The World Inverted

Flocking to parks seeking comfort and escape,  New Yorkers are finding controversy instead. Warmer temperatures bring people outdoors and too close together, leading to stricter limitations on access to open space combined with a greater police presence. Though it has seen its share of crowds in recent weeks, Prospect Park has been spared this level of enforcement (for now). True to its original design as a refuge from the toils of 19th century urban life, the park’s sheer size and variety of landscapes offers space for recreation to be sure, but also contemplation. While in-person tours are on hold for now, landscape historian and tour guide Kate Papacosma leads us through some of the expansive meadows and more hidden pleasures of Prospect Park, while highlighting the importance of protecting what some may call a crucial public health infrastructure, or simply a place of healing in a wounded city.

Prospect Park Lake at dusk photographed by Kate Papacosma in May 2020.

A selection of reflective images of Prospect Park, posted on Instagram in the weeks following New York City’s shutdown.

Kate Papacosma: I would say to people: Go to Grand Army Plaza and walk in along the pedestrian path. If you’re facing it to the right, it will immediately start winding through the park and you can really feel the contrast between the Plaza and getting into the park. And then there’s an arch there, called the Meadowport Arch, where you can see the park moving like a landscape painting beyond it, and it makes you want to keep going through. Walk through that arch and come into the Long Meadow and stop and contemplate for a while. Notice how the land is sculpted; what is the sky like; how does this feel as opposed to being out there. And just be there for a while. It’s a really symphonic landscape. Some of the landscapes in the park were designed to be much more intimate — more chamber music. This is the grand symphony. I’m Kate Papacosma, and I’m a landscape historian who leads tours of Prospect Park, Greenwood Cemetery and Central Park.

Another space where I stop and talk for a long time is Fallkill Falls, which is just next to the Long Meadow. It’s the start of the water course in the park, which is a very clinical name, and doesn’t do justice to how poetic and lovely the water is there, but . . . The water course is a mile long and it’s contiguous, which most people don’t realize. You start at Fallkill Falls. You hear the Falls before you see them. And then look at the falls and watch where they’re going, and really think about what water means as public health and how this was designed to look like this miniaturized mountain landscape, which is what the entire ravine of the park was meant to be. So we have this big symphony and open space, and then we have this wooded area with all these labyrinthine pedestrian paths. And you’re transported to the mountains, even though you’re still here. There’s another big meadow in the middle of the park called the Nethermead, which is a surprise, especially after passing through the ravine. You’re not expecting another big open space. And that’s probably my favorite spot in the park because it is unexpected, and there’s something about the light there that feels particularly otherworldly and transporting.

I love public history. I just really enjoy sharing my knowledge and passion with others. We have other interests, and we’re busy, and we don’t realize what this park is. So I thought, “I have a lot to learn about the park, too, still,” even though I wrote my master’s thesis on the Park, I’ve taught classes on the park. And what better way to do it than to lead tours where every group is different, every group has a different perspective and experience with the Park. Every question will be different, and we can connect that way.

I’ve led groups for children as young as four — obviously a very different kind of tour, much shorter — and people in their 80s. Some people have lived in Brooklyn their whole lives, and have said things like, “Wow, we had no idea.” Others have come from as far away as South Korea. I say this during every tour, but these parks were meant to transcend time and fads. They serve people really in very much the same way as they were designed and built to do more than 160 years ago.

I think the Park’s design is extremely relevant right now. It’s really a timeless design. Disease was rampant in the 19th century, and cities were growing at an unprecedented rate. People who could leave would go to the mountains or to the water, and that left most people here, and cities were very unpleasant places to be in the mid-19th century without regular sanitation, that was just starting. No air conditioning obviously. People really toiling, stuck in these very cramped spaces. Very difficult places to live. Central Park, Prospect Park, and even Greenwood Cemetery (which was designed before either Central Park and Prospect Park) were built to provide a really dramatic contrast from the physical and mental confines of the grid system. Civic-minded people, including co-designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, fought for large public parks, and for a long time. Olmsted and Vaux and other social reformers hoped that Prospect Park would inform the way Brooklyn would develop. So in addition to providing this escape, it would be part of this regional plan, so Brooklyn could develop — at least hypothetically — in a more healthy way than Manhattan.

It’s really sad because obviously the tours I lead are so much about being in a place, and being together. Being your own community for that time as you move through a space. I really, really miss it. I miss the connections and feeling . . . Not thinking twice about touching somebody, even somebody I just met. That’s what people tend to do. Who knows when it’s going to happen again. I just have to think about the future, think about other ways of engaging people, I guess, for the time being.

While I’m really glad that so many people are using the Park, I am concerned that too many people are using it on really nice days. I have noticed a lot of crowding and I try to avoid the park. I do know a lot of paths that are less-traveled than others typically are, but even those now are bearing more traffic, and I have noticed a lot of people who aren’t wearing masks, or who are in groups. They might even be, and this is people of all walks of life . . . I’ve seen people partying. And I’ve seen people maybe not respecting the park so much. I feel like the Park gives so much, and right now, of course, funding will be cut because we’re in this horrible financial crisis as well. The Prospect Park Alliance, which is the private entity that manages, restores, preserves the Park — working in tandem with the operations of the Department of Parks in the city — they’re both going to be struggling financially, and the Park needs more money now, not less. And I wonder if people know that. I guess my hope is: How can we reach out to people and have them understand that the Park is fragile, that we all need to be part of the common good and think of the greater good and take care of the Park together? And that can be in the smallest ways, just taking your garbage out. Or it can be giving money, or it can be volunteering for the park.

Parks that are versatile, a space like the Long Meadow, can serve so many purposes. So many. Active recreation, passive recreation. You feel relaxed there. It doesn’t feel crowded, because of all the sky. It doesn’t feel crowded because the ground was sculpted in a way that it’s not this big flat space like Flushing Meadow Park is, for example. That’s a very beloved community amenity, but you don’t get the same feeling there at all. And I’d say, too: think about what it takes to maintain a park. If you’re putting in a lot of buildings and other infrastructure, it’s a lot to maintain that. It’s also a lot to maintain parks, don’t get me wrong. I think that people don’t realize how much has to go into keeping parks looking like parks. It’s a lot, and it’s very easy for a park to become overrun and to stop looking like a park because it’s loved too much or it’s not maintained enough.

I definitely noticed a lot more people using the Park regularly, and in a more contemplative way, I’d say. Again, I think that’s somewhat enforced by the distancing, but I also know because I can see it on their faces, just above their mask, if they’re wearing a mask — how much solace and healing they’re receiving from being there. Certainly on Instagram I’ve noticed so many more images of reflections, and that’s something I tend to have a little . . . A tendency, I guess, to take reflection photos, because I love seeing images of the park that way. But I’ve noticed a lot more of them, and I think there may be a couple of reasons for this. I do feel that water is very soothing, it is very contemplative, and then also I’ve noticed too that these images are upside down, and our world has become very inverted, and I think there is something to that as well, that we keep seeing this other version of our lives in the water, and it’s not what we would typically see.

Kate Papacosma is a landscape historian, writer, editor, and educator who has lived in Park Slope for 21 years. She leads tours of Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, and Central Park, both independently and for institutions and groups such as the Municipal Art Society, NYCH2O, Open House New York, PS 107, and Victorian Society New York. She has taught at The New School and elsewhere, in the classroom and beyond.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.



In short audio features, we check in with urbanists of various stripes to hear what they are doing and how they are learning from the entangled crises of 2020.