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    The Reclamation of Governors Island

    Nick Sowers
    Jun 9, '09 9:52 PM EST
    I never joined the army because at ease was never that easy to me. Seemed rather uptight still. I don't relax by parting my legs slightly and putting my hands behind my back. That does not equal ease. At ease was not being in the military. I am at ease, bro, because I am not in the military.
    Mitch Hedberg

    If the first chapter on post-military space is about the conversion of bases into parks, the second one is about the liberated social practices which take place there. I just returned from a three-week excursion to the east coast probing into some post-military space. I spent time in New York, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico and saw a wide range of spaces from the quaint and tranquil Fort Circle in D.C. to the decrepit Army housing on Governor's Island to the post-apocalyptic (and tranquil) Bosque de San Patricio in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

    What becomes a reoccurring theme in post-military space is the diversity of uses which reclaim the land. I've seen some examples which are not so interesting but make a lot of sense: an air force base becomes a civilian airport. A navy base becomes a shipping port. In these cases a single propietor acquires the majority of a military base, only slightly changes the land use, and often re-purposes the old buildings. What I'm interested in is when this does not go so smoothly, and the former military land becomes fractured.

    There are many reasons why a base will struggle to transition into the civilian world: the lack of a big developer or state agency to assume control, the contamination of the site, the remoteness of the site from a community, and so on. What I would like to focus on here is the programmatic fluidity of a base in transition. What happens when people decide before some official body does what can take place there? Can an empty military base give rise to new social practices, or reinvigorate forgotten ones?

    One way to think of a closed military base is a tabula rasa. Military bases are well delineated--by stone walls, contrasting urban edges, bodies of water, etc. Yet they are also like empty vessels, with the edges hardened by years of exclusion from the surrounding context. What is "empty" and what it requires to truly achieve the so called tabula rasa is also a very interesting process. Javier Arbona has written about the production (and ambiguity) of a natural state on the closed Navy testing range on Vieques. The emptiness (or desire thereof) is even more remarkable on a spot right in the middle of the great metropolis of New York.

    image source

    So I started my east coast trip in Battery Park, downtown Manhattan. Just south of the 9/11 memorial sits Castle Clinton, built from 1808-11. Originally detached from Manhattan and later swallowed by landfill, it was built to defend against the British. It did its job, deterring an invasion without firing a shot in the war of 1812. By the 1820s it was already obsolete as fortresses further out in the harbor served the defense of the city. Castle Clinton closed and became Castle Garden, at various stages a promenade, a beer garden and restaurant, an exhibition hall, an opera house, a theater, the port of immigration (pre-Ellis Island), and lastly, the City Aquarium. By this time it had acquired two additional stories and a roof. After World War II the Aquarium was closed and the building was restored to its original stone walls with an open courtyard. It is now a museum to itself and a ticket booth for ferries to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

    Within the history of one little building is a microcosm for post-military space: both a threshold and an entertainment house, the city's outer-most bastion of defense and its inner-most room of reveries. Indeed, it was a stately pleasure-dome decreed. Now the Castle is dwarfed among the development in lower Manhattan. It may serve as a prelude to the great transformation of what lies just off its shore...

    imageimage source

    Governors Island is located south of Manhattan. Orignially occupied by the natives and then the Dutch (called Nut Island for its once-abundant nut trees), the island was set aside early in the colonial days as a military space. Development didn't happen in earnest until the threat of British invasion led to the construction of two batteries, the aforementioned castles. As the base became more of an administrative center, it required expansion. The rubble from digging up the Lexington Avenue Subway line was purchased by the Army and used to fill a large triangle of land to the south of the island. The island was thus a complete artificial landscape: made once by the dry moat and shaping of the glacis of Fort Jay and twice by the landfill to accommodate the expansion. Fort Jay is the five-pointed fortress occupying the upper middle part of the island.


