Gimme Shelter

COVID Shelter, Prospect Park, 2020. Photo by Stanley Greenberg

If COVID-19 claustrophobia has sent many New Yorkers in search of open spaces, ironically, some parkgoers have been passing the time building small enclosures tucked into the urban woods. Stanley Greenberg has been documenting these unsanctioned constructions in photographs that simultaneously suggest traces of past settlement and the emergence of a new civilization. Scavenged from felled branches in Prospect Park’s woodlands, the constructions might recall the Abbé Laugier’s 18th-century reconstruction of the primitive hut, locating the origins of architecture in the earliest attempts to forge shelter from nature. Or perhaps the comparison is to Thoreau’s cabin: back to the land within earshot of the train tracks. These self-built structures point to a perennial need for control over space, especially when everything else feels beyond our grasp. In search of the lean-tos’ authors, Elizabeth Royte finds a struggle of ecological succession among salamanders, kindergartners, and park management.

Down a sloped woodland trail within Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, my daughter and I made a beeline for a large treefall just outside the Quaker cemetery. That bosky keep, gated and locked, sorely tempted us: who wouldn’t want to sneak inside, to have that exclusive space to herself? But for us, the recumbent tree itself provided the next best thing.

Dozens of neatly trimmed limbs leaned against its trunk, forming a ligneous cave perhaps four feet high, a dimly lit dirt-floored longhouse that we would, over years of visits, rearrange and reorder as we saw fit. Other visitors to this almost-hidden spot just off the park’s Center Drive did the same: you never knew how the structure would look when you arrived.

My daughter outgrew what we had come to call the lean-to, but it remains a busy place for other children and for teens, who use it for the usual teen purposes — as a smoking room, a phone booth, or even a card parlor (Uno is enjoying a resurgence). Other stick-built structures, of various shapes and sizes, appear throughout the park’s 585 acres. Photographer Stanley Greenberg had noticed them over the years, while birding or walking the trails. A month into the pandemic he realized there were many more than before, and began to photograph them. Most were in the woodlands and less-accessible areas along the edges of the park, between woods and fence.

The Parks Department says the forts — their preferred term — occur in almost every secluded area, though I mostly come across them in woods within a short walk from the park’s western edge.

It turns out there’s a reason for that.

Several years ago, Alicia Hedgecoth started in Prospect Park a nature camp for children, aged four to ten. She guided what she calls loose nature play, which sometimes involved buckets, rope, and garden trowels. But the children, she discovered, really liked building shelters with sticks. Soon, she was also running a weekly camp called Fort Building 101, which became, before the novel coronavirus shutdown, “our most popular program.”

Others were running similar play camps, mostly within a ten-minute walk of mustering spots along the park’s western boundary. As children aged out of their programs, many likely continued the building habit, joining the unschooled multitudes eager to create private rooms in public spaces. Since the pandemic began, however, there has been something of a construction boom. One can guess at the reasons why: There are more people than ever visiting the park’s meadows and woods; playgrounds were closed for months; and a plethora of suddenly deprogrammed children, plus their parents or caregivers, are looking for fun in the great outdoors. Ditto with bored teens.

Children the world over build forts, starting at around age five or six and stopping, writes David Sobel, a professor emeritus of education at Antioch University New England, by 12 or 13 — “when they start looking in the mirror.” Forts give children a sense of privacy and of control over their surroundings, perhaps more important than ever during this virological moment. They may offer relief from bullies or freedom from adults and their incessant demands.

Sobel has called forts a child’s “own private chrysalis” — a special place outside that symbolizes “the special place inside.” Joylynn Holder, cofounder of Brooklyn Forest, which runs classes for young children in both Prospect and Central Parks, notes that teepees, as she calls the structures her teachers and students daily build and dismantle, require visitors to bend down to enter. Small openings provide “a doorway to imaginative play, and the size of the teepee helps establish a warm, cozy atmosphere,” she says. “The heaviness of the work — dragging or carrying limbs — is good for grounding the children, giving them responsibility.”

Building forts as a group, children figure out how to collaborate and solve interpersonal and spatial problems. “There are so many lessons in this play,” Hedgecoth says. “The children learn to be flexible, they build their confidence, they do math, they make signs with chalk.” Asked exactly how her students play in these self-made spaces, she answers without hesitation: “There is a warlike group that reenacts battles, and then there’s a group that likes to play store. They’re into selling things, like mud pies.”

Violence and commerce, to say nothing of colonialism and cultural appropriation of building styles, hint at less innocent themes. But I choose to ignore these complexities and focus on an immediate good: the kids — whether they know it or not — are forging a connection with nature.

Such connections are good for one’s sense of well-being (a vast literature supports this notion), and they’re good because those who feel connected with the natural world tend to be more protective of it. They may be less likely to litter, for example, or less inclined to harm wildlife. More importantly, for many involved with environmental education, nature lovers are more likely eventually to support — with their actions and their dollars — organizations that help protect or conserve these areas. Including public parks.

