Skip to Content

Darkness visible

Photo: Vic Delucia/The New York Times/Redux​

Shadows cast by tall buildings aren’t physical; sometimes they aren’t even visible. But they can still constitute a private intrusion onto public space. This idea animated more than 800 protesters in New York City on a brilliant October day in 1987. Brandishing black umbrellas, they opposed the redevelopment plan for what was then the New York Coliseum, claiming the proposed towers would cast shadows across Central Park. On cue, the protesters opened their black umbrellas, mimicking the towers’ encroachment.

The demonstration, organized by New York’s Municipal Arts Society, was peppered with boldfaced names, including Paul Newman, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Henry Kissinger, and journalist Bill Moyers. Central Park, said Moyers, “is the people’s park, the last great preserve of democracy in the city. It does not belong to the highest bidder.” Developer Mort Zuckerman tried to renegotiate. But the Municipal Arts Society sued, and won, over improperly granted zoning rights, and the project stalled until 2000. Today it is the substantially redesigned Time Warner Center.

Advocates in the umbrella brigade had won a reprieve, but there is a sad coda to the tale. Today at least seven glitzy new towers are planned for the edge of Central Park, some of them predicted to rise 1,400 feet. Tall and thin, they will cast a series of long, straight shadows, rather like prison bars, across the people’s park.

 Renée Loth

The Long, Dark Shadows of Plutocracy from on Vimeo.