Volume 80, Number 5 | June 30 - July 6, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Exhibit shows green spaces before they were green

By David McCabe

At first glance, there isn’t anything particularly distinct about the image: a warehouse surrounded by other industrial buildings. But Jonathan Kuhn, the director of Art and Antiquities for the Parks Department and a longtime West Village resident, saw so much more.

The site depicted in the image is now Bleecker St. Playground, a favorite of children throughout the Village, as well as the place where Kuhn’s two sons, Lee and Jeffrey, played as they were growing up.

This image, along with more than 100 others, form a new exhibit, curated by Kuhn called “Before They Were Parks.” The exhibit is meant not only to shine a light on a forgotten or little-known part of the city’s history, but also explore the impact of a park on that history.

The exhibit juxtaposes photos of historical sites with photos of the parks they later became. Kuhn said he was careful to choose photos from different boroughs, and, in fact, the diverse selection includes photos and artifacts from at least 31 collections and individuals.

In addition to what is now Bleecker St. Playground, a number of other locations in Lower Manhattan feature prominently in the exhibit.

Kuhn said that, during his research, he found photos of the High Line from 1935 in the Parks Department archives, 64 years before the Friends of the High Line — the organization that advocated for the creation of the new High Line park — was formed. Investigating why the department would have photos of something that wasn’t a park, he discovered the photos were taken prior to a short-lived project in which the department leased four lots underneath the High Line to build playgrounds.

The show also demonstrates what Kuhn described as the “dynamism of the city.”

“The city is not static,” Kuhn said. “Despite all efforts to the contrary — to plan, to preserve — the city has a certain organic nature.”

Of the show’s lead image, a photo of the former Stetler warehouse on Bleecker St., he said, “The shot is somewhat haunting. If you look closely, there are little details — a woman crossing the street wearing white gloves. The Village is far from the well-heeled place it is now and is clearly more down at the heels in those days. So it indicates to me a changing time, a community on the cusp of something else.”

Another building featured in the exhibit that would be familiar to Villagers is the current Jefferson Market public library branch. The exhibit traces the site’s historical journey — from a fire watchtower to a women’s prison to a library — photographically.

Perhaps the exhibit’s most unique object is a tombstone, recovered from Washington Square Park last October during renovation work. Kuhn said this is the first time the marker has been publicly exhibited.

The headstone was for the grave of James Jackson, an Irish immigrant who died of yellow fever in 1799 and was either a grocer or a watchman, according to the exhibit information.

In his remarks at the opening, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said, “History disappears when you build a park,” but that Kuhn had managed to put on display a little bit of this history.

“I thought I knew parks history, and I’m bowled over by each thing here,” Benepe said.

“Before They Were Parks” will run through Sept. 9 at the Arsenal Gallery, located just inside Central Park at 64th St. and Fifth Ave., on the third floor of the Arsenal Building, weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The gallery is closed holidays.

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