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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.

After my recent visit, I did a little digging to try to find the source of this issue. The basic concept incorporated the bollards around the perimeter without including the signal lights or traffic signals.

A drawing by Quennell Rothschild & Partners may suggest there was some consideration of locating the pole outside the sighline. This drawing shows the pole one space over from its ultimate placement. Unfortunately, this location places it in conflict with the crosswalk. 
On Algernon Miller's website, a drawing shows street lamps aligned roughly symmetrically, with the crosswalk curb ramps clearly indicated. Interestingly, the lamp on the south side was slightly offset, while the one on the opposite side interrupts the sightline from the statue of Frederick Douglass.

It seems the design could have been revised with minimal impact to clear the clutter out of Douglass's view. With a cursory glance, it appears either of two possibilities may have been possible: moving the signal light pole to the other side of the curb ramp and angling the arm to place the signal head in nearly the same place, or shifting the crosswalk over one space and placing the pole where the curb ramp is now.

At the end of the day, I may be projecting my own vision onto this space. I look at it and see something I find discordant, but I may be substituting my judgement for the artist's. After all, the drawings and the photo of the final project clearly show this relationship. It seems Miller did not object to it, in some way intended it, or merely made his peace with it.

I am not one to put primacy on the original vision of an artist when it comes to public spaces, however. Generations of people live in our cities, and the spaces will inevitably be reshaped for myriad reasons. They represent our collective image, and ultimately public decisions should take precedence over the vision of the singular original designer. Those decisions should not be taken lightly and should be well informed with an awareness of how the change affects the original vision and the relationship between the space and its community context. In this case, I hope we eventually decide to relocate the traffic signal, perhaps when the current hardware reaches the end of its useful life.

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