that we could find in other fiction genres of art techniques such as novels and films? To put it more precisely, how do visual representations and textual narratives on landscape interact with character’s emotional dissonance or intimacy?


After these questions came up in my mind, I began looking into several works of American novelists such as Jack Kerouac (“The Town and The City”) and Paul Auster (“Moon Palace”). Contrary to my expectation, the contents of these works did not meticulously enough portray the Columbia landscape. Surprisingly, it was not until the beat generation began to emerge in the 1950s that Morningside Heights was widely depicted in the novels. When F. S. Fitzgerald focused on the newly rich in the Long Island community in the 1920s and described its social decay as the uninhibited quest for wealth and pleasure, Morningside Heights emerged as the city’s first middle-class apartment house neighborhood development.

What I eventually found out regarding the spatial representation of the Columbia landscape, then, was not in the novels, but in the films – especially in one of the most prominent and prolific filmmakers Woody Allen’s works. As the black-and-white shots of the New York dim skyline and a montage of city sights in the opening of Manhattan take us on a tour, New York City is the subject and setting of many of Allen’s movies. His trademark slapstick comedy style with great characterization and pathos captures New York City at its most iconic level. Tracing the routes in some of his films may well be elucidating his usage of the landscape that cultivates transformation of human relationships and feelings.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) employs the use of these elements of an angst over death, being skeptical about marriage and a quest for love. In the title sequence, there is a Tolstoy phrase “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless” rolling on old jazz. After that, the Columbia landscape scene starts with a big close-up shot of Rodin’s “Le Penseur”. Then, Allen’s character, Mickey, comes out from the vestibule of the East Asian library in Kent Hall, against the background of its decorative architecture built of hard-burned brick, trimmed with limestone and set upon a reddish brown painted granite base. Clearly, Mickey exudes nervous energy from his intense hypochondria and suicidal tendencies while at a movie. Here, we Columbia students guess that Mickey might wander through Eastern philosophy trying every thought and idea he can find in order to retrieve some sense of meaning for his life, yet nothing convinces him. Where he walks is enclosed almost all the way around, and the landscape in this sequence effectively reflects somewhat oppressive power which Mickey fears, and it even belittles him since he shows a gloomy face.

In the depths of despair, he faces the bleak reality that he is no longer able to get his ex-wife back. The scene ends with Mickey walking alone by the Hudson River in Riverside Park and wistfully staring at the surface of the river - he does not even look at the opposite bank as there is a line fence that separates him and the river. Since the landscape of a river has frequently been used as a metaphor for life, the line fence is expressive of his continuous anxiety.


In Husbands and Wives (1992), the Columbia landscape interacts with his cinematic protagonists more sensitively. Originally the story takes place among two upper-middle class Manhattan, middle-aged couples. The scene in Morningside Heights opens with Allen’s character Gabe, a writing professor at Barnard College, beginning a serious flirtation with an undergraduate student of his. The slightly unbalanced shot captures them coming from the hallway of Barnard Hall. It should be noted that this quiet, small hallway is a short distance back from the main front gate. Physical closeness emerges between Gabe and the student, and this turns out also to bring intimacy.

Then unexpectedly, something clicks and they walk around Riverside Park. Being isolated from the busy, well-disciplined grid of streets in Manhattan and taking a stroll along the winding path with no particular destination, they co-experience the geographical traits which in a way lead them to stir conversation for relationship. When I followed their trails all the way from Barnard College to Riverside Park, I got into the whole experience of how they perceived the physical surroundings and responded to the ambience with a certain intimacy.
In conclusion, massive amounts of landscapes and topography that are accumulated throughout film production inspire us to investigate cultural representations of place and space. They also enhance the possibilities of aesthetic experience. While thinking about this blog post, I recalled the Manhattan's opening monologue of Allen's character’s work-in-progress about the city. He attempts to represent his love of Manhattan through textual and verbal expression (see also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbAq_bxU8Vk). Indeed, the two films that I referred now shows us that non-textual usage of landscape also strongly reflected the psychological states of the characters. As we have discussed how the concept of landscape implies a process of alienation from nature (and of domestication of nature), the depiction of landscape in film may help to reveal and dismantle the varying contexts.

