From everywhere people flocked to New York City to experience the extraordinary installation in Central Park by the environmental artists Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. For sixteen days, 7,500 sixteen-foot-high gates draped with billowing saffron banners brightened twenty-three miles of walkways that wind their way through this masterfully designed 843-acre park in the center of Manhattan.
People of every nationality, income, profession and age came together simply to experience this cultural phenomenon occurring in one of the country’s pre-eminent public parks. Strangers talked to strangers. People took one another’s pictures. Kids played. Couples strolled. Everyone seemed to smile. This is what democratic public space is all about. The spotlight appropriately was on the artists. The Gates were Christo’s gift to New York, the $21 million cost paid entirely by him. But his greatest gift has been to provoke everyone to re-examine, re-appreciate and rediscover the inspired design of Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted, a founder of The Nation, and Calvert Vaux. No better illustration can be found of how a well-designed and well-used public space enhances civil society.
The public’s enthusiastic embrace of this populist spectacle should be a wake-up call across the country. For too long, communities have been losing public spaces that offer the opportunity for people to serendipitously mix, mingle and meet. Today, the privately owned mall is often a community’s only remaining gathering space. Unlike in a true public place, public assembly or leaflet distribution can be legally denied in private malls. And when genuine public places are absent, the human hunger for connection is fulfilled by “hanging out” at the Wal-Mart or roaming the corridors of any big box. Is this why studies show Americans spend so much leisure time shopping at malls?
Jane Jacobs, the nation’s pre-eminent urbanist, taught us that a vital city needs diversity of choices, interesting streets and multiple options. Olmsted provided the same variety of choices and serendipitous conditions on the park land that Jacobs celebrated on the city streets. Central Park, consequently, is the ultimate urban park.
Olmsted’s brilliant reshaping of the landscape into this well-used park is well-known. But it was his earlier advocacy of the park’s creation that was an equally inspired contribution to the evolution of New York as a vibrant city. The 1811 adoption of the grid–the rectilinear system of streets crossing at right angles that we know so well today–reflected a view of the city as nothing more than a piece of real estate to be continuously developed, a view many would prefer today. No green spaces were provided for. Olmsted superimposed this pastoral landscape on the grid. He recognized that a socially, politically and economically successful city had to offer opportunities for leisure and active recreation, for people to connect, congregate and communicate and for people to gather, explore and discover something new. This democratic vision of a city is constantly undermined from Washington to City Hall, with State Houses in between, as public investments disappear and privatized space spreads like kudzu across the land.
The success of The Gates illustrates anew what a dynamic public space can do for the social and economic life of a city. The Gates was an urban environmental spectacle that even New York had never seen. This was not about a stadium, a convention center, a new corporate tower or any of today’s mega-development schemes that do nothing to enhance or energize a city and only divert attention and funds from essential regenerative needs, like public schools, transit and housing. The Gates was about art, culture, the life of the city, the life found only in a vibrant center, not on the sprawling periphery. Christo invited his city, his neighbors, to rediscover Olmsted’s vision. And he opened the eyes of the nation to something missing in American public life.
The lessons of Olmsted should not be lost on those struggling today to strengthen the nation’s centers economically and socially. Dynamic public spaces work to keep or bring people in. They support the local economy and enhance the public realm. We don’t yet know the size of the economic windfall the city will take in–estimates run as high as $254 million–through The Gates, but it will certainly be in the millions. Visitors come to a place because the locals have given it character. Without authentic character, there is no vitality, only predictability and a dehumanizing banality. Appeal for either the local citizen or visitor does not exist.
Through Christo’s Gates, the elegant gestures of Olmsted’s pathways were temporarily magnified. The Gates’ brief existence provoked a national re-examination of a fundamental but recently devalued component of urban life–the authentic public realm.