    There is a sister fortress to Castle Clinton called Castle Williams (seen in the top left of the above plan) which once bristled with cannon and later served many different functions for the army base. The casemates, with their thick sandstone walls, could resist enemy fire so efficiently that Colonel Jonathan Williams reportedly stood inside while the Navy blasted the walls with cannonballs. The soft red stone proved resilient. The casemates also made natural prison cells.


    The plan of Castle Williams shares qualities of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon (though it lacks the guard tower which would screen the view of the guard by the prisoners for the full effect). I pulled the following lineage of one particular casemate from this report:

    Casemate 1-11 Armament Sketches/Architectural Plan room labels:
    1892 - Gun platforms (one gun mounted)
    1896 - "Used as prison"
    1899 - "Used as prison or storerooms"
    1902 - #37: "Carpenter's shop"
    1916 - #37: Unknown
    1938 - Cell #37: Prison Cell
    1947 - Cell # 29 (Isolation Cages Removed)
    1967 - Room 112: Play Room (ages 3 to 5 years)

    Castle Williams underwent further iterations (undoubtedly someone pointed out that re-using an ex-civil war prison as a daycare center was creepy) as a girl scouts center, office space, and even a haunted house during Halloween.

    The Army held Governors Island until 1967 when it was transferred to the Coast Guard. BRAC ended military occupation of the island in 1996, and then came under the jurisdiction of GIPEC, a joint NY state and NYC development corporation. The island was opened to the public for limited days in the summer beginning in 2003. Since then the visitors to the island have been multiplying-- the opening day this summer saw over 8,000 visitors (Prince Harry played a game of polo there).

    In the weeks before my trip, I arranged to meet with planners, architects, and board members involved in developing the island. This was set up with the help of the Van Alen Institute who ran the first ideas competition for the island in 1996. Through this I was able to get on the island several weeks before its opening to the public. It was pretty surreal, walking around with amazing views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, and having it all to myself. This connection with the city conflated with a feeling of isolation. It must have felt like this for the military personnel too. Imagine taking a coffee break and looking out to the city and saying "oh yeah, I almost forgot that was there". The feeling might have been mutual.

    A competition to design a new park on the southern half of the island took place in 2006. A team consisting of the Dutch landscape office West 8 and New York architects Diller/Scofidio + Renfro and Rogers Marvel won with a scheme which is to become "the next great world park." West 8 is leading the design team and will be revealing the latest master plan to the public sometime this month. Before that is made public, I'm not able to discuss it with them. Hopefully I will get that chance and put up another post if and when that happens.

    In a lecture by Charles Renfro last month, he showed some funky glass bubbles, appearing to float on the harbor, that Diller/Scofidio + Renfro designed for the competition entry. The bubbles to me are the inversion of Castle Clinton--a bubble of space which is its courtyard, and instead of stone walls, the ocean. They even planned an oyster bar and, of course, an aquarium. I'm sure the history of Castle Clinton did not escape them. Military space is another kind of exotic, a chance to explore the inner desires of New York denizens. Charles said that "the bubbles have since burst" due to the economy and their involvement will be limited to the ferry building and other structures on the island proper. Betty Chen, VP of Planning at GIPEC, told me that building outside the property line was never suggested and so the bubbles were never going to go forward anyway.

    But I think there is something captured by the bubbles, and what I have read elsewhere in the GIPEC literature about wanting to create a spirit of "whimsy," that should continue to make Governors Island a place to explore a fantastical space. It is a chance to do something you can't do in the city. I saw people walking around the abandoned buildings, looking in, messing around with the locks and ambling around the weeds. I tried myself to get inside a bunch of buildings and succeeded in a few places.

    There was a bizarre dance performance by ZviDance in one of the ravelins at Fort Jay. The white gauze that the dancers wrapped around their bodies and around the cannons and walls of the fort symbolized to me one way to reclaim this emptied space: by filling it with a connective tissue. We'll have to see how the new park will function as it fills the blank slate.

    • 1 Comment

    • thanks, nick! good engaging read. i remember the 06 competition and had wondered what happened. i look forward to hearing where you go with this.

      Jun 10, 09 8:13 pm  · 

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