We all know about the famous examples of public space. In this city, Central Park, Times Square, and Rockefeller Center take the cake. Bryant Park is a more recent addition, with its new host of canopied food vendors, outdoor film series, and inviting chess sets. These public spaces are celebrated because they work, and thus have come to appeal to a culturally accepted rhetoric about what public space should look like, how it should be managed, and for whom it should be intended.
A bustling day at the lovely Bryant Park.
That’s all well and good, and the result has been some vibrant and well-loved destinations in New York City as well as cities everywhere. In fact, these classic public spaces even define some cities, if not only their guide books. However, I am determined to uncover the other public spaces: the hidden gems, the secret hideaways, the ingenious appropriations of limited urban space.
I want to find the unconventional public spaces of New York City.
It’s not that these spaces are lost and forgotten. Hardly!; in fact, the public spaces I’m after are the ones innovatively shaped by the people who know and love them best, the native New Yorkers who create them. These aren’t the tourist attractions because they wouldn’t mean anything to outsiders who haven’t devoted the time and labor to take charge of their space. Because ultimately, the unconventional public spaces of New York are examples of something greater than themselves: they are grassroots relics of concerned citizens changing their own city. I think that’s a beautiful and inspiring notion, this bottom-up reclamation of meaning in a place where anonymity can be so pervasive.
With a little bit of research under my belt and a point-and-shoot camera in hand, I set out on my first round of inquiry this week. And let me tell you, there are some pretty cool finds out there! Places that may not command a first look, but that, if you know what you’re looking for, are worth ten.
Such as this historic home at 190 Bowery.
The wonderfully, eerily mysterious 190 Bowery building.
What a door! Looks inviting!
The notorious Bowery was once a desolate and dangerous stretch, but has since perked up. As luck would have it, photographer Jay Maisel fortuitously—and perhaps clairvoyantly—purchased this six-story house for $102,000 in 1972, in what NY Magazine dubbed the “greatest real estate coup of all time.” No, 42 years later, he still lives and works here (much to the chagrin of real estate developers). The catch: you would never know 190 Bowery is inhabited by anyone or anything due to its haunted mansion aura and, notably, its graffiti-splattered ground floor. Maisel’s generosity, or perhaps resignation, to graffiti artists has led to a veritable work of art that doubles as a mask of anonymity for this unique home.
The ground floor of 190 Bowery has been transformed into a street art canvas.
190 Bowery, and especially its adopted uses, are not considered in the general lexicon of public space. In fact, they’re not even publicly owned (which gets into a whole other realm of privately owned public spaces or POPs, but we won’t go there right now). However, they are an example of the public using space, and shaping that space for an even larger public realm. It could even be considered manifest destiny, at the urban level.
Here are some more notable examples of eye-catching street art from my trek:
Such lively colors on the Centre-fuge dumpsters! They really brighten up a street covered in construction materials.
These trailers are part of the Centre-fuge Public Art Project in response to the persistent construction of the 2nd Ave subway line on nearby Houston Street. In an effort to “re-beautify this incredible block, but also to encourage the community to express itself in a public forum,” Centre-fuge commissions local artists to submit proposals and paint the construction dumpsters on rotating cycles, thus infusing life into a perennial work zone. The result is both colorful and engaging, and, in my opinion, it accomplished exactly what it set out to do.
These dumpsters are a great example of an “unconventional public space.”
Who knew dumpsters could be so avant-garde?
Again, this space isn’t necessarily public nor is it a place one comes to hang out or stick around, as in a park or a plaza. However, the unconventional public spaces serve subtly powerful functions in that they change the urban landscape according to the needs and desires of real urban residents. It brings to mind the Margaret Mead quote which has come to be lovingly touted in many activist communities:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
There are such groups changing their worlds across New York City, one public space at a time, and I can’t wait to discover their priceless work.
P.S. Check back soon for an update on my day-to-day life in NYC!