Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017
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New York perks

Find dynamic green spaces in one of the world's most urban cities

‘‘There are a lot of words…” said the first man “and some are just ridiculous,” replied the second man. They should know: they were playing pick-up Scrabble in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Some of the words on their boards looked rather suspicious, especially “weakon,” which was eliciting a lot of giggles.

New York City has a surprising number of parks, each with its own character and draw. And, while Central Park may be the prima donna of Manhattan green spaces, it’s the less touristy spots that show the real New York.

Washington Square Park, near New York University, has an edgy intellectual feel, and was a centre for avant-garde writers and artists in the first half of the 20th century. Named for George Washington, its northern entrance is dominated by a Parisian-style triumphal arch, erected first in papier mâché, then in stone, to commemorate the centenary of George Washington’s inauguration as president. In 1917, bohemian intellectuals camped atop it and declared Greenwich Village an independent nation; it didn’t work.

Today, just across from the arch, a mime in a Dick Cheney mask is literally pulling the strings on a mime in a George Bush mask. ‘Dick’ takes a swig from an oilcan, while ‘George’ reads My Pet Goat — upside down. I doubt that it’s going to make much of a difference to the political scene, but it’s fun to watch.

Even the dog runs try to be clever. There are two, one for little dogs, and one, if you’ll pardon my bias, for “real” dogs.

But the real brains of the park are in the corners. Today, the northwest corner is devoted to street Scrabble. There are players of all ages, both men and women. They hold their Official Scrabble Dictionaries the way some preachers clutch their bibles. They sit on concrete benches, in front of concrete tables, focused on hard plastic boards, with timers to one side and notepads (for counting played letters) on the other.

The Scrabble crew is a friendly bunch, but a bit reserved, unlike the chess players in the southwest corner. While some players are dead serious and silent — this area is, after all, the early checking grounds of Bobby Fischer — many seem to think ‘reserved’ is something you do with restaurants.

Some serious chess hustling happens here. Players are mostly men, and bets are often placed — sometimes discretely and sometimes not so discretely. It’s the sort of place where you can hear someone say: “Real men don’t castle.”

It’s a rather odd feeling to have a dapper man in a fedora suavely ask, “Excuse me lady, do you play chess?” Should I feel unclassy because, while I can play rummikub with the best of my grandma’s friends, I have never understood why a knight moves like a drunken frat boy staggering home? Or should I act condescending because I’m being hustled? Very confusing.


Treasure Chess

If you want to play chess without all the emotional complications, two famous chess shops are a short walk south along Thompson Street. These shops catch the overflow from Washington Square.

It all started when Nicholas Rossolimo, an exiled aristocratic Russian grandmaster set up a chess shop in the area in the 1950s. He hired George Frohlinde, a German immigrant, in 1963.

In 1972, Mr. Frohlinde opened his own store , the Village Chess Shop, on Thompson. It sells sets that range in price from a few dollars to several thousand, and you can also play by the hour.

In 1995, one of Mr. Frohlinde’s employees, Imad Khachchan, left to start a place of his own, the Chess Forum, right across the street.

As you can imagine, when two highly intelligent, ingenious chess minds go head-to-head in competition, there can be some pretty tense moments.

Players have had to pick a shop on Thompson Street, and they risk being banned from the one they scorned. Chess-related slurs have been bandied about. Price wars have ensued. There have even been accusations of industrial espionage by peeking in the window to see how many players are in the other shop.

It’s enough to leave you rather stressed, but all you have to do is go back to Washington Square Park. In between the students working on papers, the Scrabble players, the chess players and the political mimes, there are nice cool patches of green lawn under shady trees.

And, if you don’t mind the 12-piece all-guitar band playing endless versions of Stairway to Heaven, you can just close your eyes and drift away, dreaming of knights, kings and castles.


Guerilla Gardeners

There are different types of green spaces in Manhattan. The most obviously fervently tended and cherished are the guerilla community gardens. Many green crusaders have spent time, money and energy fighting city hall and developers for their patch of earth. Often open to the general public on weekends, they are as much a political statement as a place to plant a nice begonia.

There are community gardens all over Manhattan, some more legal than others, but all fanatically loved by their neighbourhoods. For example, there are things going on at the corner of 6th Street and Avenue B in the Lower East Side. Interesting things, odd things and surprisingly green things.

Hemmed in by the now-trendy former tenements is a little oasis, an against-all-odds community garden raised from the ashes of the demolished drugs dens of the early 1980s and then kept safe from the grasp of developers.

This 160-square-metre site was cleared by hand by local residents and now blooms with fruit trees, garden beds, recycled art, a university-designed nature discovery area for kids and regular events that draw thousands of visitors a week.

During a recent visit, I just missed the composting workshop with the Retired Reverend Floyd Young and the Church of Fecundity, but I was lucky enough to catch a bit of an impromptu garden-themed poetry recital.

All-in-all, the New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation (which includes the five boroughs) operates over 1,700 parks, 600 ball fields, 550 tennis courts, 22.5 kilometres of beaches, 13 golf courses, six ice rinks and four zoos. These parks are also being actively defended by local residents as the city and private interest groups seem to want to transform them primarily into money spinners rather than taking into account what locals want.


That Central Spark

The major bit of green in New York is in a category of its own — not only in Manhattan, but in the world. Central Park is one of the most filmed green spaces on the planet, in movies, it is synonymous with romance in the city.

When it was first planned in the 1850s, most New Yorkers lived in overcrowded tenements below 38th Street. When the city put down US$5 million and bought undeveloped land from 59th Street to 106th Street, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, it seemed miles away. There was a lot of work to be done. The area was a rocky swamp. It took over 10 million horse-drawn carts of top soil, trees, plants and building material to start sketching out the shape of the park.

Good parks have a philosophy, and Central Park is a great one. The designers, Frederick Law Olmsted (who later went on to design Mount Royal Park in Montreal) and Calvert Vaux, wanted a park for the people, accessible to all regardless of social class (at the time, the US was still just coming out of the horrors of slavery). They made the park open, but comfortable, with woods, lakes, nooks and even a little castle. It was a gift of whimsy, wilderness and romance for a very overworked city.

Of course, as soon as it looked like it might be a success, many a grubby hand tried to grab a piece of the pie, and over the course of its development, Olmsted and Vaux quit and were rehired many times.

They managed to keep their vision alive, but once they were gone, the park started to slip. Subsequent administrations did their best, or maybe they didn’t. Anyway, by the 1970s, the park was dangerous and vandal-ridden, much like the drug dens found in other areas of Manhattan.

But as happened with that little patch of urban decay at the corner of 6th and Avenue B, residents near Central Park rallied and formed the Central Park Conservancy. It was a bigger park, and it took more money, but the pearl-wearers of the Upper West Side matched the poets of the Lower East Side for dedication and perseverance.

So far they have raised almost US$300 million to restore and operate Central Park. Now the City and the Conservancy work together in a unique private/public partnership to ensure that Olmsted and Vaux’s dream stays evergreen, for everyone.

Given the cost of real estate in Manhattan, every centimetre of the city’s green spaces is a monument to normal citizens, from composting queens to Wall Street brokers, who realize that sometimes, something’s true value isn’t monetary. It’s a breath of fresh air in a very dirty world.

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