Cover to Cover

A new essay anthology captures the power of city parks.
Oberto Gili/Harper

This lavish volume, created by a co-chair of Friends of the High Line, features pictures of city parks around the world taken by the fashion photographer Oberto Gili, accompanied by the thoughts of “celebrated writers and personalities” (including Bill Clinton). It is, in other words, not just another coffee-table book, but an artifact of the current neo-Olmsted moment, when glamorous greenness is transforming urban grime and neglect. Like one of the contributors, André Aciman, I vividly remember the pre–High Line desolation of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. The contrast between then and now is as much of a marvel as the elevated route itself, so exquisitely planted, offering a rare vantage on the cityscape.

The photographs and essays gathered here are uneven, but together they suggest an insight: these urban spaces, which can be hard to tame, make us think about time. Even the tidiest parks are reminders that trees and grass, or a train bed, were here first. And weeds abide and spread, Ian Frazier discovers in old, grubby Gorky Park. What some of us are looking for, Zadie Smith realizes in the Borghese Gardens, is a trace of wildness. Nicole Krauss finds a bracing dose of it in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where seasons unfold in extreme style, at their own pace. The meadow fogs up, and “snow stays longer here than anywhere else.”

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Ann Hulbert is the literary editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees coverage of books and culture.

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