Angel of the Waters

New York seems, to me, to differ from other major world cities in the recyclability (is that even a word?) of its symbols — especially its architecture and public art. To get what I mean, consider the Louvre by contrast. You experience it as an art museum, and yet if you’ve given your tour book even a glance you’ll realize that it was once a royal palace. That history is somehow preserved, Revolution be damned: the new uses attached to the building don’t really aim to erase old meanings.

New York, though, is notoriously forgetful, willfully ahistorical. Its oldest remaining building, St. Paul’s chapel on lower Broadway, barely predates the American Revolution. New York’s history is one of creative destruction — pull down the old to make way for the new — and even the bits that somehow manage to escape the wrecking ball more often than not find old meanings detached and new ones assigned. The somewhat tacky lighthouse that greets tourists flocking to the South Street Seaport was paid for by the citizens of New York, by subscription, to memorialize the Titanic’s dead.

To read the rest of this week’s post click here. Feel free, though, to return with your comments when you’re done!

18 responses to “Angel of the Waters”

  1. Rachel says:


    I LOVE these ideas in your post, and am especially glad that you devoted special attention to that fountain, which I have wanted to learn more about. Thank you so much for the history. But I have to disagree with you about NYC vs. “other world cities” and the recyclability of public landmarks, art, and space. It’s true that America is obsessed with appropriation and reinvention, but the cities that I’ve visited live with and in their art/history in a very contemporary sense, as well. Rome uses the Baths of Caracalla to stage summer rock concerts, and the Imperial Forum to screen movies. Paris dumps tons of sand along the Seine in front of the Louvre in August and calls it a beach! I know these aren’t exactly the kinds of transformations you have in mind, but these are cities with thousands of years of history. Maybe for a couple hundred years they were in their cultural prime, and we remember them mostly for that. In a long timeline, all U.S. cities are still in their first epoch, and the Renaissance is still to come (cross fingers).

  2. I agree with you completely about the disadvantage of American cities’ youthfulness, and I’m glad for the counterexamples you offer. But even in the way you present them you reinforce the core of my point, I think: We know what these sites once were, why they were built, what they were supposed to be — even if they get used in ways that meet contemporary society’s needs. I think it’s striking, by contrast, that the origins of the statue/fountain often referred to as “the heart of Central Park” or even “the heart of the city” — something dedicated barely over 100 years ago — are already in dispute. I know its magnificence is pretty minor compared to the other landmarks we’re talking about, but I do think it’s symptomatic of NY’s failure of public memory or its ongoing impulse toward reinvention, whichever way you want to look at it.

    On other matters: what about that Thoth? Has anyone else seen him perform. I’ve seen him twice, under very different circumstances, and man does that guy pack a punch with his “prayformances.” The first time I saw him all I could think to say was “Thank you” afterward. He turned around and said, “Who said that?” I nodded and he thanked me back.

  3. An interesting post, and I too was glad to learn more about the history of the fountain. But I’m having trouble understanding the relationship between the first two paragraphs and the rest of the post — how does this story about the fountain exemplify New York’s ahistoricity? Because people have forgotten that the fountain was built to commemorate the completion of the aqueduct? Did the Civil War story originate with Kushner or he got it somewhere else?

    If what you’re getting at is that people see public monuments and make them part of their own lived space without thinking about what they commemorate, I think that is quite common at least in American cities. Don’t know about Europe.

  4. Because people have forgotten that the fountain was built to commemorate the completion of the aqueduct? Did the Civil War story originate with Kushner or he got it somewhere else?

    Yeah — because something as significant as the aqueduct (or the use of Central Park’s reservoirs to contain the city’s drinking water) are so easily left behind, as if the city that remains has no meanings outside the present moment. It may very well be common to American culture generally, or may just be something that happens in other parts of the world. But I think it’s ramped up here (in NYC) in part because of the tendency to tear things down and replace them almost without thinking. Think about how much of Philly’s old Center City remains pretty much an 18th-century place. By contrast, there are three or four eighteenth-century buildings left in Manhattan. Any number of cemeteries have been paved over. Monuments even to major tragedies are forgotten.

    I don’t know where the story originated. Kushner probably picked it up somewhere and the popularity of the Burns documentary (and the book that accompanies it, which also contains the story) helped solidify it. The relationship between the fountain and the first two paragraphs was simply meant to solidify the point that even well-known monuments have origins that can be quickly obscured as they receive other associations — in this case, with Kushner’s play — that overtake original meanings in the public mind.

  5. Just for fun: Here’s a picture of the old Seamen’s Church Institute, South St and Coenties Slip, in the early 1920s, with the Titanic memorial lighthouse atop. Here it is in its current location as the gateway to a shopping mall.

  6. rm says:

    bryan, here’s a thought from way out west:

    i don’t see new york as quite so ahistorical, to give only one example, at least you have such a civic center/history/monument to be negotiated. that l.a. is “the most photographed and least remembered city” in the world may be a bit too easy but nyc stands closer in relation to the european capitals you mention in terms of the narrative that has been created around some of its institutions (crane’s bridge, etc.) while we have hollywood, some interesting but marginalized history regarding specfic ethnic communities, and not a whole lot else. mind you, i think that works for us in many ways but while the angel of the waters may be new and contested to some degree i can’t think of an equivalent public symbol that similarly defines us.

  7. Rogan says:

    Thanks for the Thoth clips. The guy is pretty amazing. It was sad to see his work so poorly received on that lame talent show, but the clip from Central Park is transcendent.

