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The Big Problem With Little Island

Slate logo Slate 6/7/2021 Henry Grabar
a group of people standing in front of a building: The island must be at least… three times this size! Henry Grabar © Provided by Slate The island must be at least… three times this size! Henry Grabar

One mile and two years separate two of New York City’s flashiest new public attractions, both from the brain of industrial designer Thomas Heatherwick. The Brit’s 150-foot copper-clad stepwell, The Vessel, opened in 2019; Little Island, a square pier sprouting out of the Hudson River, opened last month.

At first glance, the newer project appears to redeem the older one. The Vessel is among the world’s highest-profile design failures. The $200 million web of ascending staircases was supposed to be the luxury Hudson Yards development’s answer to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Unfortunately, any sculptural excitement was undermined by the dull surroundings—you could barely see more from the tower’s summit than from the bottom. Disability advocates attacked the design for offering a markedly reduced experience to wheelchair users. Security guards stopped visitors from sitting on the ledges below. The neighboring office complex was drained by the pandemic, and the tower became notorious as a destination for people seeking to end their lives. After the third suicide in a year, the Vessel was closed to visitors in January.

By that point, however, public attention was shifting to Heatherwick’s other Manhattan project. Perched on a cluster of 132 slender concrete “tulips” that recall his 2012 “Olympic Cauldron,” Little Island has been a critical and popular smash since it opened to the public in May. The structural miracle of the cups offers a spectacle to viewers on the shore, but the site’s two-and-a-half acres derive their charm from simpler pleasures: steep slopes that break the space into compartments, making a small park feel worth exploring. Landscape designer Signe Nielsen planted a rich, grown-in garden, which is threaded with wheelchair-accessible paths (and shortcuts of rough-hewn rocks, which kids in particular seem to love). The promontories draw the most visitors, but the best place on the island is its wooden-benched amphitheater, where you can lounge and forget the city behind you. The bathrooms are some of the best public amenities in New York City.

New Yorkers owe this pleasure to media mogul Barry Diller, who put up the quarter-billion dollars to build Little Island and something like the same amount to maintain it for the next two decades. Likewise, they owe the debacle of Hudson Yards and its meat-stick centerpiece to Steven Ross, a different billionaire with a different idea of what might enhance the public sphere in his city.

It’s tempting to say Little Island doesn’t just absolve Thomas Heatherwick, but also revives the idea that sometimes, we can get good things when we let billionaires run wild. In an age of limitless private lucre and limited public capacity, perhaps government’s best shot at getting the best for people is to humor philanthropists and direct their energy. In this case, to make a long story short, the Hudson River waterfront park needed to replace a pier where it once raised money with events. Barry Diller gave them that … and more.

The fundamental thing, which is boring to say but no less true now than when this was proposed, is that no one would have put this exquisite pier high on the list of What New York Needs. An eye-popping luxury for one of the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods; a tourist attraction for a part of town already jammed with visitors; a place to draw people in on a waterfront that really needs more space for people to move. (Active uses like tennis courts are jammed; the overcrowded bike path is the nation’s busiest.)

For those reasons, Little Island could only have come from the initiative of a private benefactor, and should be seen as the apotheosis of a movement toward private control of public parks. Most of the city’s iconic green spaces, including Central Park, Bryant Park, and Union Square, are run not by the city Parks Department but by local groups funded by property owners and civic grandees. This system emerged in the down-and-out “Needle Park” period of New York history, and its logic then was hard to deny: If local property owners will tax themselves to undertake security, sanitation, and cultural programming, who is the cash-strapped city to say no?

The model has become popular in other cities, with projects like Chicago’s Millennium Park and Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park relying on big donors to meet the costs of construction. The corrosive long-term consequence is that private money flows in ever-larger amounts to flagship parks while support for taxes ebbs, inequalities grow between public spaces in rich and poor neighborhoods, and government is made the caretaker of last resort. At those parks dependent on philanthropists, meanwhile, donors dictate the path of new investment.

When it comes to the day-to-day, I’ve long been a skeptic of private control, but I have to admit that the results mostly speak for themselves: New York’s privately managed parks are pretty good. Their security forces are no less disciplined than the city’s own police department, which could hardly be doing a worse job dealing with crowd control. When (mostly white) neighbors called for the new basketball courts in Brooklyn Bridge Park to be turned into tennis courts on account of the (mostly black) crowds they drew, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation kept a cool head and refused.

Still, if you’d like an example of private operation gone wrong, look no further than Heatherwick’s Vessel, which has reopened after the suicide hiatus with a $10 admission fee. Single people are no longer allowed to visit freely. The implication is grotesque. (Though the situation is not unique.)

Little Island will not face that particular problem, but no new place gets used quite like its renderings imagined—even a park like this one, with pathways that direct visitors as firmly as a hedge labyrinth. It’s a public park with strict capacity restrictions and behavioral rules (no outside drinks, no music), accessed via two long gangways that give park managers a good look at all who wish to enter. What happens when a flash mob of teenagers shows up?

But even that assumes Little Island taking its place in the regular ebb and flow of New York life, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. In some ways, the project reprises the mistakes of the High Line—another much-loved venture funded by the city’s first citizens, including Diller and his wife, Diane von Fürstenberg. One of the High Line’s founders, Joshua Hammond, later said, “We wanted to do it for the neighborhood. Ultimately, we failed.”

In a very precise sense, Heatherwick and Diller made Little Island for the neighborhood: Its whole reason for being is to provide an event space for the trust that manages the linear park along the Hudson River. (One private park to prop up another.)

More broadly, though, Little Island is designed as a regional tourist attraction and that’s what it will become—an obligatory stop on the New York selfie circuit. It’s a charming park, if you can get inside, but also one the size of a baseball field in a metropolis of 20 million people.

At the moment, visiting after noon requires a ticket booked online. I don’t know if that will change. While the park is still in its opening days, it is also operating in a city with almost none of its usual commuters and international tourists. As long as Little Island requires tickets, it’s not going to be a place that can beckon in passersby on a whim, welcome the area’s retail and restaurant workers after a shift, or host a gathering of friends coming and going over the course of an afternoon. Even if the ticketing goes away, the park will retain the busy, uptight vibe of a guided tour.

Yogi Berra had a good line for the grouches and snobs who complained about such things in New York City, of all places: “It’s too crowded, nobody goes there anymore.” Some places do reach the best version of themselves when they are teeming with people: The boardwalk at Coney Island. The bleachers at Yankee Stadium. And then there are those, like the path over the Brooklyn Bridge, where a fine design fails—to the detriment of everyone, tourists included—because it doesn’t reckon with the impact that large numbers of people have on access, use, and atmosphere. In the case of New York City’s newest park, it will hardly be a surprise if this happens; the problem is right there in the name.


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