Is it a community center? An art gallery? A waterfront park? For 30 years, Socrates Sculpture Park has been doing its own thing at the edge of the East River. As public art and postindustrial waterfronts have become big business, slick, sponsored, and increasingly interchangeable, Socrates speaks to a different vision of public space. An experimental grounds open to change, it has resisted spectacle. A fluid cast of artists, neighbors, and children attend movie nights, take classes of all kinds, and make and experience forward-thinking art. Socrates is always in flux, a permanent condition of unexpected delights. Socrates Sculpture Park and The Architectural League enhance this condition with their annual Folly competition, where architects design and build a temporary pavilion. But Socrates is also a hardy institution with terrestrial concerns. We’ve written previously on Socrates’s creative planning work in Long Island City. And now, Folly has gone functional, soliciting practical but artful designs to address the needs of the park’s many programs.
Daniel Campo is a longtime participant observer in the city’s unplanned, unstructured leisure spaces, chronicling the social life and death of some of New York City’s “unparks” by the waterfront. On the banks of the East River, over the remains of a marine terminal, he explores a unique urban ecology of changing art works, hand-me-down plants, and shipping containers. A place that defies stable categories, in an environment where the future is hard to predict, Socrates Sculpture Park is one of the more unusual, and enduring, waterfront developments of the last 30 years. –M.M.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens, the weekly farmers market and “Queens Food Day” festivities were in full swing, along with yoga-in-the-park, Capoeira lessons, and children’s art-making workshops. Park visitors exercised, read, socialized, tended to their dogs, enjoyed modest solitude, and took in the waterfront. Meanwhile, children ran, jumped, crawled, and did cartwheels around the installations of Socrates’s Emerging Artist Fellowship (EAF) exhibition.
Elizabeth Tubergen’s Apparition, a five-foot stairway of wood and foam wrapped in fun-to-touch granulated rubber, had become de facto play equipment and a “grandstand” to view the activity of the park. From the top step of Apparition, I looked over to Meg Webster’s cylindrical earthwork, Concave Room for Bees. Commissioned in part to celebrate the park’s 30th anniversary, the work consists of more than 400 cubic yards of soil arranged in a 70-foot diameter cylinder, with flowering plants growing in a colorful array out of the cylinder’s sloping interior wall. A cut in the earthwork, not immediately visible from most angles of approach, allows visitors to enter the ring. Many did, though often with tentative steps, perhaps because they couldn’t fully see the interior, or were apprehensive that entry might not be permitted.
While Webster has been making circular earthworks for years, this installation, as she later explained to me, was an experiment. She warmly remembers the days when art-making in the city was a looser practice, and was surprised when John Hatfield, executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park, Inc. (SSP) approved the broad dimensions of her proposed installation. She was also initially unsure of how the selected plants would fare in the cylinder’s soil. Park horticulturalist Grahame Hubbard and his crew helped her refine her selections and then helped her construct and plant the work. Its varied species have now thrived through three seasons.
Concave Room was driven by Webster’s concern for the precipitous drop in pollinator populations. Nearly stung by a yellow jacket buzzing around the installation’s exterior, I can attest that it is working. It is consistent with a larger theme in her work, which explores the complex systems that sustain life. Yet for years, she says, she has struggled to realize larger food and agriculture-centered works that have a certain permanence, and can grow and sustain themselves while providing significant communal benefit. While Concave Room is temporary and its effects highly localized (it will be dismantled in the spring), it represents a new collaborative design and construction process for the artist, one she shared with park employees who live nearby and are being trained in the art of horticulture.
Twenty-five feet southwest of Concave Room was one of EAF’s most colorful and lithe offerings: Lea Cetera’s Design Within Reach, a re-creation of the iconic chairs designed by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and Le Corbusier in brightly painted steel mesh, fabricated on-site using Socrates’s outdoor shop. Cutting, welding and painting at Socrates gave Cetera the benefits of open-air ventilation, but also forced her to personally engage with passersby. The park is the rare art venue where even production is public, sometimes intimately so. As executive director Hatfield described, “The curtains are drawn back and people can see the fluency of the life of an artwork,” including its construction, installation and deinstallation. For Cetera, this meant frequent (and occasionally exasperating) interruptions from inquisitive visitors eager to learn what she was making, how, and why.
