300 East 85th Street

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Two older men are overheard in spirited debate: “You can pass judgment on his record,” asserts the first. “That’s what you meant to say, not what you said,” rejoins the second. Welcome to this residential plaza at the southeast corner of Second Avenue and East 85th Street, a neighborhood hangout and place for dynamic discussion. At any moment, there may be 20 persons, mostly retired, sitting on the ledges of the two T-shaped planters in the primary space on East 85th Street, gossiping, criticizing, consoling, and doing the other things that forge bonds among neighbors and friends in an urban residential environment. Although the space receives most of its sunlight in the morning, it stays popular through the day and into the evening. As one older user summed up, “This space brought a lot of people out . . . [we] used to stay in [our] apartments [and now we may stay here] up to three hours.” The most distinctive physical attribute of the space is the bright red metal sculpture that resembles one of Claes Oldenburg’s oversized clothespins, only slightly deconstructed. The artwork may be enjoyed on its own terms, but it may also be understood in urban design terms as a mnemonic device cueing individuals to remember and appreciate, functionally and psychologically, where they are in the city, without resort to the quantitative geography of the street grid. Meet me at the red clothespin space becomes a preferred way of conveying directions.

Over time, a place-marker can become even more than an orientation point. It can be transformed from oddity to familiar, even comforting, presence that makes neighboring residents feel at home. When the Eiffel Tower first appeared, Parisians by and large hated it. Now they cannot imagine Paris without it. To be sure, the clothespin is not the Eiffel Tower of New York City or this neighborhood, but in its small way it plays a similar anchoring role. The usable residual space on Second Avenue south of East 85th Street has two rectangular planters with ledge seating that is divided into individual seats by low spiked railings. Visual residual space at the eastern back corner of the building is located behind a closed gate.

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