The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30

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By Allie Weiss
Hosting artistic explorations for the past three decades, New York City's Socrates Sculpture Park has simultaneously become a haven for the urban community.

Founded in 1986 by sculptor Mark di Suvero, Socrates Sculpture Park was once a wasteland—a plot along the waterfront in Long Island City, Queens, that had become a landfill and illegal dumping ground. Di Suvero, who had a studio nearby, spearheaded an overhaul of the grounds and turned it into a public space for fellow artists to display large-scale, site-specific works.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 1 of 8 - A look at the misused park site before it was transformed by artist Mark di Suvero.

A look at the misused park site before it was transformed by artist Mark di Suvero.

Promoting a varied group of artists has been part of the park's mission and DNA since its conception, but the park has had a range of additional benefits. For one, it's introduced public green space to an industrial neighborhood, creating a vibrant gathering spot in a community that lacked similar outlets. The type of space that the park offers "is becoming rarer and rarer in New York City as the waterfront is developed," explains the park's executive director, John Hatfield. "Increasingly what I’m seeing is very manicured, controlled environments." The city's precedent for park space—the highly planned Olmsted & Vaux design for Central Park, for example—could not differ more from Socrates. At the park, the surrounding buildings—increasingly, tall residential towers popping up along the waterfront—are visible from every angle; there's no forced sense of bucolic pasture. The grass isn't perfectly cut; on a recent visit, patches of mud covered the grounds. It retains an unpolished feeling that seems true to the history of the neighborhood.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 2 of 8 - The park, newly transformed into a public art space in 1986. Mark di Suvero's red-painted steel sculpture, "Old Glory," is one of the pieces pictured.

The park, newly transformed into a public art space in 1986. Mark di Suvero's red-painted steel sculpture, "Old Glory," is one of the pieces pictured.

In some ways, the park's creation three decades ago anticipated the city's extensive efforts to carve out public green space and redevelop the waterfront across the five boroughs. "All cities are looking to make the waterfront more accessible and are looking at underutilized spaces," Hatfield says. "The administration's investment in the outer boroughs is in the demographic of who we’ve always served," he adds.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 3 of 8 - An outdoor cinema night in 1999.

An outdoor cinema night in 1999.

The park aims to be a valuable resource to its local community; most visitors are in fact repeat visitors rather than newcomers, suggesting that the park's neighbors are frequent guests. The park leadership is constantly looking for ways to make each visit valuable to a person who has been there before. Every installation at Socrates is temporary; artists install and deconstruct their works over the course of the exhibition season. Sometimes, the works themselves will change during a season. One current piece, Meg Webster's "Concave Room for Bees," is a landscape work covered in plants and flowers that constantly change color and shape.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 4 of 8 - Installation season in 1988.

Installation season in 1988.

Socrates also partners with The Architectural League of New York for its annual Folly program, which invites emerging architects and designers to submit proposals for a temporary structure that will be built on the grounds. The program gives emerging voices a rare opportunity to realize a structure on a highly reduced timeline compared to traditional building schedules.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 5 of 8 - The park, pictured here in 1986, has a direct view of the Manhattan skyline.

The park, pictured here in 1986, has a direct view of the Manhattan skyline.

On a programming level, Hatfield explains that the park has made an effort to highlight internationally recognized artists alongside newer voices, which is what the park initially did in its early days. Another key goal is to tackle a host of topics, whether climate change, race relations, or economics. Says Hatfield: "We look at what’s compelling and relevant to issues of today—things that are subject matter for artists in the public realm."

By encouraging timely debates and providing an open green space for recreation and respite, Socrates has created a one-of-a-kind forum that suggests a dynamic model for urban landscape.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 6 of 8 - Currently on view, Meg Webster's "Concave Room for Bees" is a topographic work that's made of 300 cubic yards of soil.

Currently on view, Meg Webster's "Concave Room for Bees" is a topographic work that's made of 300 cubic yards of soil.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 7 of 8 - The work is covered with a range of pollinator plants that attract bees.

The work is covered with a range of pollinator plants that attract bees.

The Evolution of an Urban Wasteland: Socrates Sculpture Park at 30 - Photo 8 of 8 - For this year's Folly program, architecture firm Hou de Sousa designed and built a structure out of interconnecting lumber pieces. It serves as a shelter for community-based events.

For this year's Folly program, architecture firm Hou de Sousa designed and built a structure out of interconnecting lumber pieces. It serves as a shelter for community-based events.