Nature Runs Wild in Greenwich Village

Originally published on September 2, 2015 in Wall Street Journal

Time Landscape, a park at the corner of West Houston Street and LaGuardia Place, is the sort of spot that pedestrians walk by and mostly ignore. The plot of land looks feral, especially in summer when all the flowers and grasses are in bloom, pushing out through the fence. In fact, it’s a work of art representing what the city might look like had it not become a city.

The Greenwich Village space is the work of Alan Sonfist, an artist who creates site-specific landscape projects using native species around the world. He proposed Time Landscape, his first project, in 1965 to Mayor Robert Wagner. He worked on persuading the city parks department until 1978, when the space was finally planted.

The project might never have been accomplished without urban activists Jane Jacobs and Ruth Wittenberg, who championed Time Landscape, said Mr. Sonfist. They even helped select the site, which was strategically chosen on one of the proposed paths of Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway, which Ms. Jacobs famously helped defeat.

“They’re my heroes,” he said. “They put green back in the city.”

When the parks department finally agreed to Time Landscape, officials told Mr. Sonfist that the plants weren’t going to survive.

He adamantly disagreed. “If native species can’t survive,” he told them, “how can humans survive?”

Mr. Sonfist and volunteers planted a few hundred plants, trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers, all found in Manhattan before the Dutch came in the 17th century. All the plants they chose were young and under 6 feet tall at the time.

Mr. Sonfist called contractors and asked for rocks excavated at local sites to add to the space. The soil came from a construction site in lower Manhattan. He was pleased to find native elm seeds, already in the soil, sprouting along with the rest of the space.

The park was planted to show three stages of forest growth, from flowers and grasses to shrubs to a clutch of saplings. After 37 years, the sections are no longer distinct and have matured naturally. One of the stowaway elms is now 40 feet tall.

“It is still in transition,” Mr. Sonfist said.

In 2013, the city council passed a law mandating that the parks department adopt a policy favoring native plants. Jennifer Greenfeld, acting chief of forestry, horticulture and natural resources at the parks department, said the agency started to shift in the 1980s, partially for environmental reasons but also as a boon for New Yorkers.

“It is important for a sense of place for people,” she said. “And it’s important to walk into a forest in New York and feel like you’re in a forest in New York.”

It was one of New York City’s forests that inspired Mr. Sonfist years ago. He grew up in the South Bronx, near the hemlock forest that runs along the Bronx River.

“It was the most magical place to grow up,” he said.

Some of his first artworks were drawings of himself among trees. He originally went into an agriculture program at the University of Illinois, but decided it wasn’t for him. He still wanted to do something with plants, however. He ended up studying art at Hunter College and Ohio State University, where psychologist Hoyt Sherman inspired him to work with landscapes.

His art from Ohio State includes a few dozen sketches of selected blocks around Manhattan showing how he would like to incorporate more nature into each spot. Some are patches of trees or shrubs; others reveal waterways covered by sidewalks.

But Mr. Sonfist isn’t planning any new projects in New York City. During the Bloomberg administration, he came close to uncovering a section of Collect Pond, the city’s main source of fresh water until it was filled in two centuries ago at the site where City Hall now stands. The project fell through. He has proposed other ideas to the city but nothing has worked out.

“I’d rather not fight City Hall,” he said.

And he doesn’t have to anymore. Mr. Sonfist has projects in Los Angeles and Italy that keep him busy and out of New York. What’s more, in the years since creating Time Landscape, he’s happy with the change he sees in the city.

“Exotics became pervasive,” he said. “Now natives are getting a toehold.”