This post is about a visit on May 30th to the newly created, Louis Kahn-designed Four Freedoms Park (FFP) on Roosevelt Island. We were intending to travel to the UN afterwards to have lunch in the Delegates Dining Room and to get a view of the Park from across the East River – but now find that is not possible since renovations are still going on at the UN.
PATIENCE REWARDED: Yes, it often takes a loooooong time to get things done in New York City. But 38 years? Unfortunately, that IS how long it took to create the Four Freedoms Park, announced by John Lindsay with great optimism and anticipation in the early 1970’s. But this brand new addition to that oddball spit of land in the middle of the East River is only the latest change in the history of the island’s metamorphoses. It went from being Blackwell’s Island to Welfare Island to the current Roosevelt Island and had historically been the site of a variety of “welfare” establishments. A penitentiary. A lunatic asylum. A smallpox hospital. But the island’s modern history dates from the late 1960’s when the New York State Urban Development Corporation developed a master plan which focused on residential development. And part of re-visioning the Island from Welfare to Roosevelt was the creation of a park at its southern tip as a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his 1941 State of the Union Address, remembered as his Four Freedoms Speech. Louis Kahn, the modernist-master architect known for his monolithic structures and regarded internationally for his ultra spare, clean designs was brought on board to create his first – and ultimately only – work in New York City.
So, things got off to a great start but – surprise, surprise ! – were waylaid by life and history: Mayor John (“Fun City”) Lindsay got a little distracted by crippling labor strikes, racial tension and riots, white flight and the City’s deteriorating finances. His two successors (Abe Beame and Ed Koch) spent the next two decades dealing with the aftermath of these situations, manifested as New York City’s official, bona fide fiscal crisis – a near-death brush with bankruptcy which ushered in an era of severe cutbacks. Nelson Rockefeller (New York State’s influential, bazillionaire Governor and an ardent supporter of the Park) skipped town to become vice-president. In 1974, a broke and somewhat discredited Louis Kahn died of a massive heart attack while rushing through Penn Station, actually clutching his drawings for the Park in his arms. Throw in at least a couple of national recessions and …. well, it’s surprising that the Four Freedoms Park ever happened at all. … But it did !
There is strong linkage between FDR’s Four Freedoms and the United Nations. By the latter half of 1940 when Europe was at the depth of WWII, FDR used his January 1941 State of the Union address to define the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) as justification for abandoning the United States’ isolationist positions and for “United Nations” (a term he coined in 1942) to fight together against the Axis powers. These essentially became the basic definition for human rights and were incorporated into the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. And in one of the all-time best examples of wartime propaganda, four illustrations by Norman Rockwell – each representing one of the freedoms – were published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943; there was a tour of the original paintings and the images were later reproduced on US postage stamps.
So, fittingly, on a literal basis, you can look at a map and see how close Four Freedoms Park and the United Nations are to each other. The United Nations is the closest and most prominent landmark to be seen from Four Freedoms Park and, in turn, Four Freedoms Park can be seen most clearly from the United Nations. This will be a meaningful, contemplative outing to take in a unique setting, striking architecture, the intersection of ideals and institutions and the notion of human rights. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll also see the first Spring blooms of the Park’s trees and the sparkle of the East River as it whooshes by ! Details: May 30th at 11 am. – meet-up will be about 45 minutes earlier. The group will be limited to 20. Although there is no charge for admission to the Park, you will receive a reservation / payment link for this activity so we can make the suggested contribution to the Park for our tour guide. We will send meet-up specifics closer to the date to those of you who sign up.