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Posts from the ‘Preservation’ Category

Why We Do What We Do

I was doing some photographic work in Elm Park, in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts earlier this week in spite of the heat.  While in pursuit of a particular shot, a couple walked by, disgruntled apparently, and began to complain about the cost of renovating the Park.  I wasn’t quite sure what I did to deserve that, but the experience gave me pause.  As I’ve described in this blog before, the Park, one of America’s oldest, was getting to be quite shabby.  In spite of my love for the shabby, clearly an update was in order.  Updates do cost money.  Addressing that issue first, as a business school professor, I would also add that a major American city without a nice park downtown is going to take a severe commercial hit.  Parks are good for business, believe it or not.  Elm Park is no exception.  But I understand that money is tight for many people and certainly they’re free to question this particular investment.

I’ve been trying to make the case with images like this one that the Park has a value beyond the commercial.  This common ground, open to everyone who cares to go there, represents an experience that matters.

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At the same time, I’ve been reading a book by Lenswork Editor, Brooks Jenson.  In The Creative Life in Photography, he raises a number of good questions about the connection between art and experience.  As he points out, useful art often asks more questions than it answers.  Why did I choose to present the Park in this way?  Why did I choose to use an infrared camera to capture the image instead of doing a typical color shot?  I think one has to choose a media that somehow captures the experience in question and hopefully communicates it to others, but that process is fraught with ambiguity.  Infrared and more generally monochrome, what we used to call black and white, has a particular strength when it comes to capturing design.  It’s good at capturing shape.  The design of a Park, if you will the lines and shapes of the shore, the bridges, the paths, the trees and the few buildings are laid out in fashion that is visually powerful, regardless of the season.  This is not lost on those who design parks, artists themselves.  None of this is done by accident or on a whim.  Compare this scene to an open flat field.  An open flat field may be relatively inexpensive to create and maintain, indeed.  Those are good places for ball games, to be sure.  Of course, the north end of Elm Park includes a playground, but that’s a bit different from the purely open field.  Most of the Park is laid out for something else.   I believe that purpose is in part to help us collect our thoughts.  In a park such as this you’re in the city and not at the same time.  It is a different world, if only for a brief moment.  Is it worth it?  It is to me.  Of course, your mileage may vary.  Stay cool.

Happy July 4th at Elm Park

Happy July Fourth to those from the United States.  It’s a day to relax but also remember.  I wanted to take this occasion to provide a brief update on one of my most memorable places, Elm Park in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts.  It is one of the oldest Park’s in the United States. I’ve blogged about the park many times, most recently about the experience of being forgotten there, as illustrated by the state of some of the more contemplative locations at the Park.  It made for interesting photography but poor park upkeep.  Then, low and behold, in the middle of that project, the City, State and Feds came to the rescue and began a significant restoration of the park.  I’ve continued to photograph the changing nature of Elm Park as the reconstruction, in the north-east corner at this point, continues.  I have to admit, it has taken some getting used to.  I had grown quite fond of the shabbiness of the old dowager, but that won’t make for a viable and livable inner city.

The process has created a number of interesting visual opportunities, in and of itself.  Rebuilding is co-existing with on-going use of the Park where that can be done safely.  (Click on the images for a better view.)

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There are significant signs of progress.

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Those familiar with the Park will know this scene.  The stones along the shoreline are new.  Children used to feed geese on the sand here, there was no clearly demarcation of the Pond.  That may seem kind of nice and wonderful on the surface except it’s bad for the geese and the Park.  It always used to bug me that such behavior would take place right under a big sign that says “Feeding Wildlife is Harmful to the Wildlife and the Park.”  But I digress.  The construction has also provided an opportunity to see the detail that goes into making a park work.  Did you ever wonder why all those trash cans are never stolen?  Here’s the reason…

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That is one big base.  Invest in trashcan stability in major urban parks.  You cannot go wrong.  The lighting is also changing.  Previously, there had been rather attractive lighting in the Park.  It was sparse and rarely turned on.  Now lights are being added throughout.  With the exception of some very tall structures around the north pond, most will I think fit right in with the history of the park.  Some are up now, but not turned on yet and as such, not particularly good photographic subjects.  This will give you an idea, however.

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So the work continues and I’ll try to provide more imagery in the future.  It is difficult to document a project like this with a fine art eye.  It may be that only the final product will do justice to the intangible experience of the Park, an experience that those of us who love it will always value.

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It is so easy to think that “common” areas such as parks have no place in our individualized society. It’s also easy to dis the government for nearly everything.  These commons, such as Elm Park though provide the touch points for a society.  That remains as important as it always has been.  So thanks to those who are maintaining this particular touch point.

The Tree the Apple Didn’t Fall Far From (If you follow)

I’ve been once again off the grid, preparing for an upcoming exhibition of Quabbin related work that will be opening shortly.  I’ll be posting more information in the next day or two.  Meanwhile, I had time for one small and for me somewhat different effort:  the photography of a single tree/icon. Here’s the story.

