New York, New York

Photograph from the Governor's Island Preservation Corp.

Losing Paradise

For centuries, New Yorkers have looked for relief to the trees of Governors Island—nearby, but a forbidden world away. A new plan to make it more accessible won’t make them feel any better.

Ryoan-Ji, in Kyoto, is one of Japan’s most famous Zen gardens. Perhaps its most important feature is a field of raked sand and small boulders, inaccessible to visitors, meant strictly for viewing and meditating upon. The garden is a favorite of architects, and it has influenced buildings from the National Library in Paris to the New York Times headquarters in Manhattan, both of which include off-limits green spaces at their center.

“The device of an inaccessible space has been used across cultures as an aid to contemplation,” writes artist Rebecca Krinke in her 2001 book Contemporary Landscapes of Contemplation. “When no one is allowed into the garden, the space is dominated by the ‘natural’ environment, and free of distractions from human visitors.” At the center of bustling activity, there is peace. I work in the Times building, and there is nothing so calming as to spend a moment staring at the birch garden off the main lobby before heading up to my office.

Governors Island, a teardrop of land anchored a half-mile south of Manhattan, is not exactly inaccessible, but for centuries it was for most city residents a place to look at rather than visit. Visually, the island draws together New York Harbor’s different coastlines. But unlike the docks along the Brooklyn or New Jersey shores, it is, from a distance at least, inactive and unoccupied. And yet it gives the harbor an intimacy; gazing out from the Q train as it crosses the Manhattan Bridge, your eyes go immediately to the island, and only later, perhaps, to the far shores of New Jersey or Staten Island. Although Governors Island’s inaccessibility should make it forbidding, it’s an oddly comforting sight.

That’s about to change. Between the colonial era and the late 20th century, the island was home to a series of military facilities; since the closure of the last of these in 1996, it has been more or less in mothballs. But starting in 2012, New York City will execute a $41.5 million, multi-year revamp of the northern edge of the island. Under the city’s plan, drill fields and barrack yards will be home to promenades, ball fields and bike paths. And that’s just the north end; a few years later, the bottom two-thirds will reopen with cafes, artificial hills, and “private development” spaces; one of them might be home to an NYU satellite campus.

Although Governors Island’s inaccessibility should make it forbidding, it’s an oddly comforting sight.Is New York’s equivalent of a Zen garden is about to become another urban playground? In his review of the plans, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff worried that “the plan for Governors Island is part of a larger, continuing process of gentrification in New York City that raises its own questions about whom these projects ultimately serve.”

It’s a fair point—though with no permanent residents on the island, gentrification, strictly speaking, isn’t really the concern. But New York’s a big place. There are multiple Chinatowns, two Major League teams and two neighborhoods called Inwood. And there are at least two kinds of gentrification.

The first is familiar to anyone who’s moved to a city in the last 40 years. Neglected neighborhoods see first a trickle, then a river of wealthier, more bourgeois residents, attracted first by low rents, then later by the mere idea of being near the sort of people who are attracted by low rents. Rents go up and the original residents move out. Along the way City Hall might chip in a few subsidies, but it’s otherwise a private-sector transition—block by block, new residents and developers occupy and recast the grit.

The second kind of gentrification is a bureaucratic product. Here it’s mostly commercial areas—consider any of the hundreds of urban arts districts around the country. Times Square, though, is probably the most famous case. Starting in the mid-1980s, New York City and the state set up public and quasi-public development corporations to bring in developers, the city cracked down on homelessness and sex bars, and area businesses banded together to fund amenities like planters and graffiti removal. Last year, as a sort of capstone, Mayor Bloomberg closed off sections of Broadway, turning the heart of Times Square into a pedestrian mall. What had been the Disneyland of sleaze is now just Disneyland.

Of course, Times Square only looks like Disneyland relative to its pre-makeover scars, and it’s hard to argue that the new version isn’t a step forward. Nevertheless, there is something lost when previously untouchable parts of the city are suddenly not only accessible, but safe, inviting, sponsored—plowed flat, in a sense, so that there’s nothing left to differentiate them from the rest of the city.

There is something lost when previously untouchable parts of the city are suddenly not only accessible, but safe, inviting, sponsored.Real cities, after all, are about barriers, about the ebb and flow of places where you can and can’t, or should and shouldn’t, go: theater districts versus high-crime areas, private versus public property, the sidewalk versus the roped-off nightclub. Some of the barriers are legal, some are psychological, some are economic, some are physical. Some are hard, some are malleable. It’s what makes New Orleans’s French Quarter so captivating: Much of it is hidden behind wisteria-draped walls and beefy security guards, but there’s always the sense that the right knock on the door, the right tip to the right bouncer, the right gate off the right alley will get you in.

It’s a part of our human hardwiring: To feel completely free, we need to have limits we can push against. Resistance is comfort. That’s one of the principles of gardens like the one at Ryoan-Ji. Barred from physically occupying the space, the visitor is forced to contemplate it, to occupy it mentally, to resolve the tension between the desire to move into the space and the inability to actually do so. What seems restrictive is, once that tension is resolved, actually quite liberating.

In recent years it’s been getting easier to visit Governors Island—there’s a ferry that takes you there from Manhattan on summer weekends, but for most people, it still feels off-limits. From the Brooklyn Promenade you can see the buildings and fortifications along its northern end and the leafy trees along its shore and imagine yourself there, but rarely actually get there.

True, there are lots of advantages to opening up Governors Island to visitors—the views back to the city alone will be worth the millions of dollars invested. Over the last two decades, City Hall has done an amazing job of making New York a safe place to live again. But as many locals like to lament, doing so has come at the cost of making New York less interesting. And a big part of what made New York interesting was all the places you couldn’t go—the void spaces in this city that promised unbounded freedom. Governors Island was one of New York’s original giant void spaces, and now it is one of its last.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen