Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Unloved Parks of Queens

I know I'm an odd guy and I do odd things. One of the odd things I do is take long walks on my day off. Yesterday I took a very long walk---a hike, in fact---through some parks in Queens.

What, are you nuts?

Two years ago I did Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. It's the city's largest park. I had never been there before. (I went looking for the owls.) Last year I did Forest Park, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. It's a park I've known since my childhood. Yesterday I did a string of parks: from Flushing Meadow Corona Park to the Kissena Corridor to Cunningham Park. I started at Shea Stadium and ended up on Hillside Ave.

I do these walks in early spring because it's warm but not too warm, and the ground is not too soggy, and the birds are back but the bugs aren't. On a day like yesterday I could almost watch the buds and leaves unfold. The trees were greener at the end of the hike than they were when I set out.

This was the first time I had been in Flushing Meadows since the 1963 World's Fair. I was ten at the time. The park is now a broad expanse of grass and walkways and lines of trees. It's not unpleasant, though it lacks imagination and beauty.

I walked East under the VanWyck Expressway, until I reached the Queens Botanical Gardens. Then I entered the very strange Kissena Corrider. This is a long and narrow stretch of, well, parkland that crosses the broad middle of Queens. It is divided into sections by north-south avenues. Some sections are landscaped and some have ballfields and playgrounds. Some sections are just open fields and scrub woods. These are untended, not wild, and they feel like no-man's-land.

The amount of trash and junk in these sections is distressing. You see evidence of illegal dumping and piles of construction debris. There's lots of erosion and the trails show motorbike tracks. I saw evidence of casual sex in certain places. Yuk.

And yet the birds don't seem to care. There were lots of them. I saw some flickers in one section, and a red-tailed hawk soaring. And if I were a kid I wouldn't care. Not very much.

The Corridor narrows between pristine neighborhoods, and it crosses the Long Island Expressway with a pedestrian and cycling bridge. It runs tightly between a couple schools, which use it for recreation, and it leads you to Cunningham Park.

This park is chopped up by avenues and expressways. (Robert Moses never saw a park he didn't put a highway through.) The northern section is just rough woods, full of junk and much abused and eroded by many paths and tire tracks. The middle section is mostly ballfields.

The southern section is remarkable. It's pristine and almost wild. There is no trash at all, and just two trails. There are hidden ponds and a wealth of birds and great stands of magnificent trees, red oaks and hickories and tulip trees. Such red oaks, lofty and vigorous even in their stillness. You'd think you were in the country, if not for the din of traffic on the Clearview Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway and Francis Lewis Boulevard and Union Turnpike. These very highways have served as moats to protect this hidden forest.

Then you find your way out across a highway ramp, and exit the park and head down to Hillside Ave and the bus and the subway.

These parks do not feel loved to me. Not like Central Park and Prospect Park are loved. It's not just that they are neglected, or that there is no Cunningham Park Alliance or Flushing Park Fellowship or Kissena Kindred. It's more than that. These parks don't seem to mean as much to the denizens of Queens.

Is it because Queens is less dense, and less pedestrian? That its people spend more time in the car, and their connection to the landscape is less about public space and more about private driveway and yard?

Queens people identify with their own particular town or village or neighborhood that with their borough? The Lutheran School my brother and I went to in our childhood was in Queens, but its address was always given as "Glendale, Long Island, New York." That lack of borough-identity might decrease the affection for their borough's central parks.

And Queens is also the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S.A. That too suggests less borough identity, and less identification with the landscape. The people of Queens have just not been here long enough to love the land they live on.

I loved Forest Park as a child. It was adjacent to the Lutheran School. We lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and some years (when we didn't take the city bus) we had to wait for my mom and dad drive out to pick us up, and then we played in Forest Park. We liked them coming late. We played in the narrow woods between the houses and the Interboro (now Jackie Robinson) Parkway. It was our own favorite jungle.

I didn't know Prospect Park well enough to love it. We went fishing there, and ice-skating, but we didn't play there with our friends. But now I do love it. As do many other Brooklynites. And yes, it has its share of trash and erosion, and in many spots it's torn and frayed, but in this case it's because it's loved, like the Velveteen Rabbit.

