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Little Island - New York's new public park offers the views 'of an obscenely expensive penthouse' 

The $260m Little Island rises out of the Hudson River and has been enormously successful with the public since opening in May

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From a vantage point on Little Island, visitors look south along the Hudson River toward Lower Manhattan and the One World Trade Center tower on the left and New Jersey on the right. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

From a vantage point on Little Island, visitors look south along the Hudson River toward Lower Manhattan and the One World Trade Center tower on the left and New Jersey on the right. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

The amphitheater on New York's Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

The amphitheater on New York's Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Lounging in the urban greenery of the 2.4-acre Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Lounging in the urban greenery of the 2.4-acre Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

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From a vantage point on Little Island, visitors look south along the Hudson River toward Lower Manhattan and the One World Trade Center tower on the left and New Jersey on the right. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

The ideal New York City apartment is an island in the sky.

It floats above the city, with 360-degree views, converting the noise and mess of urban life into pure spectacle. It may cost you tens of millions of dollars, but that's chump change to our oligarchs.

A new park that rises out of the Hudson River offers ordinary terrestrials some of the pleasures of an obscenely expensive penthouse. It doesn't float above the city, but it floats above the water, offers views in all directions and, most important, it re-creates the spectator-spectacle dynamic that is the essence of urban narcissism.

Called Little Island, this 2.4-acre urban green space is built on tulip-shaped concrete containers just off the west edge of Manhattan. It is also sufficiently detached from the urban bustle to make the city seem like a show and offers visitors an architectural frame through which the reality of New York is converted to something stable, manageable and beautiful, a picture of life that is more alluring than life itself.

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Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

The park, which cost $260 million (€187m), opened in May, and it has been enormously successful with the public. Access is free, but after noon you must present a timed-ticket for entry, and it was likely at capacity when I visited. It contains two performance spaces, including an amphitheater with the Hudson River as a backdrop, multiple pathways and varied topography, some 350 different species of shrubs, flowers and trees, a grassy spot for lounging and a central plaza with food for sale.

The landscape, designed by Signe Nielsen of MNLA, is varied and intriguing, full of small surprises carefully packed into a space that feels larger than it really is. Eventually, some of the trees in this odd patch of landscape, hovering like a mirage over the river, will reach 60 feet in height.

Once you enter the park, via a ramp from an esplanade near 10th Avenue and 13th Street, everything is calculated to delight, and everyone seems delighted.

Unlike the Highline, its nearby predecessor in the urban arms race of dazzling cultural trophies, circulation is less formal and linear. You aren't constantly confronting people coming straight at you, like cars on a two-lane highway. Rather, you flow with the crowd, ascending and descending little hills and snaking through a collection of outdoor rooms that all merge seamlessly. On a hot day, the river kept the park cool and clement, and there were gentle breezes with a whiff of salt in the air.

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The amphitheater on New York's Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

The amphitheater on New York's Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

The amphitheater on New York's Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Cities are felt not just through the senses, but also with the whole body. In a crowd, the body tries to be smaller, contracting in odd ways to find clear passage, shaping itself to the interstices of precious empty space.

In Manhattan, with its short north-south blocks between the streets and long east-west blocks between the avenues, the direction you walk creates different rhythms of movement. On hot days, you learn the patterns of shade and sun, stopping for red lights well before the shadowy canyon walls open up to the solar glare at intersections.

Little Island discombobulates many of the ways in which the body physically adapts itself to the pulse of the city. You are neither busy nor bored. You amble rather that walk. You haven't left the city behind, and you are surrounded by people, but it all feels different, and slightly surreal. And then there are those views of the city, with the Statue of Liberty in the distance and all of Manhattan seemingly laid out before you.

Little Island is the work of Thomas Heatherwick, the English designer who also created the deservedly maligned "Vessel," a 16-story tall structure made of open ramps meant to create a tourist draw and sculptural focal point for the Hudson Yards neighbourhood some 30 blocks to the north. The Vessel is costly kitsch, New York's equivalent of the tacky roadside attraction, and it was recently closed, indefinitely, because it has become a magnet for suicides.

But Heatherwick understands and reiterates the fundamental dictum of contemporary architecture in New York: The city needs to see itself. Like the High Line, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Little Island makes old infrastructure visible in new ways. The High Line reused an elevated rail line to create a linear park, while Little Island is a new structure that repurposes the basic engineering elements of the pier which it replaces: It is built on pilings driven into the river, just like the old piers in various states of decay and renewal that still define the city's aquatic edges today. Thus, urban narcissism reaches new heights. Nothing is old or ugly or outmoded; anything urban can be beautiful.

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Lounging in the urban greenery of the 2.4-acre Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Lounging in the urban greenery of the 2.4-acre Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Lounging in the urban greenery of the 2.4-acre Little Island. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

The park has been criticised, mainly for its contribution to the troubling embarrassment of riches concentrated in an elite neighbourhood. Not only is the High Line less than a block away, the Whitney Museum of American Art is almost across the street (like the High Line, the Whitney's open-air roof decks are magnificent places where the city can see itself). New York recently cut its parks budget by $84 million (€60m), and its best parks thrive only because of substantial private funding and established public-private initiatives.

Billionaire Barry Diller and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation (Diller is married to fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg) contributed the bulk of the money for Little Island and have committed $120 million (€86m) for its upkeep. Yet many neighbourhoods lack access to green space and public parks, and if one were to think of any spot in New York City that was already well served by amenities, this stretch of West Street would be high on the list.

So, the pleasures of Little Island coexist with some ethical facts that must be stipulated: Cities should fund parks equitably, with equal access for all; the siting, design and governance of parks should be a matter of public consensus, not private diktat; no one person should control the kind of resources that made it possible for Diller to gift this park to the city; no one neighbourhood should greatly surpass any other in its excellence of design, grace, beauty and welcome.

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Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

Little Island in Manhattan in July, 2021. Photo for The Washington Post by Calla Kessler

That said, it must also be stipulated that people seem to like Little Island, including some ordinarily churlish critics. Perhaps there is some megolamania in Diller's act of philanthropy, but philanthropy still serves us better than selfish parsimony or profligate self-indulgence.

One is left, as usual, with the last thing out of Pandora's box: hope. One hopes that other neighbourhoods will get their Little Islands and that bodies in other neighbourhoods will have the chance to contract a little less and move to different rhythms.

And that those moments of ease will prompt the fundamental, underlying utopian thought that makes parks (and art and culture) worth the investment: that we make the world, and can remake it as we wish.

© Washington Post


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