  8. That Thoth guy IS pretty amazing. He’s amazing only in his context, though. In a talent show, he looks ridiculous, and if you watch the clip without any sound (as I first did) he looks pretty ridiculous too. It’s only with the sound and in that surrounding that it works.

  9. Dave says:

    In person Thoth is definitely amazing, and I suspect he would be no matter the location. But the arcade near the fountain does add something.

  10. bw says:

    What, no shout outs for Godspell? Those scenes are pretty amazing.

    6: points well taken. it could be worse.

    7: i’ve had this post — or a version of it — in mind for about a year, since the last time i finished teaching the same class. i knew i wanted to include thoth, and somewhere (though i couldn’t find it last night) have saved one of the little pamphlets he passes out. but it wasn’t until last night that i realized he’d been on one of those stupid reality shows. it was so depressing i almost couldn’t write the post. the worst part of the clip is that david hasselhoff, in all his plastic, brainless superficiality, serves as the center of critical gravity. how sad is that? what kind of a society do we live in? it’s like having george w bush for a president! oh, wait …

    8: i think he only looks ridiculous in that context because the context itself is so ridiculous, which is probably why bethesda works so well for him.

    i had wanted to include, in this post, the scene from cunningham’s specimen days where the little guy (the main character from the first story) meets walt whitman, who sends him on a quest uptown that leads to the fountain, which is at one horrifying (he imagines the angel will swoop down and pick him up like a mouse) and wonderful: he sees the stars through the frame of the angels arms or wings. it’s one of the best moments in that book.

  11. bw says:

    i should add, too, that i’m not certain kushner and burns are wrong. but as much as i could do online last night — google books, the databases my school subscribes to, the Times online, etc. — only could yield the Croton account. the only mentions of the naval dead i could find post-date the Burns film. they did release a book along with the film, and i plan to track it down tomorrow (its preview is severely limited on amazon and google) and see what’s the source for their bethesda account.

    i’ve taught it their way half a dozen times. it will be interesting to mess around with it if it turns out they were going off half-cocked.

  12. bw says:

    pardon another non sequitur, but i mean — tell me this doesn’t go straight to your heart, mr. godfree.

    okay. back to reading student essays.

  13. PB says:

    It was so interesting reading this post, Bryan.
    Just last week I was walking around downtown Indianapolis which was designed by a junior member of the same city planning team that designed Wash DC. The city features a circle drive in the center of downtown with a truly enormous civil war memorial in the middle of the circle. This memorial serves no purpose other than to be huge and complicated – dead men, warlike Athena-looking women, cannons, guns all jumbled in tiers of stone and flags and plaques. I stared at it for a while – trying to figure out what I thought of it. Was I moved? Was it an eyesore? Was it transcently relevant, archaic, patriotic? I don’t know. I wanted desperately to feel something – it is so big and intentioned and historical. But I was at a loss.
    It seems any great public space is like a cement poem – it should have some sort of transmutability in the eye of the beholder. To take up that much view, I would hope it would function as many things to many people – as art or a picnic spot. I always think of the Vietnam memorial in which you see your own face reflected behind the names of the people who have died. Literally you are part of the monument. I am certainly not well versed in New York landmarks – but I love the angel whether for aqueducts or Kushnir or hippie Jesus – it seems to be changing conceptually without changing actual shape. It has perhaps survived the tendency to tear down because it continues to be meaningful. Does that make me a bad historian? Maybe – but the alternative, some big hunk of dated, depressing bronze and stone in indianapolis, is not very appealing either. As long as our angel still inspires stories – is any one story better than the other? It there a true that is truer? Isn’t reinvention and relativity the essence of NYC?

  14. PB says:

    yikes, that did not look as long in my head.

  15. How would Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn fit into your schema, BW? If you ask the question, in your best David Byrne voice, “What kind of a memorial is this?”, it is difficult to avoid arriving at the answer that it’s a memorial to the Civil War dead, probably a group of same who came from NYC; but when you are walking around it every day (as I did when I lived in the neighborhood), that status is probably not going to even touch your consciousness.

  16. (And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful park!”
    And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful co-op apartment!”
    And you may ask yourself, “Well… How can I afford to live here?”)

  17. 15: I wonder if a lot of people see Grand Army Plaza and think: “Ooh! That’s kinda French!” I know a lot of people who are somewhat surprised to realize that Washington Square is named after George Washington and that Washington Square Arch was built to commemorate the centennial his inauguration as president. I think, again, a lot of people go: “Ooh! That’s kinda French!”

    You and Pandora both have made me realize the post was a little schizo in its approach: it recycling symbols a good or bad thing? I think the loss of historical memory is a bad thing, but I think creating ongoing meaning out of past associations is generally a good thing. I had long thought of Kushner’s playing on the Civil War and Croton meanings both inspired for that reason; I’m still curious to know where the Civil War story came from.

    oh, and SCOTT: you haven’t acknowledged my shout out in 12. I’m hoping you’ll help me reenact that song sequence (the rest of you are invited too) next time you’re in town.

  18. Scotty says:

    Black ‘n’ White (or Bryan to those new to the Whatsit): Given Jesus’ quasi-Superman tee, we know which one of us will be playing the savior for our reenactment. However, I want you to know that I will use the silver that I received for betraying you to buy some rounds at Fresh Salt.

    And together we will build a city of man. You bet your sweet ass on that!