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.

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