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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Staring at the Pole

I was recently at Frederick Douglass Circle at the northwest corner of Central Park. Every time I go, I am bothered by a detail that detracts from the relationship between the plaza and its surroundings. I am not sure if the detail was on the drawings I first say many years ago, but if it was I certainly missed it.

Back in 2003, I attended a public meeting for neighbors skeptical about the transformation of Frederick Douglass Circle into a public space. At the conclusion of years of participatory planning and a design competition, residents of Towers on the Park emerged with last-minute objections to various aspects of the reconfiguration of the previously dysfunctional intersection (the circle was previously cut through by traffic, creating far too many movements as well as lane drops in the middle of the intersection...). I spoke in favor of the project, convinced it would create a great new public space.

Then construction stretched on for many years. It was disruptive for everybody in the area and continued long beyond what any resident would consider reasonable. I second guessed myself for speaking up after seeing the ordeal I had helped to put these people through. I hoped the quality of the built space would eventually make up for the disruptions in so many lives.

Since the first time I was finally able to visit the plaza some time around 2011, I have been bothered and deeply disappointed. For me, the execution of the concept was seriously compromised by one poorly placed traffic signal pole.

The overall concept for the plaza was strong, and much of it has in fact turned out very well. It would be unfair to call this urban space a failure. Yet while the statue of Douglass was symbolically positioned to face Harlem, the gesture is undermined by that traffic signal. Instead of looking up the avenue that carries his name, Douglass just stands there staring at a steel pole a few feet in front of him.