Thursday, February 24, 2005

Nobody asked me, but . . . (2/24/05)


Brighten the corner where you are. This advice comes from a 1913 hymn written by Ina Mae Ogdon, with music by Charles H. Gabriel. It aptly describes a sentiment in some quarters in Ossining for the restoration of a decorative fountain and trough that supplied water for horses at a busy village corner. But restoring it to its original location would present problems. To give horses easy access to it, in 1891 the village allowed it to be erected right smack in Main Street at what was then called Pleasant Square. (Before Ossining was Sing Sing, it had been named Mount Pleasant.) Horses hauling wagons loaded with coal or other commodities from the waterfront up the steep slopes of Main Street, or up the flanks of North and South Highland Avenues needed water, especially in hot weather.

A prime mover in the fight for animal rights, Mary Eliza Dusenberry was one of the founders and secretary of the Sing Sing branch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Through her efforts, the round fountain was erected and presented to the village in 1891, supplying spring-fed fresh water to village animals--and to humans--for many years. Its rim bore the inscription, "In Memory of Henry Bergh, The Friend of Animals" in capital letters.

Born in 1811, Bergh inherited a fortune from his shipbuilder father, whose shipyard was at on the East River. He was the founder in 1866 of the ASPCA and later a similar organization for the protection of abused children. Concerned about animal rights, Bergh was not above taking sticks or whips away from drivers beating their animals and using them on the offenders. He died at his home on Fifth Avenue day after the great March 1888 blizzard struck.

At first the village's Bergh memorial was merely a round water trough; later a gas lamppost was erected in its center and later extended as a tall, graceful electric light. But illumination could not protect the awkwardly sited fountain when the automobile displaced the horse. Cars and especially motor trucks began to sideswipe it as they chugged up curving Main Street to be suddenly confronted with this unexpected obstacle. The record does not show when it was removed.

Storm tossed. Of the 20 fastest-growing counties in the U.S., 17 are located on the east or west coasts.

Critique. Secure behind my newly acquired Hemingwayesque beard, I made a pilgrimage to Central Park to experience the installation called "The Gates." Central Park has a long history. Itself a great work of art, this 840-acre centerpiece of Manhattan began as "a pestilential spot where miasmic odors taint every breath of fresh air," according to one early report. Land for the park was acquired in 1856 for $5.5 million. Squatters' shacks and their free-ranging hogs and goats were forcibly removed, and swamps were drained. The city's Board of Park Commissioners decided to hold a competition to determine the park's design. A total of 33 designs were submitted. "Greensward," the simple plan of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, won out. It called for a picturesque landscape of rocks and rills spanned by stone bridges and meadows criss-crossed by footpaths, carriage drives and bridle paths. The latter were curved to prevent racing.

Construction began in 1858 as a work relief project to alleviate the unemployment caused by the financial panic of 1857. It took twenty years, during which the tough micaceous Manhattan schist was blasted, and ten million wagon loads of stone and soil were moved to create this precious piece of countryside in New York. From the outset, Olmsted and Vaux firmly opposed moves to introduce art into the park. Their Greensward Plan conceded that while it would be possible to add structures to their park, they insisted that "nothing artificial should be obtruded on the view."

For a quarter century, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude (only French cinema stars should have single names) badgered the city unsuccessfully to allow them to construct 7,500 metal and plastic frames from which would hang acres of saffron-colored cloth curtains. To do the actual construction, they conned hundreds of volunteers to contribute their time and labor without remuneration. Call their project "The Gates," they asserted that "gates" was what Olmsted and Vaux had called the 20 pedestrian entrances to their park. Not so.

The idea of calling these entrances "gates" (Inventors' Gate, Boys' Gate, Merchants' Gate, etc.) came not from Olmsted and Vaux but from a committee on which neither was a member. Anxious to please the hotel, tourist and entertainment industries, a compliant Mayor Bloomberg caved in, rationalizing his decision with specious reasoning to mislead the public: The artists were paying $20 million for its construction and removal out of their own pockets. Using that argument, the city can hardly refuse a graffiti artist's request to paint elaborate designs on public buildings--so long as the paint is later removed by the artist.

I refuse to fall into the trap of trying to define art or to defend art for art's sake. "The Gates," which stretches over 23 miles of footpaths in Central Park is a desecration of a scenic landmark, however temporary. Manhattan Island is 14 miles long; the artists could just as easily erected their "gates" along the sidewalks of Broadway from the Battery to Kingsbridge. Writer Lloyd Rose's earlier comment about "our plastic, violent culture, with its philistine tastes and hunger for novelty" says it all. "Bread and circuses" was what the ancient Romans gave a restive populace. Little more than an enormous fashion statement, this garish concoction would have been more appropriate in Las Vegas than Central Park. As for the claim that the ugly frames and flapping saffron hangings caused people become more friendly, any dog owner will tell you, "For that all you need is a dog."

Bum rap. On his way to the courthouse for jury selection in his trial, Michael Jackson suddenly became ill last week and was taken to the nearest hospital. Members of his entourage have denied that he asked to be taken to the nearest children's hospital.

Anniversary. Exactly one year ago, "Nobody asked me, but . . ." joined the "Postscripts" roster, a pot pourri of local history, personal opinion, churlish complaints, practical wisdom and public service items that goes wherever event and fancy takes it. There have been no rules other than the exclusion of any humor beginning with "A guy walks into a bar." This week's column marks the 18th in the "Nobody" series.

The other columns that also appear under the rubric of "Postscripts" began in November of 1995. Their broad range of feature articles included every aspect of the rich history of the lower Hudson Valley from its aboriginal inhabitants to modern personalities, with side excursions into topics that would eventually expand into whole series--ten pieces on local brickmaking, sixteen essays on the artists and writers who made up Croton's Bohemia, and a dozen--but soon to be fifteen--accounts of the railroads of the lower Hudson Valley. The total number of columns has now reached 163 individual pieces--a dizzying ride for me and, I hope, a pleasurable experience for readers of every stripe.


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