Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
A new book invites Bill Clinton, Zadie Smith and more to explain what draws them to their favorite urban green space.
City parks are a balm. They are places for reflection, respite, and rest; they are accessible to all. They are places for us urban folk to be alone, together. In the new book City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, Catie Marron collects intimate essays on 21 great parks in cities around the world, all accompanied by generous, gorgeous portraits of those parks by the photographer Oberto Gili.
Marron, a writer and former chair of the New York Public Library, chose green spaces she loved and knew well—the High Line in Manhattan, D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks, the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris—and also those that, to her, were intriguing strangers—the Maidan in Calcutta, Maruyama Koen in Kyoto, Cairo’s al-Azhar. Many are beautiful and tranquil in the way you expect city parks to be. Some, like the Maidan, are less so. Despite this, even the uglier ducklings are necessary parks—and perhaps precisely because of their shortcomings, even more so.
The lushness and depth of Gili’s photographs are matched by the quality of the words (which isn’t always so in a big book of photos like this). Each essay has its own distinct personality, much like each park does. "It’s a very human book, the scale of it—I didn’t want people to labor with it," Marron tells me from her home in New York, three blocks from Central Park. "The photos will draw you, but the words will keep you. Or at least that’s what I hope will happen."
It’s sure to, with bold-faced names including Norman Foster, who writes about Berlin’s Tiergarten (little-known fact: he flew over it in a Piper Navajo during the Cold War); Colm Tóibín, who assesses the moodiness and madness of Gaudí’s Park Güell, in Barcelona; Bill Clinton, who ruminates on the timeless charms of Dumbarton Oaks, where he and Hillary have often wandered; and Jan Morris, who gives an affectionate appreciation of Trieste’s delightfully civilized little Giardino Pubblico.
Though Marron often passes through Central Park, it’s not her favorite. In fact, she made a conscious decision to omit it, in favor of Frederick Law Olmsted’s other great New York green space, Prospect Park, in Brooklyn (Nicole Krauss writes lovingly of the early mornings there, ruled by dogs), and never looked back. "It’s not an intimate park," Marron says of Central Park. "And it’s the one park that has been written about seriously. I was never at a loss." She prefers the High Line, with all its eccentricities.
I asked Marron for one sharp memory of an experience in a city park that will stay with her forever, and she immediately thought of Rome, where she studied for a semester during college. "I was learning Italian and art history, and we stayed in the nunnery down the hill," she says. "I would walk up the hill, and I would always pass through this orange garden. I was always alone, and it would always be empty." By coincidence, Gili came back from Rome with photos from the very spot; Marron recognized the garden immediately, with its famous view down to St. Peter’s. (Two photos of the garden are in the book—see if you can find them.)
In the collection, perhaps no one writes more movingly of the possibility allowed for in the idea of an urban park—a place to bear witness to history and its long train of events—than Jonathan Alter does of his hometown Chicago and Grant Park, on the night Barack Obama was elected president, on November 4, 2008: "The president was in the park. Amid the throngs, I felt dazed and transported. I was in a beautiful green space, in the middle of a great American city, touching humanity, history, and home."
Here, a selection of parks, and their people:
Writer and cultural critic Ahdaf Soueif writes about al-Azhar in Cairo, and its lasting geography: "Whether you’re caught in the traffic of the motorway or struggling in the heart of the old city, the park is an invitation: a gift, an oasis, a green lung to help you breathe, to help you reorient."
Novelist Zadie Smith writes of a visit with her father to Boboli Gardens in Florence: "Height being the essential sensation of Boboli. Climbing toward it, we felt ourselves to be no longer British rats running round a medieval Italian maze—no, now we were heading up into the clear, entitled air of the Renaissance, to triumph over the ever-moving Duomo, once and for all."
Bill Clinton writes about Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C.: "Explore the grounds a dozen times and you’ll find a dozen fresh pleasures: a quote carved into a stone wall, a design woven into a brick footpath. Poke a bit into the garden’s history and the names you unearth—Edith Wharton, Alger Hiss, Andrei Gromyko—will surprise you as well."
Actress Candice Bergen writes of L.A.’s Griffith Park: "At 4,300 acres, Griffith Park is not a park in a city; it is a city in itself... some part... is used virtually every day of the year for film and television."
André Aciman on the High Line, in Manhattan: "The High Line... is a park that loves itself, its past, and its city. It has all the untamed, disheveled growth you expect to find on any abandoned railway track. The same goes for the tracks themselves."
Simon Winchester on found freedom in the Maidan, Calcutta: "You see people walking alone, expressions of a mysterious inner bliss on their faces. Without the Maidan, I sometimes think, Calcutta would go mad."
All photos by Oberto Gili.