My continuing quest to see everything in New York City

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Sunday, January 8, 2006

Art at the Edge of Town

New York is huge. The biggest challenge to truly being able to know the city isn’t getting into secured places, or overcoming language barriers. It’s simply the physical area involved. Getting up the motivation to do something fun like climb a bridge is easy compared to schlepping out to somewhere like Breezy Point or Edgewater Park just to see what’s there.

Another one of these far corners of the city is Tottenville, the southernmost point in the city located on the South Shore of Staten Island. It’s about 30 miles from midtown - to put this in perspective, it’s closer to the town where Bruce Springsteen grew up than to Times Square. I drove down there one day with a friend who grew up in the neighborhood.

Like everywhere in New York, it was subject to development pressures. Contrary to what Manhattan-centric people think, the biggest change in New York housing stock isn’t the 40-story luxury condos going up in Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, it’s the borough neighborhoods where attached houses are being replaced by small apartment buildings, detached houses are being replaces by 3-unit condos, and (as in the case of Tottenville), a suburban, almost rural, area of medium sized-homes on wooded lots is being replaced by McMansion-style estates built up to the very last inch allowed.

Still, it was a welcome break from my usual explorations - instead of the usual sensory overload that accompanies a new urban environment, this was more like a calming nature walk. After lunch, we headed out to the state park (technically a “unique area”)and beach next to the neighborhood.

One of my favorite things about exploring is finding art in strange places - by a collection of abandoned trains in the Bolivian desert, 100 feet below the Jardins de Luxembourg in the old quarries of Paris, along a remote peninsula in the Bay Area, and now at the very southern edge of New York City. The beach was home to a 15-year project by a local zookeeper - paths and pyramids make of stone that had washed up on shore over the years.

While I love the art museums of the New York, it’s important to be reminded that art exists all over the city: that $20 dollar admission fees and highbrow curators are the exception, not the rule. A day spent at the Met or perusing the art galleries of Chelsea is a day well spent in my opinion. But a day equally well spent is finding other art in the city simply by wandering the streets of the Bronx, or the subway tunnels, or the beaches of the far corners of the boroughs.

This is an age where interesting things cost money, and are easily known and accessible to those who have it. The days of being able to experience a truly magnificent artistic or historical site on your own terms are pretty much over. The drill is the same from Stonehenge, to Machu Picchu, to the Empire State Building: you read about it on the internet, queue up, pay your fare, go through the tzochzke shop, and snap your photos from behind the ropes with all the other tourists.

It’s not the money - I, and I think most people, don’t have a problem paying a reasonable fee to see something interesting. It’s not really even the lack of access - unfortunately, more people means more wear and tear, which means enforcing the “no touching” rule a little more than I’d like. It’s the total commodification of history and art. Instead of these places existing to awe and inspire humanity, they now exist to make as much money as possible. It’s a $5 admission turning into a $20 admission in less than a decade, or having no way to enter, exit, or come within a 50-foot radius without being sold every conceivable variety of souvenir. It’s that sinking feeling when you realize that the historic, spiritual, or artistic merits of one of humanity’s great works have, once again, taken an obvious back seat to its commercial value.

This is why I explore cities - to get away from that feeling. To experience a place on a personal, not commercial, level. It is inexplicably more rewarding to visit a place after investing time, effort, and gumption to get there, rather than just simply investing money. And I greatly, greatly enjoy being part of a community that values this, rather than just being a part of the community that is willing and able to pay.

I can’t say I intend to head back down to Tottenville anytime soon, but I’m sure I’ll find myself on that beach again someday. I don’t think I’ll find a ticket booth or a souvenir stand, but I can’t say I’d be that surprised. Still, it’s OK. The more that interesting things turn into just another way to make money, the more people will keep on searching for the things that haven’t. And hopefully, the more that people like that zookeeper will keep creating them.

Neighborhoods: Tottenville

Tracts Walked: SI244

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