Monday, November 26, 2012

Roaming Roosevelt Island: Socrates Sculpture Park

(This is the first installment of a new feature documenting our adventures in and around Roosevelt Island.)

I recently heard that there was a sculpture garden within walking distance of Roosevelt Island, just across the bridge in Queens. So Elliot and I bundled up (it was in the 30s today) and set out to find it.

Our apartment is located very close to the Roosevelt Island Bridge, the only way for cars or pedestrians to leave the isle.

The bridge's midsection can be hoisted up to accommodate large vessels, but the lift is rarely used. Ships mostly pass on the western side of the island, where they only have to worry about clearing the much-taller Queensboro Bridge.

When the bridge opened in 1955, this place was known as Welfare Island. They changed the name in 1973 to honor FDR (and to avoid negative connotations, I assume). The term "welfare," which was once seen as a neutral expression, gained its current reputation in the 1960s.

Once you cross the bridge, you emerge in an industrial district of Queens. I've heard the neighborhood described as both Astoria and Long Island City. (I'm not sure which area has a better reputation from a real-estate perspective.) Either way, it's a bit hardscrabble.

The biggest allure to this area is the Costco, which flanks the East River. It's nice to live within walking distance of a discount retailer, though being on foot makes it hard to transport a jumbo box of taquitos.

The sculpture park, which is open every day during sunlight hours, is right next to the Costco.

The park doesn't feel as polished as some of the sculpture gardens I've visited — say, the one outside the DeYoung in San Francisco or the one in Minneapolis. But, hey, this is Queens. Apparently the site was an illegal dumping ground until 1986.

The sculptures themselves are engaging and exhibit a nice mix of styles.

This piece, called "How I Was Made," is a string of letters that light up in red to form a poem.

"American Hero #4" was a car painted white with two cornrows of synthetic hair.

A series of large mannequins showed snapshots of urban life.

This 13-foot Virgin Mary was made out of birdseed, and it's clearly become a source of sustenance for the local pigeons. (Click here to see what it looked like originally.)

The next photo depicts two installations, though they have some nice interplay. The rowboat is filled with pennies — a reference to the coins placed on the eyes of the dead as they cross the river Styx in Greek mythology. (The dead in the East River are more likely to be found with cement shoes.) The 10-foot inflatable Buddha, meanwhile, is meant to evoke kitsch, though it seemed very solemn from this viewpoint.

This copper crown was Elliot's favorite sculpture, perhaps because of its Burger King allusion (though I don't recall ever taking him to Burger King).

Elliot was even more enamored with a big pile of dirt and rocks situated near the park's entrance. I don't think this was an actual sculpture, but artists seeking mainstream appeal should take note. I literally had to drag him away from it.

Afterwards, we went to the Costco food court and split a sundae.

Since the sculpture garden is free (and the trip didn't even require a MetroCard), the entire excursion was $1.65.

That's a pretty cheap date by New York standards...or anywhere standards.