Roger Babson was an interesting gentleman.  He was the founder of my employer, Babson College, so I have a bias toward him from the get go.  One of his many interesting, shall we say interests, was in Sir Isaac Newton.  Passion would not be too strong a word, in fact, it may not be strong enough.  He was particularly impressed by Newton’s Third Law of Motion:  For every action there is an equal and opposition reaction.  The Third Law applies in a vacuum it should be said.  (Doesn’t that remind you a bit of modern day politics?  But I digress.)  He actually did predict the Great Depression, utilizing insights gleaned from the Third Law.  (And to his credit, I don’t believe he predicted any other depressions, so he had an excellent batting average.)  Not far from my office in Tomasso Hall you can find a carefully tended tree that in fact is a descendent of the apple tree in Newton’s garden. Alas, it is now quite old and dying if not dead.  Fruit trees don’t live forever and this one has outlived it’s normal life span, probably because it has been so carefully nurtured.  The tree has had many fans, including myself.  It’s presence has provoked contemplation and reverie in a context that is too frequently overpowering.  It will be missed. However, I’m pleased to say that Babson recognizes the value of legacy and history and, some time ago a program was put in place to assure that the future descendents of the tree will have a good home.  The celebration of the creation of a new grove of Newton Apple Trees will take place this coming Friday for anyone interested.  You can read about it here .  It is taking place as part of Babson’s observance of Earth Month.

So here’s to the future Sir Isaac.  We appreciate having you and your trees along for the journey.

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This image was taken as a gift for our soon to be retiring President, Len Schlesinger.  Len has done a fine job in his six years at Babson, and he will be missed.  Tech:  The image was captured on an IR converted Nikon D700.

Things are Looking Up at Elm Park

Over the past few months we’ve been heading out to Elm Park, in Worcester, MA, to photograph the state of the park benches and other aspects of the “contemplative infrastructure” there.  Their state of decay seemed to provoke the imagination with thoughts of age, and loss, and what seems like the inevitable link between the two of them.  Elm Park, initially created in 1854 along with Central Park in New York provided an excellent background for such a metaphor, given it’s age, significance and apparent decay.

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While this work was very personal, the implied criticism is hard to miss.  I’ve been photographing in Elm Park for a decade and for the most part, have found it to be a compelling if not wonderful spot. Well, as we were about to leave on the 13th, we noted a construction fencing company putting down their wares around a substantial chunk of the north side of the Park, near Highland St.  Indeed, work was about to begin on the renovations of the Park.

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You can read about the work, and the challenging of fund raising for the work, here.  The City doesn’t have all the money they’d like to for the project, but they are going ahead.  If there is one thing I’ve learned from my entrepreneurship colleagues at Babson College it is begin with the resources you have, take action. Makes sense to me.

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Elm Park is a regional if not a national treasure.  Age and decay are not inevitably linked.  Though the broken benches certainly provide artistic stimulation, we’ll be far better off with a Park that serves the next generation.  I’m reminded of the recent findings from the Mars rover, Curiosity.  It seems very likely that Mars once had an atmosphere and surface that would actually support life.  That is not the case today.  They’re now looking for signs that could explain what happened that resulted in the decay of the atmosphere.  (Do you suppose the signs might say, “Filling Station?”:)  Thanks to the City and the private donors who are taking action to preserve the future.

And the Snow Came

Captain Nemo has come and gone.  Not a great name for a storm in my view. Nevertheless, in Worcester, MA we got a bit over two feet of the white stuff to deal with.  While I did get out into the storm for a bit, the images were so so at best.  The action as we all know, came in the middle of the night and when it came, it really wasn’t safe out there.  The Governor of the state made the right call, so most of us made it through.  I have continued to work on the Elm Park project, which I blogged about last month.  The images here were taken after a more moderate snow fall, a few weeks back.  They do illustrate one of the challenges associated with maintaining contemplative infrastructure in our area:  the weather.

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Perhaps their design of wood and cast iron was just not meant for our area.  After all, that wood is going to take a beating.

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Perhaps in fact the design is an anachronism, a throw back, I thought.  So, I asked a bunch of young people, College students in a Sustainability course.  I put it to them:  Pretend I’m the head of the Parks Department.  Tell me what I should do.  Should we give up on this and try a different design?

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Interestingly, they had many good ideas, but didn’t like that one, at all.  (Except maybe trying pressure treated lumber.)  And my group of students included a sizable number of engineers, folks who love to create new technology.  Nope they said, given the history of the Park and the feel of the Park, this is the design they should maintain.  I was interested to note their understanding of the relationship between our history and our human needs. So how do we deal with this so that the benches are ready to go with the snow leaves us?  Hard to say.   I have noted that this is one of  the least searched on blog posts I’ve written in some time.  I don’t think the problem is the photography, at least I hope not.

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Tech note:  Speaking of old designs, these were all shot on film.