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Volume 73, Number 27 | November 05 - 11, 2003

Talking Point

Feeling low after flying frenzy in Hudson River Park

By Michele Herman

Hudson River Park has been open for four months now, but I still get emotional whenever I enter it. On the one hand, I love my new park. Oh, I know many of my neighbors feel nostalgic for the indigenous old waterfront, with its quiet naked men and its splintered wooden piers, which did have its own kind of tawdry sunset beauty. But I think the new waterfront is beautiful, for the most part thoughtfully designed, and miraculously restrained. I’m thrilled to have a lawn practically at my doorstep, a gorgeous picnic grove within easy walking distance and, though the playground came just a little late for my family, a turf where we’ve started playing pickup soccer late on Sunday afternoons. I love the plantings, too, especially that simple tricolor row of pink begonias, lavender and sea grass that bloomed for months on end at the entrance to the Charles St. pier.

But on the other hand, I feel like a heretic, a sellout and a dupe writing this, since a good chunk of my identity in the late ’80s was bound up with fighting against the planners of this park. As one of the early members of the Federation to Preserve the Greenwich Village Waterfront, I was trained to distrust the motives of the Hudson River Park Trust and its predecessor, to uncover their hidden profit motives and undisclosed development plans. Whenever people told me I was allying myself with a bunch of paranoid extremists who wouldn’t rest until they’d stopped all progress, I would point out that the Federation submitted its own similar plan for a simple green park years ago, and that their most paranoid predictions tended to come true — remember the Bibby Venture, the floating jail? The proposal for floating casinos? The Morton Street PATH towers being built aboveground for no defensible reason? I tell myself that the park is as successful as it is only because activists were so vigilant for so long.

That’s why my heart sank when, a few Sundays ago, we took my in-laws out for an autumn walk down the river and were slapped in the face with a major promotional event called “Flugtag.” We couldn’t even get to the park without passing through a huge inflatable archway-cum-advertisement. Since the cynical marketing strategy of Flugtag’s corporate sponsor, Red Bull, seems to be obfuscation combined with ubiquity, you shouldn’t feel bad if you didn’t know that Red Bull is a “sports” beverage from Austria with as much caffeine as a cup of coffee and four kinds of synthetically produced sugars but no flavor (I mean that literally — no flavor is listed in the ingredients), all done up in a slender can.

You should be forgiven too if you didn’t squeeze through the crowds to learn that Flugtag is German for “flight day,” an international competition in which human-powered vehicles fly off a platform and try to stay airborne for a few seconds longer than the other entrants before plunging into the water. It’s one of those pairings that’s meant to give a company an aura, if not the reality, of being enlightened and environmentally sound, much in the way the bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid I bought the other day boasts of having “green tea essence.”

Red Bull also has a modest little Cooper Mini that’s been driving around town lately to promote its product, begging the question: if it’s so environmentally conscious, why is it driving a car around town in the first place?

Some of my neighbors found the event goofy and harmless. Though I’m all for grassroots human-powered vehicles, I found the whole thing appalling. We had no advance warning. It was earsplitting and tasteless, an invasive daylong commercial for a product with not a single redeeming quality. The promoters set up huge speakers every few yards from the Christopher St. pier all the way to 12th St., and not particularly kid-appropriate pop songs and deejay patter spewed forth all day long; we could hear it inside our apartment half a mile from the source. A mobile McDonald’s sucked business from nearby restaurants. The worst part, of course, is that the so-called paranoids once again won the day: our supposedly public park was sold down the river.

When I called to complain the next day, the Trust spokesman agreed with me that the event was “louder than it should have been” and “didn’t need that level of speakers.” When I complained about the precedent it set, he assured me this wouldn’t be a regular occurrence, but since the park has to be self-sustaining, they have to figure out some way to pay for it. He said he would welcome my suggestions of more neighborhood-friendly fundraising ideas. I’ll set aside the fact that he is paid, probably quite well, to think up such ideas and I am not.

I wanted to say, well, yes, I along with a small and dedicated bunch of neighbors had a great idea back in the ’80s: use the available Westway trade-in funds to fund a modest park. Don’t up the ante with a huge machinery of personnel and studies and public relations. Hire park builders, rather than developers, to build the park.

I don’t want to be a knee-jerk, anti-corporate type here. I understand that funding has to come from somewhere, that most money is dirty, and that some compromise is inevitable. But I also understand that as protectors of the public trust, the Trust has an obligation to weigh the pros and cons and think hard about what kinds of allies they make and what messages they send the public.

Let’s hope Flugtag was a glaring aberration, like that now-infamous fence in the Jane St. playground with the gaping child-size openings. But what do I know? I’m just a grassroots populist.

I once spent an exhausting and exhilarating day, with that same small band of neighbors, cleaning up at least a decade’s worth of garbage in preparation for the Federation’s waterfront fair. When I call the new park “my” park, I don’t do it lightly.

I watched someone I know well carry out an inspired act of civil disobedience on Flugtag, which to me will always be German for “the day the Hudson River Park Trust sold our new park out.” To protect the impromptu activist, all I’ll say is that the act involved three things: the inflated Red Bull archway, the extremely noisy generator that ran all day to keep it filled with air, and a plug. No one got hurt, although you wouldn’t know that from the speed with which the Hudson River Park Trust emergency boat arrived at the river’s edge, a staff member in a life preserver yelling inanely through a bullhorn: “Walk around the deflated arch!”

If only they had been so quick to protect and defend us park users when the Red Bull people profaned our park in the first place.


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