The Accidental Playground

Image result for the accidental playgroundDaniel Campo worked for the New York City planning commission in the late 1990’s, a time when NYC was rising from its Death Wish reputation in a climb that hasn’t stopped. Rudy Giuliani was still basking in the glow of his take-no-crap popularity, and with downtown Manhattan almost 100% gentrified, he was setting his sights on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront, with its disused piers and trash-strewn lots. But what was left out of all the hubbub was the fact that the Williamsburg waterfront was no longer the crime-magnet that people thought it was. In the past decade, with struggling artists moving into the area, the waterfront had become a place for skating, music, and performance art.

Image result for the accidental playgroundBy 2000, there were several improvised skate ramps on the “slab,” an old concrete pier. One of them was called the volcano for its odd shape, built with leftover concrete from building projects. For the construction companies, it was cheaper to give away wet concrete than haul it back in the truck, so there was plenty of free material. Some of it was sponsored by skate magazines, because having another skate park (legal or otherwise) would boost their sales (another example of capitalism at its best, Occupy Movement take note.) It was a weekend performance space for bands, fire dancers, jugglers, and just about every street performance imaginable; an urban version of the Burning Man festival.

Image result for the accidental playgroundIn stark contrast to the “hip” reputation of today, Greenpoint was still an industrial zone by 2001. I remember it being safe, healthy (despite the underground oil spills), but with few nice restaurants. The 1990’s Brooklyn is depicted positively in Alex Robinson’s graphic novel Box Office Poison, but in the scenes where they eat out, it’s always a diner or an Italian place. There weren’t any of the cool restaurants that you have there now. If you didn’t mind the simple atmosphere, it was great for artists, musicians, or anyone that needed a place that was cheap, close to Manhattan, and safer than the South Bronx. In those days, Williamsburg’s inhabitants, whether they were yong artists or old working-class Poles, were used to making things themselves. The “slab” exemplified the DIY ethic.

The waterfront that was featured in the movie Hurricane Streets (among others) is mostly gone. It was gobbled up by State Parks and condominiums with views of Manhattan. But thanks to Campo’s unbiased writing, this is a great book of what the city used to be.

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