I had the honor to work as an installer on the Gates Project in February 2005. It was a transformational moment for me and the City that I love. There is something magical about spending an entire week in Central Park, especially in the frost of winter, surrounded by nature and sky, laboring to raise a work of art. Jeanne-Claude was everywhere that week. Greeting us for breakfast in the Boat House, touring the installation site in a donated Maybach limousine, selflessly sharing her moment and vision, posing for the camera, scolding us for sneaking our children into the lunch room. No matter that we had to get up at 5:30AM to arrive at ‘work’ on time.
At the coffee urn one morning the New York City Police Chief assigned to Central Park, turned to me and said, “This is okay. I was skeptical, but this is alright.” Jeanne-Claude and Christo could melt the hardest of hearts with their senseless acts of communal joy.
We installers, total strangers at the beginning of week, became fast friends that week. We shared the wonder of Central Park changing into something new and different. The Gates directed the eye to all the beauty of Olmstead’s manmade creation, highlighting its details by wrapping it in waves of saffron. On the first day, there was anxiety that we won’t get finished in time as 450 novices strained to build and raise 7,500 Gates in a single week. On days two and three, the whole Park felt like a field day at summer camp with each team striving to make and then exceed its quota. Swiftly we learned and mastered the techniques of kitting, moving, assembling, leveling, securing and lifting the orange Plexiglas, aluminum and nylon structures. Our crew working to the west of the Bethesda Fountain started at Cherry Hill and then pushed north on Central Park Drive framing the Lake to the border of the Rambles. Working together like commoners raising a barn, we lifted 107 Gates that week. By the morning of the fourth day, Thursday, an order filtered down from Jeanne-Claude and Christo for us to slow down and relish the moment. At lunch, all of us confessed to having had a secret moment of awe, that rarest of human emotions, overwhelmed by the joy and beauty of the event. That afternoon, we were instructed to stop working and walk the Park and take in the project in the state of becoming. We nicknamed it the “100 Block Walk”. I took that walk five times that week in sun, snow, slush and darkness.
With the leaves gone in late February, Central Park becomes a series of sweeping vistas. Christo and Jeanne-Claude picked February because the sun is bright but cold and the weather shifts rapidly from sun to rain to snow. On Saturday, February 12, 2005, the park filled with civilians and the media. It was the moment of the unfurling. Armed with grappling hocks we waited for the signal to unwrap the saffron curtains. When the moment arrived, the first Gate opened with a crash as the cardboard tube in the middle of the fabric smashed to the ground. My son rushed to pick up the tube and stack it on a hand truck. Everyone was smiling and exactly in that moment.
As the Gates billowed in the cold wind, he said, “This is the best day of my life.” I turned to him looking at the throng of people who had come to see the spectacle and said, “9/11 is finally over: New York can go back to living.”
Thank you, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon.