Two New York City media sources recently mentioned that actress Julia Stiles was fond of the Socrates Sculpture Park.
“If you only had one day left,” the interviewer asked, “how would you spend it in New York City?”
Now, when a park or garden ends up on someone’s bucket list, I investigate. It’s got to be special.
And here’s a case where a god forsaken lifeless place came back—and came back with vitality. Take one ugly abandoned landfill site and make it into a park. Why Not.
The Socrates Sculpture Park and Garden is located in Long Island City, NY. What was once a riverside brownfield is now a community magnet where one can spread out a blanket, watch the passing East River and cast dreamy eyes upon the Isles of Roosevelt and Manhattan-upper Eastside.
In 1986 American sculptor Mark di Suvero began with an idea and called it Socrates. Nineteen years later, it is reported, the park was among 406 arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, made possible through a donation by NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Today, in partnership with the City of NY Parks & Recreation and organizations, it is a very active four-and-a-half acre venue. In addition to the rotating exhibits of large contemporary sculpture, there are educational programs, outdoor fitness classes, festivities and more.
A large Earth Day event includes hands-on training and workshops for 500 students to learn weeding, planting and pruning skills—their work finally culminating in the planting of a community vegetable garden in the Park. Hats off to the folks who manage the many groups at this event where the student body numbers 500.
I spoke with Alyson Baker, Executive Director of the Socrates Sculpture Park specifically about the relationship with Plant Specialists, a landscape design firm that oversees the gardening aspects of the park. Baker says this company played a major role in making the beautification of this site possible. Being a brownfield site there was generally poor soil not ready for garden prime time. Plant Specialists helped amend the soil of the landfill site and graciously donated trees, plants, lent expertise and resources. Baker adds “The relationship with Plant Specialists grew as needs came up. Their arrangement for an irrigation system made an incredible impact.”
After much involvement over the years, Baker says “Plant Specialists owner Graham Hubbard went on to become a member of the Park’s Board in 2006. He brought renewed energy . . . and, in addition to the landscaping aspect, worked with us more formally on programming initiatives such as the association with The Baccalaureate School for Global Education and its high school students. Graham also helped us redefine and expand the Park’s Community Works Initiative Program.” This program trains and instructs local unemployed persons in the art of plantings with the intent of securing related employment.
Plant Specialists has been in it for the long haul. T’was no passing philanthropic fling for this company.
Sidebar: Ever the curious one, I asked how the park got its name Socrates. I was told that it was the idea of founder Mark di Suvero. There was a nearby Greek neighborhood culture and also Mark is a big fan of Classical Greek philosophers such as Socrates.
Some may know the term “Socratic paradoxes”—statements that seem contrary to common sense. Quotations attributed to Socrates: I know that I know nothing; No one errs or does wrong willingly; Virtue, all virtue, is knowledge.
Given what at first must have looked not viable—defying common sense, given that past generations may not have known any better about refuse, given that there’s a whole lot of virtue going on at Socrates Sculpture Park—I’d say it’s a perfect name for this park.
Nancy R. Peck