Monday, July 13, 2009

New York Part One: Governors Island

As the title suggests, I've been in New York for the last week or two, and I return with tales to tell and things to describe. I was going to write about all the various things I'd seen in one big post, but I got as far as Governors Island and ran out of time to write anymore. I'll keep going tomorrow.

Governors Island
The area around New York city contains a lot of water, more than most foreigners realise I think. I mean, if you stood at any given point in New York and ran in a dead straight line, chances are you'd fall into the sea after a few minutes (for the sake of argument I'm assuming that you, dear reader, are some sort of freight train-like hulk that can run through walls). Within this wetness are many islands. Manhattan is a small Island, Brooklyn and Queens are also on an Island (a Long one), Staten Island is an Island (this last point may seem obvious to Americans, but I live in the land of the Isle of Dogs, the Isle of Purbeck, and the Isle of Thanet -- none of which are actually Islands). While these are fairly well known, inhabited places, there are many smaller Islands in the harbour that aren't as well known, or as developed. With the possible exception of Roosevelt Island (which is essentially a micro Milton Keynes surrounded by water as far as I can tell) I think I've been on all of the Islands big enough to fit two feet on and interesting enough to be worth the effort of doing so. The most interesting of these smaller Islands is a little island about half a mile from the southern point of Manhattan, called Governors Island.

Governors Island is so named because it was where the colonial governor lived back in the days of yore. A location that was chosen, I expect, because islands are conveniently angry mob proof and we British are notoriously squeamish about tar and feathers. There's no remnant of this stage of its history left on the island today (the angry mob won, after all) but plenty more interesting historic things have been squished onto the Island since then.

The island is a brilliant place to visit because it has been spared the development and renewal which has worked its way through the streets of the rest of New York city. Beginning in 1783, Governors Island was owned and controlled by the United States Army. It was a military base, with housing for officers and barracks for the enlisted men. In 1966 the Army decided to relocate their command position somewhere else -- presumably because they believed that the entire of New York City was first in line to be turned to sizzling puddles of glass and the occasional shadow scorched into the bedrock (judging from the fallout shelters that most apartment buildings have over there, I'm guessing this was a commonly held view). From 1966 the Coastguard took over the island, using it as their command base for all operations along the Atalantic coast. I'm guessing at some stage in the following decades some people from the city of New York asked why exactly they simply had to have their base of operations right next to some of the most expensive real-estate in the world, because in 1996 the coastguard packed up their things and left, giving the land, and everything on it (right down to the appliances in the kitchens) to the City of New York.

Since then it has sat largely unused. The city wants to make it into a great cultural and historical destination, but it doesn't seem to know exactly how, and more to the point, needs lots of money to do it (In the US, getting government money for anything that involves the word 'culture' is usually about as easy as sucking dolphins from the exhaust pipe of a 1973 AMC Gremlin). They're doing enough restoration and maintenance on the existing structures to keep them from falling down, and letting people visit to see if they find it interesting. What this all means is that the Island has no velvet ropes, no tacky exhibitions or tours, and no attempt to exclude the structures and parts of the island that aren't relevant to some notable event or period. There are no signs telling you what is important and very few restrictions on where you can go. As Kristen said at one point during our exploration "hey, the tape says 'caution', it doesn't say we can't go through anyway". You spend the whole time you're there feeling ever-so-slightly like you're trespassing somewhere really cool.

We started by looking around Fort Jay -- a star fort that was built in the early 19th century to defend New York Harbor. I found this place fascinating because it was a bog standard cannon fort, something that you see all over the place on the UK coastline, but in America. In addition to this, admittedly unremarkable novelty, there was something else about this fort that made it cool -- it was largely untouched. Forts are built in strategically important places, and these places rarely change that much -- commanding high ground is always commanding high ground -- in UK such a fort would be a complete mess. The triangular bastions would have chunky reinforced concrete blockhouses and anti-aircraft positions from the second world war built over them, and the lovely quadrangle of officers housing would be a bare expanse of concrete where the corrugated iron barrack huts would have been built. In addition to all that, the whole place would have been bombed to buggery. But in the US, the enemy was always further away, and so the forts were not called on again after the Civil War, and they were never seriously expected to have any involvement in that.

Me and Kristen poked around in the neoclassical buildings which once housed the fort's garrison, and walked about on the defensive earthworks for a while. I liked the way that you could walk up to the windows of these grand old buildings and see 1980s fridges and cookers sitting in the kitchens, swivel chairs sitting alone in the middle of empty rooms, and kitschy 1960s light fittings aging under a layer of dust.

Around the fort there were dozens of houses, generally semi-detached buildings, but there were some larger, grander houses, reserved for the senior officers who were able to kiss enough arse and grease enough palms to get one. They were all set in lovely grassy parkland with lots of flowers and shrubs, there was at least 10 feet of distance between each house, and broad, empty roads crisscrossing the island. There was one area with particularly lovely yellow weatherboard houses that was actually set around a little park, as if the other parts of the island were too built up, and the people there needed somewhere green to go and relax.

Closer to the water there were lots of big, impressive victorian colonades, like the big artillery barracks in Woolwich, that had charming, whimsical names like 'Training Group H, Sector 3, Building 7' written on black and white metal signs. These weren't quite as impressive as the little houses somehow, possibly because they seemed familar, but also because they didn't leave me with a sense of powerful yearning to live in them.

Dotted around the Island were various peculiar art installations. As far as I could tell, they've been giving artists room and board in some of the houses on the island in exchange for interesting art that they can display and sell. It was a good way of putting things in otherwise empty buildings, a practice that was great, not for the art particularly, but for the opportunity to go inside and snoop around.

We got lunch at a little food van that was parked up in one of the leafy green areas, and ate it by the waterfront, it was tasty, no-nonsense food, and cost very little for a place with such a captive market. After that we walked over to Castle Williams -- a small stone cannon fort that looks like a red brick barrel from the outside. I really wish we hadn't walked inside. Inside the building, around the small circular courtyard, the army had built a hideously ugly reinforced concrete office building that was set into the internal walls. It was truly gaggingly nasty looking, like the crumbling remains of a 1950's secondary school, only glued to the inside of a historic building like some kind of brutalist architectural fungus. It was amusing, however, to stand inside the courtyard and hear each group of people gasp with horror as they walked in "ahh" "ugh, this is disgusting" "whoa, what the hell is this?" etc.

Between the waterfront and the parkland areas, there were a few houses that were just too lovely for words. One was the Commander's House, a grand brick building with columns at the front and back which reached right up to the roof, the other was the building next to it, which was an older building that had been added to fairly recently. It had a first-floor (second floor to americans) terrace and summerhouse, which overlooked the east river and lower Manhattan. It looked like a very nice place to sit and eat breakfast.

It's also worth mentioning the old Staten Island Ferry Terminal in lower Manhattan that the trip to the island starts from. It is a wonderful creation in cast iron that sits on the Battery Park waterfront next to the glass edifice that took its place. It is neat and functional, and has an eyecatching color scheme. I don't mean eyecatching in the sense of garish or bright, just unusual: It is predominantly dark green but other parts of the structure are painted dark blue, pastel-pink, and pea green. It sounds icky, but I think it looks rather fetching. It is also decorated with beautifully shaped neoclassical corbals and finials that have been shaped out of cast iron and lots and lots of rivets. It makes the whole thing look a little steampunk.