Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 11 · no. 4.5 · September 2011
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Poetic Research Department

Statement of Poetic Research


Jonathan Skinner
Poems, from Spoils of the Park

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Plaque commemorating Ralph Waldo Emerson's sojourn on Schoolmaster Hill. Photograph courtesy of the author. Click to enlarge.

A Walk in Franklin Park

An entrance leads into some nondescript woods, to a dale where a dilemma presents itself: to follow the enticing stairs up the rocky hill into the forest, or the path into the tunnel? The path enters a wall of puddingstone, reminiscent of grottoes at Tivoli, which you can hear the traffic passing over. Olmsted marked his parks with the crushed concrete of skyscrapers, to accent the green.

A grotesque frame for the "magic wardrobe" effect: on the other side of the tunnel you discover countryside as Browne or Repton might have sketched it. "Country": a broad open green, a valley that curves invitingly upward, toward masses of trees on the outcrops, framed by giant oaks. One half-expects flaky-coated sheep to edge into the open. But instead, here and there, the isolated figure of a golfer.

It is the hour of the conjugal stroll. Couples on bicycles, debriefing the day. The TB patients wear hospital smocks. A facility operated by the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health was built at the foot of Olmsted's park. Public open space is vulnerable to schools, low income housing, hospitals, zoos . . . all such "spoils of the park." It can be a lovely situation for the convalescents.

As one follows the rim of the gentle valley, traffic whizzing up the carriage way to one's left, a textbook succession of beautiful landscape views, only missing the sheet of water, unfolds. (Yet something a touch rough, even savage, haunts this composition. The materials are not quite "right," American picturesque.) Olmsted preferred to speak of his parks in terms of music.

A poem at Schoolmaster Hill commemorates Ralph Waldo Emerson's stay there, while teaching school in Roxbury: "Long through the weary crowds I roam; A river-ark on the ocean brine." The poem includes references to frozen hearts and hasting feet, driven foam, secret nooks, frolic fairies, and groves "Where arches green, the livelong day,/ Echo the blackbird's roundelay."

An origin myth for Olmsted? On spiritual maps an "origin" can mask the true point of emergence. From the bench—the best view at Franklin Park—watch the golfers tee off in succession. To exit the park, follow a curving path. It curves some more. Follow it, curving. You are getting Olmsteded. It's like watching an accident unfold in slow motion. Nothing you can do about it.

Olmsted's park designs are delightful when you have leisure but a nightmare when you have to get somewhere. (Can I have some leisure please?) You see a greensward at the end of the curve and can only hope against all odds that it is not the same greensward you just left. You spend a lot of time going nowhere. There is something monstrous about the loop.

For all your study of this park, see how lost you are? Your knowledge of the park is only as good as your knowledge of the neighborhood. Those "planned neighborhoods" one sometimes mistakenly turns into, when trying to get across town. And the refreshing life of the unplanned. What lurks beyond the green screen? How do I get out of this damn park?



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General Scheme of Power Distribution of the Niagara Falls Power Company, The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook: Being a Guide for Visitors From Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Published under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. Courtesy of the SUNY Buffalo Library, Buffalo, New York. Click to enlarge.

The Power of the Falls

In the 1870s Olmsted and Vaux marked the head of the Niagara River, and by association all the waters of the Great Lakes, with Front Park. In the late 1880's they would mark the landscape where those waters drop over the Niagara Escarpment on their way to Lake Ontario—a major hydrological and aesthetic power spot, the Goat Island Niagara Reserve.

By 1882, seven mills along the Niagara Gorge north of the American Falls produced power for Jacob Schoellkopf's Hydraulic Power Company. Partly thanks to Nikola Tesla and his alternating current transmission system, this power reached Buffalo in 1896—completing a loop of water and electricity, sent back upstream, the first long distance transmission for commercial purposes.

