Monday, November 26, 2007


When I was a kid, Indiana Jones was my hero. James Bond, Bruce Wayne, and Clark Kent were all well and good, but I could imagine nothing cooler than hours of research followed with hours of fieldwork, as I pursued the world's greatest treasures, a pack of fiendish Nazi rivals hot on my heels. I knew exactly who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Somewhere between then and now, a few things went awry. I never quite got around to learning Aramaic, Hebrew, or even Latin, and my few experiments with bull whips nearly cost me an eye. I must admit that I look very cool in a fedora, but I avoid khaki pants with a passion, having been forced to wear them in High School.

While my career path has not brought me to foreign lands, I have never lost my love of discovery. When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, I spent hours traveling to Civil War and Revolutionary War battle sites, poking around ruins, and imagining the events that unfolded there. When I moved to Southwest Virginia, my interests switched to neglected railway tunnels and overgrown mining settlements, both of which were common in my area. I would wander the woods and trails, noting signs of neglected habitations and trying to imagination what the area had looked like before it was abandoned.

I thought that I'd have to give up this hobby when I went to New York. After all, in a city with millions of citizens, how could there be any areas that were abandoned or neglected? Surely, every inch of land must be constantly used and reused, adapted to the changing purposes of the community!

Surprisingly, I have not found this to be so. Sometimes, New York seems like a city without a memory. It has numerous little parks and hidden treasures that have been ignored, abandoned, or forgotten. Even when these little spots have been remembered, as is the case with Poe Cottage, there seems to be a total lack of understanding about what they symbolize or why they are noteworthy.

I've coined a term for my park explorations: Parcheology. This is the study of forgotten civic spaces. It focuses on areas that were once famous, and which city planners, officials, and citizens once spent millions of dollars developing. These spaces were fads: incredibly popular for a time, they have long since been consigned to the rubbish pile of history. Wandering around them, I've learned a lot about what people once considered vital and important. Although tastes have moved on, these places have stayed. They aren't really meaningful anymore, but they exist as mementos of forgotten eras, and they allow us to relive our cultural history.

Some Parcheology spots that I've already covered include The Hall of Fame of Great Americans, Poe Cottage, The Bronx Community College Library, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Grant's Tomb. However, the mother of all Parcheology spaces is the World's Fair at Flushing Meadow, Queens. The site of both the 1939 and the 1964 World's Fairs, Flushing Meadow was a huge trash dump until Robert Moses decided to reclaim it.

Moses spent a fortune to create the ultimate exhibition space, an area that showed New York's optimism would cement its position as one of the World's greatest cities. After the fair, many of the buildings were demolished, and fairgrounds were allowed to lie fallow.

A few decades later, several prominent businessmen had fond childhood memories of the Fair. Wanting to recreate it for a new generation, they approached Robert Moses. He had lingering disappointment over what he perceived as the failures of the first fair, so he began planning for the next one.

Several years and millions of dollars later, the 1964 New York World's Fair was ready for the public. Featuring pavilions from countries around the world, the fair focused on the idea that the world is becoming much smaller, even as the Universe seems to expand. After two years, however, the fair closed and most of its exhibits were demolished. The fairgrounds were once again allowed to fill up with grass, and the few remaining structures were permitted to deteriorate. A few statues, a few buildings, and the occasional piece of art remain, letting the viewer imagine the grandeur of the World's Fair.

The central structure of the World's Fair was the Unisphere. Twelve stories high, it weighed 900,000 pounds, and was created by U.S. Steel. Surrounded by a ring of fountains that were designed to obscure its base and make it look like it was floating in space, it had three rings suspended around it. The rings represented Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, and the first communication satellite to orbit the Earth. All of this was illuminated by a state-of-the art light display.

The light display has long since stopped functioning, and the Unisphere is starting to look a little tarnished. A few years ago, the State spent a lot of money to clean it up and get it running again. From some angles, it's beautiful; from others, it looks a little sad. It has plants growing in some spots and the fountains don't work any more. Still, it is huge and impressive at a close range.

The Unisphere, and its surrounding pool, are now the preserve of skaters. They're generally friendly and seem willing to share the space. On my second visit, I climbed up the base of the Unisphere and took some pictures. It was scary, but exciting, and I got to touch both Antarctica and South America.

