Monday, September 28, 2009

Nature vs. Pavement: Round 4

I'm not even sure how this happened, but the tree roots here look like they took molten form at some point and engulfed the decorative brick tree pit edge treatment. Awesome.

5th Street between 6th Avenue and 7th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Weed Grows in Brooklyn

At a backyard barbeque in Gowanus this summer, I complimented my host on his spectacular tree (pictured below), to which he responded, "It's a weed." I didn't understand at first, thinking of dandelions and stammering, "But it's so pretty!" Then I realized he meant the tree was an invasive species, one that (often non-native) is able to outgrow and edge out others by monopolizing resources. While I know that I shouldn't like invasives because they detrimentally impact native ecosystems, I can't help but admire their pluck.

It occurred to me that this tree might, in fact, be the fabled tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith. Used by Smith as a metaphor in the
book for the protagonist's perseverance despite every disadvantage, this tree "grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement." This tree knew how to overcome obstacles and would be a sure thing in the Nature vs. Pavement arena. Further Internet research revealed that many people believe Smith's tree is an Ailanthus altissima, which looks a little different, but I have been unable to definitively identify my host's tree. Whatever it is, those pink pom-pom flowers are fabulous!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mon Oncle: A Lesson in Urban Design

This week, I went to see a screening of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) at MoMA. Mon Oncle focuses on the absurdity of the bourgeois' obsession with modern invention, which imprisons them as much as it sets them free. The film's main expression of this condition is the ultra-modern home of Monsieur and Mademoiselle Arpel, Monsieur Hulot's (Tati's cinematic alterego) sister and brother-in-law. The house (Villa Arpel) is strikingly sterile -- outfitted entirely in modernist furniture that no one finds comfortable, cabinets that open and shut with complex mechanical programming and a garden consisting of concrete stepping stones, steel edges and plants so manicured they hardly seem real.

There's a fantastic scene in Mon Oncle, where the Arpels host a garden luncheon. During this scene, Hulot's nephew, stifled by Villa Arpel and bored to tears by the shallow social display, rips down a portion of climbing vines, destroying the sad, manicured symmetry. The party rapidly deteriorates, ending in insult and injury (due in no small part to Hulot's bumbling navigation around the awkward "natural" space) and the nephew running around the garden in a Native American headdress. Later that night, when Hulot sneaks back to the house to finish tearing down the vines, the circular windows of Villa Arpel transform into patrolling eyes (the silhouettes of the Arpels' synchronized heads).

Obviously, I got a kick out of this battle enacted between the attenuated natural world and the anthropomorphized built environment. In reading Eric W. Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York (as noted in a previous post, this study is also an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York), I learned that the Lenape, the Native American inhabitants of Mannahatta, created the structural beams of their wigwams by transplanting tree saplings in a circular plan and bending them inward. The contrast of the Lenapes literally building shelter from live nature with Villa Arpel's precise, tamed gardens brings me back to Anne Whiston Spirn, who posited in 1984 that to ensure the continued success in the urban environment, "nature in the city must be cultivated… rather than ignored and subdued." I think Tati would have agreed.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nature vs. Pavement: Round 3

This tree has not only overthrown the concrete surrounding its once tiny tree pit, but it has split the granite curb and pierced the surface of the asphalt roadbed. This tree kicked three kinds of pavement ass!

Carlton Avenue between DeKalb Avenue and Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn.