New York — Two shafts of light rise up now from Ground Zero. They are so bright an astronaut could see them in space, although you may see them best from the bow of a Staten Island ferry as it glides over the dark waters of New York’s harbor toward Manhattan at night. Despite their massive incandescence, the lights are soft and gentle, and when they touch low lying clouds they form a nimbus over the city. The effect is at once reverent and rapturous, and entirely appropriate to its purpose. The shafts of light are in memoriam to the people who died on September 11.
Each shaft, or tower, of light arises from a 50-foot-square at its base, and is powered by forty-four 7,000-watt bulbs called space cannons. Mayor Michael Bloomberg flipped the switch that turned them on last week — a mere six months after the hijacked airliners crashed into the twin towers at the World Trade Center. New York is famous for its bureaucratic procedures, and six months from conception to completion on almost anything is warp speed.
The proposal for the lights, however, was so obviously a good idea that it won rapid approval. It also helped that funding for the project, some $500,000, came not from City Hall but from private sources. Meanwhile you must admire, and be moved by, the light shafts now while you can. They will be extinguished next month after only thirty-four nights in operation. Then the panels, commissions and boards that decide these things will once again ponder the question of a permanent World Trade Center memorial, and while you hope they do the right thing, you really do not expect it. The outlook, especially with Bloomberg in office, is not promising.
True, Rudy Giuliani had his faults here, too. In a speech just before he stepped down as mayor, he proposed that the entire World Trade Center site be turned into one big memorial. When “Time” chose Rudy as its Person of the Year it said he will always be remembered as New York’s greatest mayor, and no doubt he will. Giuliani, though, wanted something tangible. When he called for the one big memorial for World Trade Center victims, with no office or apartment buildings allowed in the devastated area — you had the creepy feeling that he was also calling for a memorial to himself. Posterity might forget what he did as mayor; but the one big and, of course, permanent memorial would remind it.
On the other hand, Giuliani’s judgment on art and artistic matters was usually sound. He knew junk when he saw it, and you cannot imagine Bloomberg denouncing, as he did, a Madonna smeared with offal. Bloomberg wants the approval of the city’s enlightened classes, and no doubt he will get it. There already are signs that under his administration New York is slipping back to the worst of its own dark artistic ages. In Central Park now you may find a 50-foot stainless-steel tree. It is inappropriate and out of place, and it foreshadows what may happen now to Central Park under a dilettante mayor.
Bloomberg likes the artist Christo. He favors his works, and even invited him to his inaugural as mayor. Meanwhile Christo wants to drape twenty-six miles of Central Park’s paths and walkways in swatches of saffron fabric supported by thousands of metal gates. It is, of course, a perfectly hideous idea, but Bloomberg supports it, and so do the enlightened classes. On Sunday the New York Times published a lengthy valentine to Christo and his Central Park project in its Arts & Leisure section. It said the project, called “The Gates,” was “too irresistible to ignore.” It also quoted Christo:
“The conservative vision is that the park should be closed like the Metropolitan Museum. If they had a chance they would charge for tickets, like a museum. On the liberal side, the park is the only place where underprivileged people can go in the summertime — the only place.”
Well, not really, there are other places, and for that matter it was liberals who closed down the old Central Park zoo. On summertime weekends it always attracted poor black and Hispanic families, but liberals thought the animals looked unhappy. Consequently the old zoo was razed, and a new zoo took its place. The new zoo, however, charges admission, and it has no lions, tigers, bears or elephants, or anything else that might captivate children. And it also has few poor families among its visitors.
Nonetheless Christo’s wife, Jeanne-Claude (they both use only one name), told the Times that neither she nor her husband had approached Bloomberg directly yet about the Central Park plan. It seems it is too early.
“I think that it is decent to let him do his very hard work first, because no mayor of New York City has ever had such problems,” Jeanne-Claude said.
“Horrible, horrible,” Christo added.
So take that, Rudy. You’ve left New York in terrible shape, but Bloomberg now will fix it. Then the city can look forward to the saffron swatches and steel gates. People who actually spend time in Central Park, and love the trees, flowers, open spaces, and secluded pathways will hate this, but what do they know? The alteration of Central Park will be carried out, and supported by, people who never go there, and apparently they know better. Where is Rudy now that we need him?
Meanwhile do see the shafts of light while you can. They are very moving, and they are likely to be the last wonderful examples of public art you will see in New York now for a while.
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