One final note: from the U.S. Open Tennis pavilions, the Unisphere is a shiny, beautiful sculpture, glowing as it floats above a perfectly landscaped garden:

From the other side, it's dingy and tired-looking:

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  • When I was a kid I was madly in love with Indiana Jones. Yes I also wanted to be a great historian and now all grown up nothing has changed.
    I am a ddicted to anciant myth and sybology.
    I hear that they are making a new Indie movie and that Harrison Ford will even be staring in it

    By Blogger Nosjunkie, At November 26, 2007 at 12:15 PM  

  • I love this Parcheology idea.

    By Anonymous Franki, At November 26, 2007 at 12:48 PM  

  • Nosjunkie-
    That's the word. I'm excited, but also a little nervous--Ford's getting up there, and I'm a little worried about his ability to do everything that the role will require.

    Still, it's pretty exciting!

    It's fun to think about, isn't it? DC's another great spot for it.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 26, 2007 at 1:23 PM  

  • great perspective!! How can anyone not love Indy??

    By Blogger Claudia, At November 26, 2007 at 4:01 PM  

  • I like how the World's Fair featured a prototype of a space rocket that included ashtrays. Brilliant.

    You remind me of my historian buddy who just won't shut the fuck up about Gen. Patton.

    By Blogger M@, At November 26, 2007 at 6:11 PM  

  • You need a little Asian kid to follow you around....

    By Blogger M@, At November 26, 2007 at 6:11 PM  

  • Claudia-
    I know! Indy is, far and away, the coolest cultural icon of my childhood.

    Even cooler than Han Solo.

    Matt 1-
    I still have to go to the Science Museum, where they supposedly still have the rockets. As for the rest, well, I'm on a history roll--just need to ride it out.

    I'm trying to get my daughter to follow me around, but she's not having it.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 26, 2007 at 8:29 PM  

  • I'm little and Asian and will follow you around a bit. Does that help?

    By Anonymous Franki, At November 26, 2007 at 9:43 PM  

  • Parcheology. Very very cool.

    I attended the 1964 World's Fair on the last day. It does seem as if they could have kept some restaurants going, and perhaps other things as well.

    Be sure to visit Coney Island soon because it is either being sold or HAS been sold to a private developer, and the amusement park will be no more. So many people will no longer have access to the ocean beach, and I think it's terribly sad. A huge piece of New York history is there, about to die.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At November 26, 2007 at 10:55 PM  

  • Also, have you been to The Cloisters? Grant's Tomb?

    More suggestions as I think of them. :)

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At November 26, 2007 at 10:56 PM  

  • Franki-
    I am sooo in need of a little asian sidekick. The job is yours if you want it.

    Hearts 1-
    Coney Island is one of my favorite spots. I'm not convinced that the apocalyptic predictions that everyone is making will, indeed, come true. In the latest plan, the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, and the Parachute Drop will all stay, and there will still be beach access. We'll have to see what happens.

    And I'll have to put up a Coney post or two.

    Hearts 2-
    I haven't been to the Cloisters yet, but have visited Grant's tomb a couple of times. In fact, I covered it in Friday and Saturday's posts!

    Please keep the ideas coming!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 26, 2007 at 11:42 PM  

  • Oops. I must have missed them or else I'm having memory lapses.

    Going there now.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At November 27, 2007 at 8:01 PM  

  • Sigh, I actually went to the 64 world's fair in Flushing Meadows. I still have the brochures I picked up about the brave new world of tomorrow where we would have all plastic houses that we could hose down to clean. Glad that didn't work out.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At November 28, 2007 at 7:37 AM  

  • Sigh, I actually went to the 64 world's fair in Flushing Meadows. I still have the brochures I picked up about the brave new world of tomorrow where we would have all plastic houses that we could hose down to clean. Glad that didn't work out.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At November 28, 2007 at 7:37 AM  

  • Hearts-
    Still, thanks for all the suggestions!

    I am incredibly envious. Looking at all the information online, it seems like an amazingly idealistic glimpse of the future!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 30, 2007 at 1:49 PM  

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