Reference Works:
Graham MaCann. Woody Allen: New Yorker. Polity Press, 1990.
Hannah and Her Sisters. Dir. Woody Allen. Twentieth Century Fox, 1986=2002. DVD.
Husbands and Wives. Dir. Woody Allen. TriStar Pictures, 1992=2002. DVD.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New York's Acropolis on Morningside Heights Part 2


In a conversation with my good friend Derrick Jones as we rode past the gutted view from the 1 train going North past the 125th street station, I took the opportunity to include him in this blog post to bring things current. His personal recollections add yet another important perspective which offers community feelings. Although the "landscape" depicted is one of cultural adaption and thriving communities which can be displaced, the architectural landscape being developed will encourage a "new" transient New Yorker. Certainly we can each be affected by retrieval cues which trigger memories. Derrick shares a few that jog his memory in his interview.   
 
Interview with Derrick Jones on Manhattanville - the Global Village
      From what years did you live in this area?
From 1998 to 2002
     What was the area referred to as (neighborhood boarders/nicknames)?
Manhattanville 
     What’s your earliest memory of this area that you cherish, what triggers that memory?
2010 (www)

Derrick recalls…Waking up to the smell of fresh baked bread and people waiting in line to get a table for breakfast at “FLORIDITA” Cuban/Dominican restaurant.  Every morning they would have breakfast but on the weekends there would always be a line of people from, Cuban, Jamaican, French, British, Dominican and African American. Just regular people that wanted a regular home cooked meal that was amazing; mom & pop. Another awesome thing about this restaurant was that it was joined to a bakery.  You could get everything from freshly baked bread to a beautiful freshly baked cake; you couldn’t get any better than that. When I walk past bakeries in the Bronx where I live now, it has the aroma of fresh baked bread dance past my nose it takes me back to that time in that little area of manhattanville that was a part of the Global Village called Harlem.
     Where did you go for fun; nearby parks or other, describe the environment?
Grant’s Tomb Park...   In the summer every Wednesday night at 7:30pm they would have live jazz.  Jazz Mobile was the most popular place to go, you would see performances from Wynton Marsalis, Spyro Gira, and the list goes on.  It was awesome because you would see other famous jazz musicians and actors even sport athletes come out to listen to their friends perform…Derrick recalls Samuel L. Jackson, Malik Yoba, Cassandra Wilson, enjoying the sounds as well as other locals who are now famous or walking the neighborhood.

 
Grant's Tomb, 2011 (D. Molina)
JAZZ Mobile,
1980's (www)




 
      Why did you/your family leave the area?
Well what is called progress or re-gentrification? Rent went up and Columbia University wanted the area.
      What was living like in this area for you/your family?
      Everything from college students, immigrant families to people who family have lived in that area for 3 to 4 generations.  
      Do you feel the changes have been beneficial to residents?
No and yes. For the people who live in these communities that are not making 60 to 80 thousands dollars, the change has not been good because rent is beyond what they can pay. Food prices are soaring and treatment in this area by law enforcement has gotten worse. For the new people that are moving into this area making 60 to 80 thousand, yes the change is good for them because to them the rent are affordable and the food price are cheap.
      How do you personally feel about the changes taking place in the neighborhood? 
Well I know everything must change and there were people that would fight to make a positive change in the Global Village, I as well as others wanted the people that lived in this community to make the change not a corporation.
      Are there any buildings or shops that have been vacated, displaced or moved that you remember?
Storage build, which was a huge complex, is gone. The building that was home to Floradita restaurant, that I spoke about earlier is gone also, this restaurant had a bakery attached to it so it was a half a block long.  A block of buildings that had so many mom and pop businesses in them are totally gone…

(2011 www. [One banner offers, “No Columbia: No Forced Displacement”] At the center far right of this image, the famous Cotton Club remains standing.
     What would be your “typical” New Yorker response to such changes?
      “It’s not the same; the city is not the same”. Funny thing is that it will be said again with every generation, this statement; “IT NOT THE SAME”...