Of course, not everyone is pleased with all this creativity. The Prospect Park Alliance, the nonprofit that maintains and restores this landscape, takes a particularly hard line against woodland architecture. “We discourage any activity off trail and behind fences because the park is so heavily visited,” says John Jordan, the Alliance’s director of landscape management, noting that the park gets roughly 10 million visits a year. “The impacts in fort clearings are more than the woods can handle.”

Jordan leads me to the Midwood, a forested tract along the park’s spine, to demonstrate. “There’s no ground vegetation here,” he says of the pounded clearing that surrounds a carefully crafted fort. “No leaf litter, no saplings.” Small mammals flee these areas, he says, and few birds would consider them safe places to rest along their migration, let alone to nest and breed.

For comparison, we survey an area less trammeled by humans, where ferns and other woodland plants sprout from decomposing leaves, home to invertebrates and microorganisms that break down wood and generate soil. “Fort builders also create desire lines,” Jordan says, nodding to a spiderweb of pathways leading through trees to another fort. The paths invite more users and thus more trampling. He assesses a rope tied around a young maple. “This line will eventually girdle the tree,” Jordan says, and choke its water vessels. “If we had time, we’d like to dismantle all the forts in the park’s woodlands. Any day, any time.” It is only lack of staff that prevents him from removing what he calls these “artifacts in the landscape.”

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the park’s designers, themselves erected artifacts — arches, walls, and even “rustic shelters” — in this landscape, which is itself a human construct, carved in the 19th century from farmland previously wooded. I liked to consider the informal shelters built by today’s visitors a continuation of that tradition, and perhaps more authentic for having emerged organically.

Jordan is an affable man, not an obvious hard-ass. He grew up climbing trees and building forts in suburban Southern California. “I get it; it’s Richard Louv,” he says, referencing the author’s Last Child in the Woods, whose subtitle — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder — says it all. “I think that engaging with nature in a hands-on way is healing and calming for people,” he says.

We stoop down to look inside a solidly built shelter with the shape and heft of an overturned rowing gig. Outside, a handmade bench, a swing, and a (somewhat) high ropes course complete the private playland. It’s hard not to be impressed with the effort, the organization, the stabs at regulation (signs read: “No Smoking” and “No Adults”). “Some of the forts are really beautiful,” Jordan acknowledges, then pivots to stay on message. “But this area is not just for humans. It should be a place for indigo buntings and red-backed salamanders.”

There are liability issues too. More frequent and stronger storms, consistent with the effects of climate change, have wracked the park in recent years, and limbs have been cracking. Staff do less tending and trimming in woodlands than along established paths, Jordan tells me. A falling branch could injure a fort builder. So could a fort itself.

I wander the park’s woodchip paths, hunting shelters new and old. Some of the largest constructions, which incorporate tree trunks two feet in diameter, seem to have been grandfathered in by the Parks Department. Recycling and repurposing over the decades has worn their limbs and trunks as smooth as heirloom Lincoln Logs. The structures trigger a variety of associations for me. A rare few, closer to meadows, are spindly and delicate, like the fairy houses that have become something of a scourge on Maine’s Monhegan Island. On the more remote Peninsula, which juts into Prospect Lake, cruder shelters built over enormous logs are more like clubhouses; they’re often surrounded by young men and littered with cigarillo wrappers and liquor bottles. Other shelters have more of an Etsy vibe, with vine-made wreathes and finials. Smaller forts, built rough and quick around a central trunk, send me back to loner-in-the-wilderness Young Adult novels like Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain. Some constructions, with sticks akimbo, evoke the creepy animacy of The Blair Witch Project.

All these associations take flight when I come upon a fort occupied by rambunctious youth, who only ever spark in me atavistic delight. Look! The kids are playing in the woods, and no one has a phone! (Then I remember that Hedgecoth’s students used a log plinth to support a rectangular rock they called their gaming console.)

Jordan and I head through the woods toward Litchfield Villa, the park’s headquarters. We pass through a hard-packed clearing where four toddlers, with two adults, are exploring a veritable teepee village — three forts plus a stick-and-rope jungle gym. Squealing with delight, the children dangle from a swing and dare each other to crawl inside the darkened shelters.

“Wow,” Jordan says, taking in the scene. “I didn’t know this was here. It’s so close to headquarters.” He pulls out his phone and starts snapping photos. “I’m gonna have to call this in,” he says, then hurries off to Litchfield.

When I check back in a few days, the entire village has been razed, its constituent parts scattered among the tulip trees and maples. Without the structures, the forest floor appears denuded, unnaturally empty. But this condition does not last long. Days later, a severe storm blows through Brooklyn, knocking fully leafed branches and entire trees to the ground — fresh armature and cladding for the shelters of tomorrow.

All photographs © Stanley Greenberg 2020

Stanley Greenberg is the author of CODEX: New York, Invisible New York, Waterworks, Under Construction, and Time Machines. Greenberg has had exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and the MIT Museum, and has received grants from the Guggenheim, Graham and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations, NYSCA and NYFA. His next book, The Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, will be published this year.

Elizabeth Royte is the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought It; Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash; and The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest. Her writing on the environment appears in Harper’s, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and other publications.

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

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