Of Songs And Cities: Listening To NYC's Columbus Park

Mike Lydon's picture

Jane Jacobs once said, "Songs and cities are the best things about us. Songs and cities are so indispensable."

For a long time I thought Mother Jacobs was speaking, as only she could, about two separate, but vital human necessities. Yet after another weekend exploring New York City, I am convinced the two-songs and cities-are inextricably linked. That is, truly great cities play their own songs, and after one listen you can't get them out of your head.

On a Saturday fall afternoon New York City's Columbus Park plays an intoxicating tune, but broadcasts it no farther than the neighborhood in which it originates. Located at the southern tip of Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood, the park effectively functions as a release valve for what may be the city's most frenetic neighborhood. Indeed, while Chinatown screams with a constant rhythm of commercial transaction, Columbus Park hums with a diverse array of leisure activity. As such, the park provides the neighborhood a needed change of key.

Typical Chinatown street scene.

However, this was not always the case. After years of neglect, a 2005 redesign repositioned the park by clearly improving a triad of public space that includes athletic playing fields, an intimate tree-filled square, and a restored multi-use pavilion. In sum, this progression of open space types-active, passive, and monumental-creates a diverse ensemble of site, sound and use. It is a truly great, polyphonic urban space.

With this in mind, it's no surprise that Columbus Park is now the de facto meeting place for a mostly Chinese population that has different cultural needs and expectations than, say, the residents of a tony suburb in Long Island or New Jersey. In fact, in the seminal text, The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg states the most successful third places in America are those located in " ethnic enclaves where generational ties are maintained against that powerful dissolving agent known as the American way of life." As it relates to Columbus Park, such an observation could not be more accurate.

Upon entering the square from the northeast corner, at the intersection of Mulberry and Bayard Street, you may find a small group of gregarious men playing an interesting selection of songs and instruments from their motherland. They call themselves the Columbus Park Senior Orchestra and although their gift to the neighborhood is not amplified, they truly energize this corner of the park.

The Chinatown Senior Orchestra prepares to play another song.

The orchestra's small side stage soon gives way to a main stage located in the central part of the square. Here the steady cadence of Mandarin (could be some Cantonese, too) is intoned by all and men and women separate themselves into factions of activity. For the most part, both groups socialize spiritedly through various board and card games. Nonetheless, the inflections of their voices make clear that both groups are keenly aware of the other. The stage, after all, is a place to see and be seen.

The men of Chinatown.

The women of Chinatown. (Courtesy of Leslie Pariseau)

Behind the stage the open air pavilion provides a wonderful backdrop. From its steps one may watch the stage from a new perspective. From this vantage point the onlooker may note the presence of an audience who keenly listens and observes those who chose to sing on stage. The audience is mostly comprised of people enjoying a quiet respite from the din of neighborhood streets, or casual interlopers taking stock of a well-rehearsed concert that never features the same set list.

From the pavilion, groups of men and their audience can be seen.

Inside the pavilion, men serenade women with invitations to dance, and music is transmitted over a small floor radio. It is more quiet here, but rightly so, as the pavilion seems reserved for reflection and romance. Such elements would serve as a muse to many a musician.

The pavilion offers ceremonial space and a nice backdrop for the stage.

Perhaps what is most appealing about this portion of Columbus Park is its size. It is large enough so that the normal cacophony of city noise dissipates into the roiling banter, music and charm of Chinatown's most loved public space. But it is also small enough so that the symphonic sounds of the square remain intact. It is the perfect venue.

Three men enjoy each other's company and the sites and sounds of the square. (Courtesy of Leslie Pariseau)

South of the square a more diverse clientele- soccer players, fall sky gazing lovers and the homeless-occupy and activate the balance of open space. This section is clearly the largest, but little, if any Mandarin is spoken there. Rather, the athletic fields function as a transition zone to Manhattan's competitive financial district where it seems the only songs being played these days are the blues.

Columbus Park Athletic Fields.

The Huddle. (Courtesy of Leslie Pariseau)

Nonetheless, the fields are well used and the mixture of activity provides yet another layer of instrumentation to what Jane Jacobs would call an indispensable, if not irresistible city song.
Mike Lydon is Principal of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Actions for Long-term Change (Island Press, 2015).


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