Cetera described her work to me as having a theatrical component, probing the boundaries between utilitarian and high art forms, public and private domains, and performers and audiences. Exploring “accessibility to design,” she adapted the chairs into “public bench language” and “the vernacular of security-grade, public fencing,” noting that modernist designers had started with egalitarian notions of how good design could impact the lives of ordinary people. On her visits to the park she was delighted to observe that these chairs were indeed fulfilling their utilitarian function. Undeterred by the theft of one of the whimsical “props” affixed to the chairs, a solid cement-cast takeout coffee cup, Cetera fabricated and attached another.
Webster’s earthwork and Cetera’s chairs are emblematic of the 30-year arc of art exhibited at Socrates. They are robustly public works that nonetheless intimately engage with their audiences and the contingent landscape around them. Constructed on site, their design, materiality, utility, and meaning are determined in part by local resources, expertise, and circumstance. Three decades after its do-it-yourself founding by sculptor Mark di Suvero, the park’s programs continue to evolve, but Socrates has stayed true to its original spirit of public engagement, where artworks and their producers meet diverse audiences in a free, multidimensional venue open 365 days a year.
Socrates is an enduring and vital outlier in a city where the array of public parks and art venues is constantly expanding and renewing, in the perpetual pursuit of novelty. Where our collective imagination around urban parks tends towards provocatively designed reclamations of underutilized, forgotten, or residual spaces orchestrated by internationally prominent firms and supported by speculative property development, Socrates remains an experimental and democratic grounds. At the waterfront in particular, where vast stretches of decaying industrial and port properties have been rediscovered, reclaimed, and transformed into perfected, refined 21st century leisurescapes, Socrates is still scruffy and incomplete, possessed of the same personality that sprung from and facilitated the park building experiment di Suvero began in 1986. And while the landscape of public art in the city has changed in the last 30 years, Socrates has remained humble, neither succumbing to the spectacle of contemporary art nor becoming a stage for global art stars and their sponsors.
At Socrates, the making of park and art remains highly localized, collaborative, incremental, and unpredictable, a practice that has resisted the regimentation of urban space and the influx of global capital that have remade much of the city. Socrates has a vibe. It feels open and unpoliced, a place where the conventions of contemporary city parks, including security and surveillance practices, aggressive maintenance routines and off-limits areas, prominently-signed prohibitions, donor naming and inscriptions, and the seemingly endless parade of private events cease to exist. And it often feels like a throwback to more free-spirited times when art-making, display, and events shared the spirit of the more raw, decaying and/or dangerous city around them.
Socrates exists on the same spectrum of informality as other countercultural appropriations that gained prominence in the city during the 1970s and 1980s: community gardens, squatting, loft living, anarchic parks on vacant properties, and the art events that occurred there. But it is not quite the “unpark” that thrived in fits and starts on waterfront sites across New York, including the West Side piers of the 1970s, the former Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, active from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, or Hunters Point, Queens, where construction began on a large mixed-use development and formal park in 2015.While the accidental nature of these sites provided interesting opportunities for everyday activities and creative happenings, Socrates has always been more purposeful and better organized. Most importantly, while these other sites have been claimed by the development practices that has reshaped much of the city and its waterfront over the past three decades, Socrates still thrives independently.
Socrates’s administrative model is not unlike that of the city’s other publicly owned but privately administered public spaces, including Central Park, Bryant Park, Governor’s Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the High Line. Socrates is public property owned by New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation but managed under contract to SSP. It’s also smaller and arguably leaner than these other nonprofits: much of the programming is carried out through creative partnerships with more than 50 organizations, allowing SSP to administer the park for a little over $1 million a year, with revenue coming mostly from donations and grants, and very little money from city government.With a small budget and an emphasis on partnerships, SSP is able to administer its programs without relying on real estate development for revenue. This practice has been controversial at Brooklyn Bridge and Hudson River parks, where residential condominiums and hotels rise from within or adjacent to the park footprint (or are proposed there) and significantly contribute to operating budgets. While Socrates depends on donors, their contributions tend to be small; the park has not succumbed to naming or branding.
