It's a beach if we say so: Lost scenes from downtown's hipster landfill

(Past Tense): NEW YORK — If you’re not prepared for it, an old photograph of the twin towers can do a number on your heart.

It's a beach if we say so: Lost scenes from downtown's hipster landfill

That’s partly why Fred Conrad’s picture of the sunbathers is so eerie and disquieting: We know something the sunbathers don’t. Something horrific. Something that will unmake, and remake, the world by the time they reach middle age. Conrad, a former Times staff photographer, took the shot in 1977. It must have seemed whimsical at the time — a nod to the eternal war between business and pleasure. Today, it’s surreal, almost post-apocalyptic. It looks like a poster for “Planet of the Apes.”

And that’s not just because the towers are no more. It’s also because of the beach in the picture. There was a beach in Battery Park City?

Technically, the sand wasn’t intended for public use. But Manhattan is not your usual island, and beaches are whatever Manhattanites say they are: sidewalks, tar-paper roofs, the hoods of cars or, in this case, acres and acres of landfill.

In the ’60s, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller announced plans to give the south end of Manhattan a makeover. The original proposal was so exuberant that it could only fail. The city’s design and planning commissions pushed back, to say the least. “The early drawings were appalling — it looked like they were floating Co-Op City down the Hudson,” an unnamed architect told The Times’ architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 1974. Those apartment complexes would radically alter the skyline of lower Manhattan; not surprisingly, they were arm-wrestled over for years. One serendipitous result of the construction delays was the ersatz beach.

The first wave of settlers wouldn’t arrive in Battery Park City until the early ’80s. Until then, the sandy no man’s land west of the World Trade Center was an empty stage, for which New Yorkers had no shortage of ideas. Environmental graphic designers David Vanden-Eynden and Chris Calori, seen in a Times photo by Marilynn K. Yee, liked to take the afternoon to sit in the sun. “There was nothing there yet, and there were spectacular views of the towers and across the river,” Vanden-Eynden said. He and Calori would bring along a parasol, which they’d attach to a broomstick or a tripod so they could raise it over their heads. “We used to be quite inventive in our poverty.”

Some, but not all, parts of the landfill were fenced off from the public. In 1980, the site played host to “Art on the Beach” (the word “beach” being aspirational, since the area was still known as “the Battery Park City landfill”). Sculptor Nancy Rubins, then 27 and new to the city, contributed a cave fashioned from forlorn junk like lamp shades, hoses and small appliances, which she bought in bulk from various Goodwills. “It was very humbling to work at that site,” she said recently. “I was young, and it was so huge.” She remembers how impressed she was by the landfill as a feat of engineering. Rubins’s sculpture ended up being a precursor to a transfixing, 45-foot-tall tornado of junk she built near the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.

In May 1982, conceptual artist Agnes Denes took a contrarian position on the towers and what they represented, installing one of the most iconic public art projects New York has ever seen. “Wheatfield — A Confrontation” was exactly what it sounded like: 2 acres of wheat a block from Wall Street. Denes and a team of assistants planted it over the course of a month. “I worked 16 hours a day,” she told T magazine recently. “I had no money to hire anybody to help me. I had to go home after work finished in the ‘Wheatfield’ and make sandwiches for the volunteers for the next day, because I couldn’t pay them.” Denes wanted to introduce the country’s financial power center to the actual country. Because of her, the Statue of Liberty finally got to see some amber waves of grain.

By the summer of 1983, almost 3,000 people had arrived in Battery Park City to test their mettle in a new world. (Like settlers of yore, they found tremendous natural beauty but nowhere to buy groceries.) By 2000, nearly all of the former landfill had been developed. Shortly afterward, of course, the twin towers fell, and residents were suddenly refugees.

It’s a complicated backstory for a small piece of land.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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