Buffalo soon became the City of Lights. Frederick Church, whose huge painting "Niagara Falls" was first shown in 1857, lectured sometime before 1869 on the Falls' impending ruin: mills, flumes, shops, icehouses, signboards, hotels, and fences defaced and crowded the once natural riverbank. People paid a fee to look through holes in a fence to see the Falls.

Olmsted drafted and delivered a report in 1865 that articulated the philosophical basis for state and national parks, advocating that portions of natural scenery be guarded and cared for by government. To simply reserve them from monopoly by individuals was not enough. They also should be "laid open to the use of the body of the people." Magnificent natural scenery was a commons.

Olmsted's and Vaux's report for the Goat Island Reserve mentions the changing public attitude toward natural scenery: a century before, the Falls might have been termed hideous or awful, while sixty years before, they were looked at chiefly as a source of power. Now their particular weather was sublime. Niagara Falls, once Onguiaahra, the Strait.

In 1763, Seneca Indians killed eighty citizens and British soldiers who were transporting material along the Niagara Gorge. John Stedman, one of two survivors of the Devil's Hole Massacre, claimed the land and islands above the Falls for himself. In the 1770s, he raised a herd of goats on "Goat Island." Listen to the Falls under the creamy white blossoms of the basswood.

To make peace the Seneca ceded to the British a four mile wide strip of land along the east side of the Niagara River from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. The paths and walks at Niagara Reservation are calculated to draw the walker back from the sublime, to linger in beauty, just as Olmsted led Richardson on a long, teasing walk before letting him see the Falls.

The pools, riffles and rapids by Luna just above the Bridal Falls are intimately seductive, without effective barrier. A terrifying intimacy, when you know where it leads: "the densest region of shade merges its identity into a desperate kiss." The design invites "an all-consuming thirst for open air and danger." Listen, and you will hear the massive ground tone of the Falls, just downstream, offstage.

The state cops keep an eye on "people they see standing in the same place for long periods of time or walking about aimlessly, muttering to themselves or looking distraught." One study has logged 20-25 suicides a year, and notes that the most popular time is Monday at 4pm. Honeymooners flock to the pools above the Falls in a spirit of contradiction.

Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated several miles above me, as I waited for a taco in Niagara Falls' economic drop-out zone. Here is where Elon Hooker built the ideal workers' village, on a toxic waste dump. Here also is heroism, where Lois Gibbs organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association, nursing her children in front of national television cameras.

Amidst land scraped bare by retreating glaciers and thrust under the sky, tabula rasa between two Great Lakes, Niagara Falls channels one-fifth the planet's fresh surface water. Maybe it's the ions, static in the gorge that lifts the hair from your skull. The park has its rangers and its Mennonites, and its group of communicants, receiving instruction from the Cave of the Winds.

The Canadians played it right. It was only a matter of time before the USA would preserve Goat Island, and erase industry along the gorge, restoring a natural look to the Falls, as seen from the other side. Where Canada's Frankenstein lifts a Clifton Hill cheeseburger, grinning back at the toothless storefronts of Niagara Falls, USA, the economic gradient feels steep.

In a gentler dell, at a wooded bit opposite Crow Island, upstream of Bridal Falls, the watery mirrors cause us to reflect on the mythology in the course of our lives. Thanatos holds our ankles as we contemplate the riffles. Tesla suffered a peculiar affliction in which blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by visions.

The "American Electrician" gives a description of an early tesla coil wherein a glass battery jar, 15 x 20 cm (6 x 8 in) is wound with 60 to 80 turns of AWG No. 18 B & S magnet wire (0.823 mm2). Into this is slipped a primary consisting of eight to ten turns of AWG No. 6 B & S wire (13.3 mm2) and the whole combination immersed in a vessel containing linseed or mineral oil.

"It's called the reverse waterfall. Essentially, the shape of the land underneath the surface of this very narrow inland bay. It's really deep in the middle, much more shallow on the sides. So, when the tide changes, the middle surges upward and turns into this churning white water, in the midst of a very smooth, placid sort of flow on either side."

