Nautilus

The Wild, Secret Life of New York City

Early this summer I met a friend for breakfast at a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While waiting for him to arrive I spent some time staring at a lot next door—a vacant lot, as the spaces are called, but also the block’s one concentrated patch of greenery. It was scraggly and unremarkable, but a welcome respite from the neighborhood’s densely packed brownstones and sunbaked pavement.

Afterward we walked to the old Domino Sugar factory, located on the banks of the East River, a once-industrial zone that’s passed through gentrification and into the luxury development phase. Near the factory was a small park, previously the site of another vacant lot. On it the local hipsters had erected a giant teepee, outside of which a young woman explained that the park would soon be replaced by condos. When the bulldozers came, she hoped the teepee could be raised elsewhere. There was a vacant lot nearby, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and South 4th Street. “Right now,” she said, “there’s nothing there at all.”

As it happened, that was the lot I’d just been enjoying. And while there were no buildings on the lot, and plenty of space for a teepee, there was certainly not nothing there. Compared to its surroundings, it was positively bursting with life: a pocket grassland where the hand of human development had skipped a beat. It was even a bit wild, a space where life exists independently and spontaneously, rather than being paved under or converted to some approved purpose.

It’s natural for us to elide the existence of what we don’t notice, but when we do, we cultivate our own subtle form
of emptiness.

The young woman could hardly be blamed for not noticing it. Not many people do. We are in the habit of seeing untended nature as a sort of blankness, awaiting human work to fill it. It’s right there in the name: vacant lot. A place where spontaneous life is invisible, or at best considered so many weeds, the term used to lump together and dismiss what thrives in spite of our preferences.

It’s natural for us to elide the existence of what we don’t notice, but when we do, we cultivate our own subtle form of emptiness. In cities, so-called vacant lands account for a sizable portion of our urban space: roughly 15 percent in most cities and about 6 percent in New York City. That’s a whole lot of life

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