As Hatfield explained, Socrates has never had a real master plan, but has long maintained a mission with three distinct components built around “art, park, and community.” It is in part an ambitious public art program, not unlike the Public Art Fund or Creative Time; but it is also a more quotidian park, serving the recreation and leisure needs of nearby residents. Its tripod mission has a third leg: Socrates is a community empowerment project in an area of the city with a significant low-income population, including residents of three of the city’s largest public housing projects, all within a mile of the park. Its education programs, all free, target a full age spectrum of participants and include courses in many creative media as well as land and marine ecologies, nutrition and food, career skills, and recreational boating. Its horticultural program offers living wages and benefits, to nearby resident employees who train for horticultural careers as they plant and maintain the park.
This part of Socrates’s mission has become newly urgent, as condominiums rise in the vicinity of the park, and gap between the incomes and lifestyles of the area’s new arrivals and longtime residents grows. From 2004 to 2013, property values increased 76 percent across Astoria; on two blocks adjacent to the park, values increased over 221 percent and 411 percent respectively, according to an analysis by the city.
When di Suvero, other artists, and nearby residents launched the Socrates project atop a former marine terminal on Hallet’s Cove, the neighborhood was quite different. Di Suvero recently described the Astoria of the 80s to the Times: there was a popular carjacking spot just up the road, and di Suvero was mugged by one of the park’s own maintenance employees at the door of his studio down the street.Like many city neighborhoods targeted by artists priced out of Manhattan, this part of Astoria was far poorer and less safe than today. Nor did it immediately gentrify with the onset of artistic activity.
Occupying the former marshland around the mouth of the tidal Sunswick Creek, which had been progressively filled beginning in the late 19th century, the terminal was still receiving barges in the early 1950s.Like many vacant waterfront sites across the city during the 1970s and 1980s, the future park was used for illegal dumping and other surreptitious activity. It was just the kind of site that appealed to di Suvero. The former Chicago steelworker moved into a studio in a former waterfront brick handling shed just down the street in 1980, and was eyeing the open-air space to construct and display large-scale metal sculptures, some of which required the use of a construction crane. Working with the Athena Foundation, which he founded nine years earlier to support artistic endeavor in the city, di Suvero raised $200,000 for the park’s construction and negotiated a five-year lease on the property with its owner, the Department of Ports and Terminals, for a dollar a year.
Straddling Broadway and extending north and south along Vernon Boulevard, this section of Astoria was far from New York’s downtown art scene and nearly a mile from the nearest subway station. By the 1980s, the area was a jumble of dilapidated piers, old factory buildings, warehouses, storage sheds, auto repair shops, and two- and three-story residential walkups, anchored by two public housing projects.Sohmer and Company Piano Factory, was shuttered in 1982 (the 96-year-old building was converted to residential condominiums beginning in 2007). Yet with di Suvero’s studio to the north and Isamu Noguchi’s studio, now the site of the Noguchi Museum, just to the south, Socrates was poised to become the center of a small but growing arts community.One of the area’s largest industrial employers, the
Di Suvero enlisted dozens of neighborhood volunteers and their children to contribute to his broad vision of local engagement. Throughout 1986, the team of artists and residents used their own sweat equity to remake the barren, debris-strewn site into a welcoming, if still raw, four-acre park with winding gravel paths and beds of wildflowers built around the installations of the inaugural exhibition.Concrete piers and seawalls were still exposed throughout the landfill; artworks were placed on top of them. The opening exhibition featured mostly little known or up-and-coming artists working in sculpture, earthworks and conceptual, pop, or performance art. In a review of the exhibition, the Times noted that Socrates was the city’s first public outdoor venue in which sculpture could be viewed year-round and declared, “The park is still raw, and there is no sense yet of a clear guiding vision, but its very existence is remarkable, and its potential is almost unlimited.”
During its first few years, the park remained an ad hoc operation run by di Suvero, volunteers and the Athena Corporation board. Despite limited resources, Socrates quickly established its reputation for engaging shows and garnered awards and greater foundation interest, even amid speculation that the city and developers were poised to build luxury and moderate-income housing on its site when its five-year lease ended.After taking in the spring show in 1990, Times critic Michael Brenson considered the park’s vitality in the face of redevelopment. “There is no other site in New York City that has a comparable informality, openness and love of the entire process of conceiving, making and installing sculpture,” he noted. “The park is irreplaceable.”
