Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anthony Lioi - The Arrival of New York as Cosmopolis

New York's Central Park, as designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, was intended to provide recreation and relief in an industrialized Manhattan. The original hope was to surround the park with a wall of trees that would block out the cityscape completely. Though this hope was never realized, Olmstead and Vaux were able to provide classic pastoral space in the Sheep Meadow, wilderness pastoral in the Ramble, which mimics the Adirondack Mountains, and liminal spaces like the Reservoir and the Bethesda Fountain that mediate between country and city. What is less recognized today is the pedagogical function of this design; that is, the function of pastoral space as an outdoor classroom to instruct immigrant workers and the urban poor in proper middle-class behavior. When the park first opened, baseball and other team sports were not permitted, and though there were extensive horse trails, horse-racing was forbidden. Children were not initially allowed to play on the grass, and much ink was spilled about the wisdom of allowing food vendors on footpaths. If the park was designed as a rejoinder to British and French models of public space—an American version of the green world-city—it is also the case that its landscapes were meant to fashion the cosmopolitan American as member of the bourgeoisie.

Though many prohibitions have since evaporated, Central Park is still the product of the radical division between nature and culture, middle class and poor. When my students ask why, in the midst of the urban farming boom, there are no vegetable plots in Central Park, I remind them that working farms would not fulfill the ends of pastoral retreat and class decorum coded into the park from the beginning. To restructure the park for Manhattanites in the age of climate change, a transvaluation of pastoral values would be necessary.

We see the beginning of this vision in Shaun Tan's graphic novel The Arrival. Set in a city that conjures both Sydney, Australia and New York, The Arrival tells the story of several immigrant groups, including Chinese and European families, as they learn to navigate the new land. Though the immigrants are depicted almost photo-realistically, their environment is surreal, filled with fantastical animals that partner with humans, as well as monumental figures that combine human with avian characteristics. As familiars, pets, and spirits of place, animals occupy a central place in the immigrant life-world. This centrality is magnified in the final pages of the novel, when humans and animals break the boundaries of ethnicity, species, and the industrial universe itself to inhabit a cosmic space whose shining circles evoke Ptolemaic and Newtonian world-pictures. Such a model of space integrates cosmopolis into the biosphere and the heavenly machine at the same time. This idea of a modern but non-anthropocentric city is a map of the future channeled through a dream of the past. New York, and other world-cities, could do worse than follow Tan into his post-pastoral, egalitarian planet where nature and culture arrive together.


  1. To promote environmental justice in New York City, it is ideally critical to replace what some are calling "food deserts"--areas where inhabitants don't even have a grocery store within striking distance--with healthy, local food abundance. There are hundreds of lots throughout the city that could be used for community gardens that tend to grow both food and friendships. In past administrations, the city government has been at times downright hostile toward those wanting to use land this way, favoring instead land uses that will be more economically profitable to a few already more wealthy landowners. In order to promote community gardening and other ways of alleviating food deserts (including CSAs) this primarily economic attitude must be overthrown in favor of a wider constellation of values, including food justice. This may be happening.

    Would the city be livable for all without a place for all members of the urban community to enjoy each other and the rest of nature in non-consumptive ways. Where would all the hundreds of migrating warbler species stop over for the food they need to make it to their breeding grounds farther north without the various habitats and food sources for them in Central Park? Where would the three black-crowned night herons that live around the reservoir in the breeding season go? Could Central Park grow food for humans, herons, and warblers?

  2. Central Park, immigration, and the pedagogical role of "nature" for industrial laborers make me wonder about the role of pastoral in more recent times: suburbanization, deindustrialization, deskilling, outsourcing, urban redevelopment, and the privatization of public spaces (the Central Park Conservancy Inc.). These things make me nostalgic for the nostalgic, pastoral, but public and non-sprawling space of places like Central Park... Does the role of public parks shift a little when global cities are more hubs of finance, service sector labor, and "affective labor" than sites of industrial production?