"People all over New York City want positive change in their community. Sometimes I hear, and know people who think the people in the community did fight for change or did nothing, but this is totally false. There are people who lost their lives fighting for change in this and other communities." Derrick Jones

*The Manhattan Institute’s Center for Rethinking Development posted this digital newsletter regarding the "Rezoning of West Harlem". MI Newsletter 2004  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

New York's Acropolis on Morningside Heights Part 1

1868 (Battle took place 1776)
If we attempt to use the landscape in strategically planning a battle, the current location of Columbia University would be ideal. Above is a layout of the land and movement of troops, both British and American. Funneled between the North/Hudson River and a steep drop into Harlem; the above map depicts flanking and forward positions which proved advantageous. Key people involved in the battle were; Major Leitch, Colonel Knowlton General Clinton and General Washington. Gen. Washington was said to have already retreated and intended to use this as an advantage, knowing the British would pursue and not expect such a plan (activated by the landscape).  
More images of the Battle of Harlem

-Over 100 years after the battle-

 The above image is significant in understanding the swift development of the land through transportation and the access to the 'Points of Interest' indicated at the bottom portion. The list includes Columbia College located near the foot of Central Park (2nd location) as well as Cleopatra's Obelisk and access to steam lines. We can see how the Map and Guide were shaped to support social gatherings and general services (parks, theatres, hotels or markets, hospitals and asylums). In this image, it does stop near the insane asylum which is the current location of Columbia University (3rd location). If we dig further into the past, late 1700's, we can discover Columbia's first location. Each location was a symbol for education as we can see below...Over a decade later, we leap forward to the dedication of the current location and the conceptualization of the 'Sons of New York'. 


 

Screenshot (excerpt p26) from: Dedication of the "new site", Morningside Heights. Saturday the second of May ... General Clinton, addressing the New York convention. Published by Columbia University 1896.

This excerpt above stands out echoing the sentiment of a "broader vision". The content in the 100 plus pages articulates plans and reveals sketches for us to gather a great understanding of the collaborative mindset and the significance the space will have. George William Curtis, “This is the moment to secure this crowning opportunity for the old college to become the magnificent and adequate representative of the just aspirations of the city for an institution which is symbolic of the higher interests of every great and prosperous community”. (p32) In previous class discussions we've discussed how the vision of developers are projected upon the land as well as the people it intends to attract.

From the below image, try to picture College Walk and Low Memorial Library, named for his father...the transition from pastural lands spanning from Lenox Ave., to what became a football field (South Field) and tennis courts for Columbia,  then eventually Butler Library.



1893 (www)

1897 (www)

Below, this image shows Teacher's College on the right and Barnard College's Brinckerhoff Hall which is now part of Milbank Hall. across the path. Off the path, if you are able to zoom in (link below), you would be able to find a young woman and baby buggy. This remains a welcoming campus to the community and to growing families while remaining focused on the growing academic programs. Even in this image I have difficulty making out the elevations and layout of what I currently know...

1910 (www)

*Additional media 
Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development By Andrew S. Dolkart: Cronology of Morningside Heights pages xiii-xix

Columbia University and Morningside Heights By Michael V. Susi: Historical Images

Bowery Boys podcast on Columbia College 41:46: The Bowery Boys #90: Columbia University
Audio file/podcast, rich with information regarding past locations, presidents, who's who, schools and architecture.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Touring the Mornginside Heights Campus

Earlier this week, I did something that I am guessing students at Columbia do not often consider doing – I took a tour of the Morningside Heights Campus with the aid of an audio guide. You can access this guide here (http://www.columbia.edu/content/self-guided-walking-tour.html), if you are interested in doing the same. The audio tour is narrated by Andrew Dolkart, an architectural historian; the tour itself therefore focuses primarily on the history and architectural features of some of the campus’ buildings. It begins inside Low Memorial Library, proceeding clockwise behind it, and ending at Lerner hall at the southwest end of campus. As I took this tour, I was interested not only in what the tour revealed about the campus itself, but also in how tourism provides unique narratives of spaces. Therefore, I was particularly interested in what strategies the tour utilized to describe the campus, how it was organized, and what it emphasized and left out.

Professor Dolkart’s guide describes many of the ways in which the layout of the campus, at the time of its construction in the late 19th and early 20th century, reflected a specific functional differentiation. Regarding the plaza in front of Low Memorial Library, for example, Dolkart points out that the areas below the stairs were intended as public spaces, where the university community and the public could interact, whereas the area above the stairs was intended only for the former, as suggested by the increasing steepness of the stairs themselves and the walls located to its sides. I also felt that it was significant that Low Memorial Library is flanked on other side by two buildings which played an important role in the religious life of the campus – Earl Hall, which housed “all the religious organizations of the student body,” and St. Paul’s Chapel, which is featured very prominently in the tour.

