Monday, June 04, 2007

Prospect Park in Brooklyn

It struck me as I sat outside Prospect Park's lakeside Boathouse, watching a young couple go through elaborate wedding photography poses, that just as this couple enacts a pantomime for the camera, so nature is staged for us here in the park.

There are no grazing animals to keep the grass this trim, and happenstance didn't arrange such a variety of trees so artfully. This is "nature" organized as it never exists in nature, in the grand centuries-old tradition of built-up natural environments.

Brooklyn's oddly-shaped Prospect Park was designed, like its more famous Manhattan cousin Central Park, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Prospect Park was designed for America's third largest city (Brooklyn was a separate city then) in 1866, about ten years after New York's Central Park.

The idea behind these parks back in the nineteenth-century was charity; to create urban oases where the city-bound working classes, people without the means to "summer" elsewhere, could relax. Retreats so large and so dense that once one is inside, the sounds and signs of the city disappear, even in the most densely-populated urban area in America.


Wedding photography is like a park because it's so often posed. We assemble trees and ponds and fields in pleasing patterns to make spaces of idealized nature. We build little pagodas and boathouses as outposts, icons of our dominion over, and yet harmony with, the constructed nature of our urban parks. Most importantly, we make parks to use them. They are playgrounds and giant extensions of our backyards. Or, in the case of many New York apartment dwellers, surrogate backyards.

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