The first feeling is one of anticipation. An incline and series of stairs slants away from you to the south, and you’ve been walking already for ten minutes down Roosevelt Island, and here’s yet farther to travel. But the incline isn’t too high, and you can’t see what’s at the top of those stairs. It’s unrealized in your mind what will be seen, because you haven’t arrived. But the park is there.
At the top of the stairs is a sight to make you catch your breath, as a wide expanse of lawn and linden trees stretches far down to the south, with the East River on either side. The obstacles of the incline and the stairs has been overcome, leaving this unbounded space. I was reminded of the Bible verse from Proverbs which says, “In all your ways remember him. Then he will make your paths smooth and straight.” Obviously, Franklin D. Roosevelt was not God, and I think Louis Kahn didn’t think he was, but the New Deal was intended to remove some of the tortured paths and thorns that can afflict people on their road through life, and the sense of attaining a measure of peace at the top of this memorial is a palpable one.
The park was designed by Louis I. Kahn, and project was helmed to completion by William Vanden Heuvel, and the United Nations sits majestically in view of the park, all of which Michael Kimmelman has reported in the New York Times already. On its first open weekend, it seems to have already been incorporated into the rhythms of Roosevelt Island life. A Halloween race/flag-stealing game took place Saturday morning, so park-goers dodged runners in Halloween costumes and those trying to steal the flags attached to their waists as the runners ran north and the park visitors walked south. As soon as two boys reached the top of the stairs, they immediately ran onto the grass and started wrestling each other (the freedom to roughhouse?), and a woman who’d completed the race turned five somersaults on the lawn. In what may be the clearest signs of the park’s acceptance, recreational runners not out for the race incorporated its rectangle into their runs, and another little boy proved that an incline surface is designed for climbing. Awe can come later. The park’s official rules declare this sort of behavior against the rules, but good luck enforcing that.
Another touching gesture in the park is the stone walkway on either side of the lawn. This is the same granite as in the walls and blocks lining the park, but it’s in little tiny pieces that are held together somehow. (Scanning through the park’s memorial book doesn’t turn up any description of this surface.) Perhaps it’s a flight of metaphorical fancy, but this surface seemed to represent America’s citizens, all unique and individual, yet held together. E pluribus unum, from the many, one. But the fact that people are walking all over it undercuts the beauty of such a thought.
Practically speaking, it’s notable that the steps have no ramp on either side for the disabled to use. The ramps extend the length of the lawn, but out of sight. They end at the south end of the park, by the granite cube housing the bust of Roosevelt. There’s no mention that I recall of FDR’s illness in Four Freedoms Park, but the FDR Hope Memorial scheduled to open in 2014 may act as a footnote on this front. Immediately north of the park is a crumbling three-story construction that is either falling down or being kept from doing so by scaffolding, which would go unnoticed in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, but is rather stark here, and even more grim than usual on an overcast day. This is the Smallpox Hospital dating to 1856, which has been closed since the 1950s. Plans are in place to open these ruins to the public at some point.
Rounding out the practicalities, there are no benches in the Four Freedoms Park, but they are plentiful on the walk leading to it from the north, which is also where the restrooms are located. These are not for the faint of heart; mine contained a stainless-steel toilet lacking a seat reminding anyone of a prison TV drama, and a 2-inch bug with evil-looking pincers watched me the entire time. Finding another restroom which did not lack a sink, I found it lacked water. This is less than pleasant.
But these are minor inconveniences for what is a truly moving park and memorial space. I suspect New Yorkers will only make it theirs as the years progress.