Last week I watched a great film, produced by Terence Malick and Robert Redford: The Unforeseen. Despite its poetic title, it is a documentary detailing some 30-plus years of development in and around Austin, Texas, and the intermittently successful fight against it.
The unforeseen of the title are, of course, the unforeseen consequences of that development: the roads, paving, aquifer depletion, ugly landscapes and irretrievably vanished natural landscape and ecosystems, most especially the slow pollution of the beautiful fresh springs that are a treasured Austin hangout. It takes years for the damage to manifest, as the development continues at breakneck speed, and local anti-development types try to halt, or even slow its progress.
The Unforeseen has weighed heavily on me since I saw it — its central premise, that development has permanent consequences that are seldom anticipated or fully understood, has weighed on me for even longer. As we all know too well, our city has undergone massive development in the last decade, as smaller buildings have been razed to build massive towers, vacant lots have been filled with the worst architecture and shoddiest building this city's ever seen, and every imaginable form of pollution, congestion and overcrowding has been ignored in service of the almighty dollar. And they got tax abatements to boot.
It's starting to feel like the endgame, here in the Big Apple: on my block — the four-sided block that I live on in Brooklyn — no fewer than ten lots have undergone conversion from either vacant space to built, or small building (one to two storey) to large (five or six storey). A friend in the (former) Flower District wrote this week marveling at the constant construction on his block over the entire decade he's lived in his place. What little open space there is, is being eaten up at an astonishing rate, and while it may not be pristine prairie or old-growth forest, it is open space. And it's irreplaceable.
As the city gets more crowded, we need more space to balance the greater densities of people and pollutants. Everyone needs a place to go outside, a place that's unpaved, treed, suitable for a picnic, a birthday party, or a nap in the grass. In Williamsburg, the tiny Grand Street Park is sometimes so crowded there isn't anywhere to sit. The Southside has no "real" park besides Grand, no dog run, and just a couple of community gardens.
The city has made a lot of noise about the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, but not much progress has been made. And a peek at the planned park/access map provided by the city gives a sense of the real problem. Green, on their map, means park: but most of the planned park is two to four blocks from McCarren; south of McCarren, there are only a couple of tiny green areas. Of those, one is a community garden wholly controlled by a couple of local dudes, one is unknown to me, and the rest are paved playgrounds/weird spaces immediately adjacent to the BQE or Williamsburg Bridge. Think exhaust fumes and deafening noise. Despite being under the control of the Parks Department, they're not really places anyone would want to hang out or take a kid.
In other words, we're dying out here. I have to walk 16 blocks to get to McCarren, and its dog run. And the "esplanade" the city's going to put in sometime-ish, along the river, looks like a lightly landscaped landing strip. Nowhere to throw down a blanket or catch a little shut-eye. Not much room for Frisbee, even (until you get right up next to McCarren, of course).
And I'm sure Williamsburg isn't alone. The way things are going, lots are filling up everywhere. Being outside is good for people; plants and their cooling, air-cleaning powers, are good for us too. Kids need to play on, and in, real dirt, not just concrete. In other words, we need more parks. Not high-profile mega-parks — High Line this and 12- tennis-court that are all well and good, but they're destination parks, not local daily-use parks. And they're expensive, and have lots of rules.
Slow the development (thanks, Wall Street!) and save some open space — it will never come again. If we don't, I promise a wholly NOT unforeseen miserable crush of people, desperate for basic amenities. Moving. To the suburbs. Blech.