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Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Path of Restoration

Abandoned places in New York City are becoming increasingly rare. On a recent excursion with my son, I intended to go explore an abandoned place I hadn't visited for a few years. When we got there, I discovered that it had been reactivated.

The staircase down from the street had previously been walled off, but now the wall and the fence on top of it had been altered to reopen the stairs onto the sidewalk. The path that wraps around under the railroad tracks to the train station has been cleared and repaved. The vines that had covered the carved stone on the wall have been cleared off. A new fence closes off the train tracks, replacing the ruins of the old iron fence that had been broken and partially consumed by decades of tree growth. Construction debris that had previously been dumped in this area was gone and the place looks remarkably clean. We saw a couple people stroll or jog through enjoying the path and stairs while we were there.

It looks great! This was a good use of resources to restore existing park amenities for the public to enjoy. Yet it still feels like something was lost in the course of making this place available to more people.

It may seem tempting to dismiss the thrill of happening on an overgrown grand staircase as "Columbusing." There is no "discovery" in wandering through parkland that generations of neighborhood residents have watched linger in neglect. The ability to even wander through a place isolated from public view is an exercise of male privilege.

At the same time, the experience of an abandoned place excites the imagination and invites the observer to think much more deeply about the nature of the place. Why was this built here? When did people stop using it, and for what reason? Why were the stairs closed off while the path from the train station remained open? Unlike a finished place that presents itself as settled fact, an abandoned place is a mystery. Everything about it becomes an interesting clue to understanding where you are and why it is the way you see it. It is an invitation to wonder. 

As New York continues rebuilding its public spaces, gradually reinvesting after decades of neglect, it does leave me wondering: are we losing something? What paths will our children find to the mysteries of the world around them?

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