The tour is also places a great deal of emphasis on the aesthetic merits of many of some of the campus’ buildings. These descriptions not only cultivate an appreciation of these merits, but also suggest the manner in which the campus utilizes modes of representation in order to signify its importance as a place of learning and as belonging to a specific intellectual tradition. Thus, from Dolkart’s guide, we learn many of the features of Low Library, such as the paving immediately outside it and its large dome, were modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the exterior of St. Paul’s chapel was intended to evoke Italian Renaissance architecture, and the vestibule of the East Asian library in Kent Hall was modeled after Trinity College, Cambridge. Two prominent sculptures located in the center of the campus also serve to signify its overall purpose – that of Athena, described in the tour as the “goddess of wisdom” within Low Memorial Library, and that of Alma Mater, prominently featured on the plaza. Regarding the latter, Dolkart says “her arms reach out and welcome students, and laurel wreaths, open books, flaming torches, all symbolize knowledge, and hidden in her robes is an owl, symbol of wisdom, but you have to search for it, because knowledge doesn’t come easily” (rather ominously, I could not find this owl).

The tour places a great emphasis on the history of each building, specifically mentioning who sponsored its construction, and which architect designed it. Thus, we hear much about Charles McKim, whose firm McKim, Meade and White was responsible for most of the original Morningside Heights campus, as well as Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, who designed St. Paul’s chapel at the behest of his relatives, who funded its construction. The tour thus creates a narrative of each building’s genesis, containing facts which, save for the names of some of the buildings, are not otherwise apparent.

While the majority of the tour focuses on the area immediately surrounding Low Memorial Library, it concludes with a slightly more brief description of “South Campus,” or the area south of the plaza. Dolkart points out that in Seth Low’s (the president of the University at the time of the Morningside Heights campus’ construction) original vision, students and faculty would have to “go back out back into the city” between classes, but the demand for dormitories on the part of Low’s successor prompted the construction of this section of campus. It is in this section of the tour that one of the campus’ most prominent buildings, Butler Library, is described. The library was apparently intended to echo that of Low Library, with its similar exterior columns, although the roofline of Butler Library is slightly lower than the top of the Low Library dome, suggesting the continued prominence of the latter in the larger vision of the campus. Dolkart also notes that prior to the construction of Butler Library, one would have had a large scale view of the city while starting southward from the campus.

It is details such as these that reflect what seems to be one of the purposes of this tour – to provide a description of the campus as it existed at the turn of the century and what life might have been like there, and thus, as a site of historical significance. It is therefore interesting to consider that the only classroom on the tour is Havemeyer 309 – “the only intact 19th century lecture hall at Columbia” where “you can get a feel for the way classes were run in the 19th century” (it is also worth noting that Dolkart mentions the fact that this room is featured in films such as “Spiderman 2” and “Kinsey”). It is also significant that the only modern building noted on the tour is Lerner hall, which is briefly described at the tour’s end.

The tour therefore represents a specific manner in which a space can be discursively produced. This discursive production as represented by the tour can be conceived on two levels. First, the tour highlights many of the ways in which the central section of the Morningside Heights campus, through its architectural features and overall layout, reflects a kind of intention on the part of its architects to create a space of classical learning – the Greco-Roman influence on the campus’ design is seen in the design of Low Library and Butler Library, in its sculptures, and in what we might consider “textual” elements, such as the list of names featured prominently at the top of Butler Library. Second, the tour appears predominantly concerned with representing this section of campus as a site of historical significance. Thus we are not only told about its aesthetics, but also about the history of each building (who designed it and who funded it), about the history of the campus itself, and about what student life might have been like in its early years. It is perhaps for this reason that the tour is mostly concerned with the central nucleus of the Morningside Heights campus, and places less emphasis on its later additions. This emphasis on historicity is perhaps what renders the campus as a place of tourist interest, rather than simply being a functional space of university life.