By 1990, the park’s public programming was also growing, as its administration began to formalize. That year, Socrates received nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization status and began its art making programs for local youth. Building on its growing notoriety and popularity, di Suvero was able to convince the successor to Ports and Trade, the Department of Business Services (which later became the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, DCAS) to extend its lease. In 1993, under the helm of Socrates’s first (part-time) executive director, the artist Eve Sussman, DCAS transferred the title to most of the grounds to the Department of Parks and Recreation’s roster of properties.
Still, Socrates’s future was far from assured. Later in the decade, a $100 million proposal to build luxury apartments and a marina on the site garnered support among some leaders and stakeholders including the local community board, whose district manager was a prominent supporter of the proposal. But the park had the backing of Queens Borough President Claire Shulman and some support from the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “The truth of the matter is that they [Socrates] cleaned that whole area up and made it beautiful,” Shulman told the Times. “It’s like an oasis on the New York City waterfront.”Within weeks of its lease’s expiration in 1998, the city formally designated Socrates as city parkland, closing the possibility that it could be redeveloped as housing or other uses.
While the postindustrial park projects of the 21st century have spent many millions on landscape architecture, their grounds containing intricate and provocative variations on the Olmstedian ideal, Socrates has employed a lower-cost and more hands-on approach. In this respect, the park is an experiment in locally-based landscape production and in plant growth in a harsh environment. In 1998, SSP began a partnership with Plant Specialists, a Long Island City-based landscape architecture and garden design firm. The company, which has donated and planted nearly all the plants presently in the park (save for those few that are uncultivated such as locusts and ailanthus) has a niche in the design and installation of residential rooftop gardens, which require plants that can thrive in shallow soil and survive an additional five- to ten-degree temperature swing from ground level, hotter in summer and colder in winter. The great increase in wealth in New York City has surely been a boon for Plant Specialists; but almost as often as a rooftop garden gets installed, one is taken down, often due to the impending sale of a property. When this occurs, the firm is there to salvage the plants, often the very ones it planted years earlier. “We just never have a fixed plan,” says Grahame Hubbard, a partner since in the firm since 2004. “When we rip out a garden, we often find a particularly interesting or thriving plant and say, ‘Oh my god, this is great! Let’s put it in Socrates.’”
Hubbard and his firm also believe that the practice of horticulture can fundamentally alter the lives of those who pursue it. Under a program formalized in 2008, Plant Specialists hires its gardeners from the large pool of under-skilled and underemployed people living nearby. It pays them a living wage and benefits (the park itself picks up approximately half the cost and the firm donates the rest) and teaches them the craft of horticulture, as they plant and maintain the park. These jobs have often led to promotion within the firm itself or to jobs elsewhere in the field.
The incremental, ad hoc design that has long characterized the development of Socrates may have its limits. Climate challenges and the natural arc of formalization that comes with success will likely demand different strategies. When Hatfield became the park’s executive director, he wanted to build its long-range capacity and infrastructure, “setting the park up for the next generation.” His mission took on new urgency when Superstorm Sandy hit months after his appointment in 2012, flooding the park with more than four feet of water. Some trees came down and a few plants died from the salt water of the tidal surge, but the park’s lack of permanent structures helped minimize damage, and its “soft” landscape acted as a barrier or sponge that arguably absorbed some of the storm surge. The worst of the surge followed the path of the former Sunswick Creek across Vernon and then to the southeast, into the park offices.
Lacking the capacity to do long-range resiliency planning, Socrates will rely on the Parks Department and other city agencies to meet the challenges of rising seas and climate volatility. At a minimum, sometime soon the park will require the rebuilding or fortification of the riprap that is the barrier between the ground and water. As elsewhere along the city’s waterfront, longer term questions remain unresolved. Thinking about the future, Hatfield and Socrates staff have embarked on a capital campaign, in part to erect the park’s first permanent building. Designed by architects LOT-EK, “The Cubes” will be a two-story building composed of 18 repurposed shipping containers, some of them gifted to the park by the Whitney Museum, where they were deployed in the sunken garden of the Breuer building. LOT-EK’s design will provide year-round education, event and flexible space, office space and a small courtyard. The design and materials reflect Socrates’s longer history and values, stressing reclamation and adaptation, and the site’s maritime and industrial history.