In 1926, Tesla commented on the ills of the social subservience of women and the struggle of women toward gender equality, indicating that humanity's future would be run by "Queen Bees." As she talks to you, the Falls make their own weather. The weather drifts. At the heart of power and contradiction, a delicate spiral rises turning toward the sky.



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"Design Map of South Park," Olmsted Job #718, South Park, Buffalo, NY, F.L. & J.C. Olmsted Landscape Architects, 1888. Olmsted Lithograph Collection. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, Massachusetts. Click to enlarge.

South Park

Here is a view of the Niagara River from the Robert Moses Parkway, south of Niagara Falls. Here is a pumping station. Here is Front Park, that once overlooked the head of the river, at Lake Erie, now best seen from I-90, the thruway that obliterated the park. Here is a view of Riverwalk, zig zagging into the Lake. Here is a broad view of the shallowest Great Lake, from the Skyway.

Olmsted honors the lake, courses of waterways and associated wetlands, and employs them as a principal resource in his design, seeing the landscape as the Kahkwa or Seneca did. As part of the whole. Water takes the place of turf, in the kind of landscape composition he has mastered but is eager to adapt to a watery environment, where park goers enter by boat rather than foot.

Olmsted's Northern designs also shelter memories of the bayou and the "restful, dreamy nature of the South." These dreams of a lagoon interface with a Great Lake would not mature with Buffalo's South Park. Even though Buffalo got called the Venice of the North. In the Buffalo South Park proposal, packet boats were to ferry park-goers through islands marked out by windmill-powered lights.

"At intervals there will open long vistas over water under broad leafy canopies . . . verdant grottoes . . . spacious forest glades . . . nurseries for song birds." The plan is unique for balancing water with land, in an imbricated yet simple pattern, including secluded picnic spots and migratory bird exclosures. Bridging the bounded with the open horizon, Olmsted's parks are harbors for possibility.

As the 1888 design entailed excavating more than half a million yards of land, Buffalo's park commissioners deemed it too expensive. Olmsted's son John and his partners in the Olmsted firm took over the project. Their 1892 plan outlined a smaller inland space, in the "English deer park" mode, that eventually would include a water feature, a conservatory, botanical garden and arboretum.

Olmsted considered the Buffalo parks his "best-planned" system, due to the city's extensively realized parkways. We drive around in circles, past Father Baker's Basilica, where the stations of the cross are lit in neon, looking for South Park. After asking directions of a woman and her granddaughter, who give me three tomatoes from their garden, we find the entrance to the park.

Olmsted decries "the present railroad evil" and "the barbarity of a great number of deadly grade railroad crossings." What fuels growth chokes off life. He proposes a counter-system of parkways, "not to be dealt with on the principle that they are local affairs any more than the parks with which they connect." Olmsted's logic was reversed when Robert Moses turned his parkways into high speed thruways.

It is a deer park in the midst of residential and industrial South Buffalo, between rail yards, scrap yards and brownfields, a few miles north of the Ford Stamping Plant. The trees are decidedly less well kept here. Dead snags stand at the edge of the water feature, which is lily choked. On the way out of the park, I photograph a mysterious mailbox, standing in the grass.

I have always regretted the use of a private automobile to reach the park. As part of Buffalo's emerging master plan, the bicycle paths running up the Niagara River from Tonawanda will be connected to South Park. But who will fill the border vacuum? Who will draw a view of Buffalo from the Niagara River, from the breath of a green artery, from the social dance on a packet boat seen from outer space.



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Photograph courtesy of the author. Click to enlarge.

The Foundation of All Wealth

Come to the park bent and unbending
stimulate exertion of parts
receive pleasure unconscious
to influence the mind of
imagination

The lawn curves back of thought
sound minds in sound bodies
all the art of the park
not fully given to words
or enameled flowers

The daisy we did not stop for
therapeutic for the masses
not interrupting us or calling
out gave a more soothing refreshing
sanitary experience

 


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