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Observations from Gotham City

by Christa Wagner

March 4,2005

I went to New York to see The Gates. I’ll admit that a few people looked askance at me for wanting to go see the temporary showdown of big money, insider politics and 43-page contracts. A 21 million dollar undertaking that’s obtrusive, an unorthodox use of raw materials and that, from the perspective of the artists themselves, has “no purpose”? Well, I could dig it.

I’m not prepared to justify the project the way an art critic would, but I do have an opinion about the value public art adds to a community. To me, The Gates reinvigorates the fast-disappearing notion of public space. The Sprawl-Mart type buildings of the world have done nothing to remind us that public spaces exist for the public good. And there’s no place for public art in pre-fab.

So what’s not to love about a little public art? Certainly not the economics of it. The Gates drew millions of people into Central Park at a dismal time of year for the hotel business. But February was a perfect time for making Central Park a saffron-colored slalom course. With the trees bare, you could see miles of gates at once; their orange color stood out against bony, dark branches and hazy gray skies. People packed to Central Park, even as the cruel wind kept the temperature in the 20s.

Color is unexpected in cityscapes, which is another reason art has an important role. A landscape architect friend told me that urban environments are, when you think about it, pretty monochromatic. It’s true. Remember how Charlotte’s rosy pink building, The Arlington, was ridiculed? Color something outside the gray-black-white palette and unpopular your building will be.

But wait. I recall when my dad, an architect, encouraged a client to update her building, which houses an ice cream shop and a hair salon, by repainting it a friendly shade of sunshine yellow. Some customers thought that yellow might be a bit loud for the conservative appearance of the south Charlotte neighborhood. So lemon yellow isn’t a color for the ages, but isn’t it clever and unexpected for an ice cream shop (that sells the world’s happiest commodity) to have a brightly painted exterior?

A bright yellow building or 7,000 orange gates would be an interesting thing to stumble on as you cruise around a city. That’s another thing about New York. There’s big potential for discovery around every corner, which is why I suspect that a lot of people never leave their neighborhoods.

I have proof that New Yorkers are homebodies. I went out to eat in the West Village at a 10-seat restaurant called the Risotterria. This neighborhood, by the way, has enough bohemian cache to support at least two restaurants that specialize in rice. In addition to the risotto bar, there’s a dessert place called Rice to Riches (that is strangely reminiscent of the Milkbar in A Clockwork Orange) selling rice pudding in 30 different flavors.

At the risotto bar I learned that some New Yorkers never venture outside a four-block radius when I asked our server if he’d been by Central Park lately to check out The Gates. A dumbfounded response of “the what?” led to a sheepish admittance that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been above 14th Street.

I started to think that maybe he was boasting. Live in a city that has every modern convenience on every city block and you won’t get out much either. Most people think that New York is so cosmopolitan, but the city really is incredibly provincial.

People pick a place to live and work and they stay put. Sure, most people in the city don’t drive, but that’s probably by choice. Maybe there is something to be said for the pleasant anonymity of public transportation, and a significance to having the ability to walk from place to place. Walk around and you can really interact with the built environment.

I said I’m not an art critic, but I think I get The Gates. This expensive, expansive, beautiful piece of art was an enormous confirmation of the public sphere. Public spaces. Public art. Neighborhoods so interesting the people who live there don’t want to leave. Makes for a great city.

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