Duke Riley’s performance of illuminated pigeons, Fly by Night, staged at the Brooklyn Navy Yard this past summer, wowed critics, art insiders, and the very few who were lucky enough to obtain tickets online. Paradoxically, this event, presented without admission charge and taking as its subject and medium something so ubiquitous to everyday urban experience, was largely inaccessible. Perhaps it was Riley’s intent to raise the status of the lowly pigeon through an inversion of publicness; or maybe the event was constrained by logistics. Yet as Riley’s pigeons flew over the Navy Yard, several miles up the East River, Socrates presented its 30th anniversary show with no price of admission, ticket lottery, or RSVP list, just as it has always done. While none of the works in the Landmark exhibition garnered the same volume of media coverage, they were thoughtful and satisfying. Some, like Webster’s Concave Room for Bees, rewarded multiple visits.
I thought about Riley’s pigeons during another EAF-commissioned work at Socrates this fall, Madeline Hollander’s site-specific dance, st, nd, rd, th, th, th. A crowd of 50 people had gathered at the park, most of whom had no idea that they were to be the audience for Hollander’s work. The performance began silently as dancers clad in translucent green emergency rain ponchos that glowed in the fading sunlight systematically “combed” the park several times following search and rescue procedures, inciting both looks of astonishment and indifference. “Can I ask you something?” a woman queried EAF curator Jess Wilcox who was following the line of dancers across the park, “What is going on here?” Wilcox explained that the dancers were interpreting corporeal safety protocols gleaned from mandated public signage and safety cards such as TSA airport pat-downs and the Heimlich maneuver. Soon, the curator and this longtime resident and Socrates visitor and her partner were engaged in a speculative game of attempting to identify the protocol being acted out. “Oh, they’re washing their hands!” the woman exclaimed, “I get it now. But you know it would really be great if there was a sign or something that explained this to you, because we really had no idea.”
The participation of these accidental spectators gave the dance an additional immediacy, intimacy, and an element of surprise — a robust sense of public life that is often lost at other public art venues and events, but has always been a part of the Socrates experience. As Hollander explained to me after the dance, the choreography must adjust in the moment and follow the social “contours” of the park, including picnickers, dogs and kids. “It kind of keeps everyone on their toes to just maintain the comb,” she explained. “There are these rules but it’s like a simulation that gets in motion and is going to be different each time.… It has to be very in the present tense. It’s forced to be.” Even as public art venues and parks have become more numerous, better planned, and more spectacular, Socrates remains something different.
Shelley Seccombe, Lost Waterfront: The Decline and Rebirth of Manhattan’s Western Shore (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp, eds., Mixed Use, Manhattan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); Daniel Campo, The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013); Daniel Campo, “A New Postindustrial Nature: Remembering the Wild Waterfront of Hunters Point,” Streetnotes 25 (2016).
In 2014, city government provided Socrates with just less than ten percent of its budget, about $80,000. Socrates Sculpture Park, Inc., Federal Tax Form 990, “Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax,” for tax year 2014.
New York City Economic Development Corporation, “Neighborhood Trends and Insights: Astoria, Queens,” (April 2014).
M.H. Miller, “A Contemporary Art Titan’s (Almost) Secret Commune,” New York Times (27 October 2016).
Mitch Waxman, “Sunswick Creek, Astoria and Ravenswood’s Forgotten River,” Brownstoner (26 February 2015).
Douglas C. McGill, “A Sculpture Park Grows in Queens,” New York Times (27 August 1986); Michael Brenson, “Di Suvero’s Dream of a Sculpture Park Grows in Queens,” New York Times (12 October 1986).
The park’s construction is well documented by the time-lapse video, Zero to Infinity (1986).
Michael Brenson, “The State of the City as Sculptors See It,” New York Times (27 July 1990).
Douglas Martin, “Queens Sculpture Garden Is Made a Permanent Park,” New York Times (6 December 1998).
In 2003, the Parks Department received title to the one-acre part of Socrates that was not included in the 1993 transfer and this addition was also mapped as parkland. Douglas Martin, “Queens Sculpture Garden Is Made a Permanent Park,” New York Times (6 December 1998); NYC City Planning Commission Report (13 April 2016), ULURP C050319 MMQ.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.