I saw few other people walking in Flushing Meadow and Kissena Park, and I saw no one else in Cunningham Park. That's never so in Prospect Park.

Human beings were designed by God to love the world, the earth, the landscape. It's what we're supposed to do. Even when we use it, and cultivate and build on it, we are to love it. Neglect can be as unloving as abuse is.

The Biblical story begins in a garden and ends in a city. It goes from Eden to the New Jerusalem. That city contains a "paradise," which is a royal garden. In the middle of Queens is paradise. I hope that the immigrants who put down roots will also come to love the land they are planted on, and the open corridor between their neighborhoods.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Atlantic Yards and Two Biblical Images

There are moral issues with the Atlantic Yards development. The moral issues are what the church can speak to. In the American system of church and state, where the state is meant to be neutral in religion, the moral issues need to be addressed by institutions like the church.

It is not for the church finally to judge the Atlantic Yards project, or to approve it or deny it on behalf of the public. That belongs to the government. But the government, in its judgment, must take moral issues into account. And the voice of the church can contribute to the moral discussion which will inform the decisions of the government.

Let me say in passing, that in the case of the Atlantic Yards, the government appears to be prejudiced. It has bypassed the normal processes of public judgment. If the government is supposed to be an umpire or a referee, in this case, it is playing for one of the teams.

That itself is a moral issue. And it's an occupational hazard of government. Governments are drawn to power. No wonder, because governments are designed to manage power and deal in power. We give power to government, that's the point. Or, I should say, that's one point.

The other point is that we give power to government in order to bring justice (and in the case of democracies, liberty and equity) to all the other holders and users of power. What we see so often is how power loves power. Those who are given power for government are drawn to the interests of those who have power from other sources, especially the economic.

The concentration of power is a moral issue, because it affects human freedom and human choices, especially the freedom and choices of the weak and powerless. The Bible regards the secure possession of private property and its protection from eminent domain as a sign of human freedom and dignity. The defining story is 1 Kings 21, the story of Naboth's Vineyard.

Naboth had a vineyard. A little vineyard, because he was a nobody. But it was close to the palace of King Ahab, and Ahab desired it. Had Ahab been king of any other people than Israel, he could have just taken it. It's what kings do. But the Torah forebade it. The Torah protected as sacred the private property of the family. But Queen Jezebel, herself a gentile, and familiar with the ways of gentile kings, found this preposterous. So she used the tools of royal power to get Naboth's vineyard.

They got away with it. God did not intervene. But the anger and judgment of God was made clear, and in the end, the House of Ahab paid. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house." In the Israel of God, not even kings have eminent domain.

The moral issue is what kind of country do we want? What kind of concentrations of power? What protections of private property? Who determines the public good, especially when the differences in scale are so great, and the government is drawn to the interests of the economically powerful? In the Torah, the public good is determined by the interests of the small piece of private property.

The second Biblical image is the Tower of Babel. It's in Genesis 11. The Torah is pretty clear on this. God was against it.

Not because God is against big buildings and skyscrapers as such, but because of the concentration of power which the Tower represents. Such concentrations always require hierarchies, and bosses, and dictators, and centralizations, and the sublimation of the individual to the vision of the leadership.

The second reason that God was against the Tower is because it represents the refusal to accept our limits. We don't know when to stop. We don't know how to say No, Enough.

It's not wholly different from the original sin of Adam in the Garden. The chance to not eat the fruit is what made Adam a human being, and the opportunity to say no to the fruit is what gave him wisdom. He had to use his judgment. He had to accept his limits.

Tragically, Eve and Adam couldn't accept their limit. They wanted more. They wanted to be like gods. And the builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to live among the gods.

I don't know what Frank Gehry wants. I don't know what Bruce Ratner wants or what Marty Markowitz wants. I don't think they want to be like gods. But apparently they don't know when to say, No, Enough.

The Bible is not against development. The Bible does not advocate a return to the garden. The Bible's vision for the future is a city. Buildings, streets, gates, towers. But it requires some moral expertise to judge between one kind of city and another, between, in Biblical terms, Jerusalem and Babylon.

The scale of a project can affect its relative morality. I recently saw the documentary Brooklyn Matters. The scale of this project is astounding. Are people aware that its size is monstrous? It's a moral issue.