- Jay Ramesh

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

View atop Riverside Park during the day

Both Cassandra and Glenda’s blog entries made mention of the effects of day and night on how we use and experience the landscape. Glenda wrote about the lack of sunlight in the humanities quad which might be the reason why few students congregate there, while Cassandra talked of foot paths that are safe enough for daytime use (and implying not safe during the night!). We’ve talked in class about the relationship between our immediate landscape and the senses. What is the nature of this relationship at different times of the day? An obvious candidate for this question would be a park, and from my own experiences I have noticed quite a few times the mass exodus of people from Riverside Park when the sun comes down. This is especially apparent during the summer months. Danger continues to be associated with city parks and nightfall; Riverside Park itself had been the site for the filming of movies depicting city gangs. But some of these depictions, which still have currency today, seem to stem more from a tale of two parks, and it is the section more uptown (135th – 150th) that perhaps represents the danger that is associated with city parks. Still, I have spoken to many people who regard the section of the park closest to campus as “sketchy” and “shady.”
So I took my camera and went down to the park during the day and late evening. Granted we are in the winter months, and the atmosphere would be very different in say June or July. But this tells a story itself; Olmsted was designing a space before the technological developments that shape us today, namely cardio machines in well ventilated underground gyms. The requirement for open spaces in cities can be attributed to trying to create a healthier lifestyle for its inhabitants. Interestingly, around the same time Olmsted was designing these spaces, darkness becomes associated with not just shadiness, but also ill health. The impact of this cultural history for sure has its residues in Britain, at least in my experience, as I recall the need to let more sunlight into homes and opening windows to get rid off germs (even during December nights).
What stood out to me when I visited the park in the late evening was how well lit it was. As one stands at the retaining wall on Riverside Drive, the park’s row of lamps is dazzling and even overbearing, ironically befitting what some writers on the urban experience describe as a spectacle. Is the intended effect to make us feel safer? If so, what does this tell us about the relationship between visual sense and knowledge? Does this encourage us to descend down and traverse the park’s several layers? Whatever the effect of the lamps from atop of the park on the visual sense, these lamps are actually not so powering once in the park itself (think of the spectacle from atop the Empire State Building). Perhaps credit should be given to the designers for that.
View from atop the park during the night

Yet less people are confident to venture into the park during the night. Perhaps confidence is the wrong way of putting it; perhaps it is more a matter of a modern lifestyle. I had asked one walker whether she would go at night. Her response was less concerned with safety than with the fact that she has to get ready for work the next day. This yelp reviewer however did talk about safe spaces, especially for women:

This park is wild and sprawling, perched over the Hudson River.   I love the park, but I am up by Columbia, and being a woman I wouldn't want to walk through the park alone.  The paths are below street level and are quite secluded at times.  With a friend though, this is an absolutely wonderful place to feel temporary respite from the bustling city (Heidi C., yelp).

We have very diverse experiences with landscapes. They can be “freeing” or constraining or a complex combination. Indeed, I have seen individuals, of both gender, walk through the park during the night. Where does this confidence come from? Night or day, I still notice how little used Riverside Park is, especially by students at Columbia. Perhaps because of technological advances. Perhaps there are alternatives, like Central Park. Perhaps taking a walk to get some fresh air has a stronger cultural resonance in Britain. If one’s been spending a good amount of time indoors, especially studying, it’s expected that the individual take a walk and clear the mind. Like this yelp reviewer, a Columbia affiliate:

I go to Riverside to sit and watch the Hudson float calmly by. I go to Riverside so I can read more slowly, enjoyably, with the help of rustling elm. I go to Riverside to walk the promenade and exchange smiles with the other happy people walking by. I go to Riverside to bike with a date or friend and feel the park's calmness blow the stress from my soul. I go to Riverside to step outside the city and reconnect with those things green and calm and beautiful (Brice P. yelp).

            Our interpretations and experiences of a landscape are fundamentally connected to an elsewhere. Multiple elsewheres. For the last reviewer, the calmness of the park contrasts with hectic nature of our campus. Campuses can be relaxing for others, depending on their relational elsewheres. Campuses can actually be escape. They can also be a place of anxiety. A little bit of both for the same individual. In considering landscapes we need to include more than just what we might think are objective accounts of topography and so on, we need to analyze them from a deeply sociocultural perspective as well. Light and darkness can be thought of in many ways in this respect; the rise of electrical lighting in particular can be linked to surveillance. Perhaps this is the reason why certain parts of campus, such as the entrance to Low Library are used in different ways whether it is night or day. Consider these examples:


Students using areas right outside Low to eat and take pictures. During the night, these areas are much more restricted. In this case, an argument can be made that with darkness comes a need for control. But as in the case of Riverside Park, other matters must be considered, such as the expectations and demands of a modern lifestyle.