March 5, 2012 | 1
Change is afoot and people aren’t sure what to make of it. Last Monday, the Bronx Zoo officially closed its 111-year-old Primate (“Monkey”) House, citing a need for change in the ways the animals are exhibited—an evolution, if you will. Responses have revealed how deeply unsettling the closure is to the general psyche of the City, but with few genuinely able to articulate why.
Many local media outlets have has run a short piece on this closure. As well they should: the Bronz Zoo is a huge cultural institution, clearly occupying an important place in many a young New Yorker’s experience of self and place. And the closure weighs heavily on the minds of many. The New York Daily News shares the following responses from zoo visitors:
This week, the sudden closure caught some visitors by surprise.
“I came to look at the Monkey House so I’m a little disappointed,” said Ron Kay, 69, of the Bronx.
“I didn’t realize this was happening,” said another visitor, John, who came with his 2-year old son. “If it means doing a special fund-raiser or raising the membership a little to save the Monkey House, it would certainly be worth it.”
Mireya Rodriquez and Joshua Fajardo, both of the Bronx, were equally disappointed.
“I love going to the Monkey House,” Rodriguez said. “The monkeys are so goofy. It’s pretty sad they closed it.”
“I would love to see them open it again,” Fajardo said.
Despite the closure and what people seem to believe, many of the primates are still in the Bronx—while some of the animals will be sent to other facilities, many are simply being relocated to other exhibits within the zoo. In fact, a sign at the Monkey House directs visitors to Birds of the World, Congo Gorilla Forest, and Jungle World, which follows current exhibition practices of regionally grouping animals to promote a more natural experience for both visitors and animals. So what then, exactly, is it that people are mourning? Perhaps it is a loss of the familiar—a sense of knowing their City.
The Monkey House was built in 1901 by famed New York architects Heins and LaFarge, who were responsible for many of the Beaux Arts buildings to grace the City between 1880 – 1920, including Penn Station, City Hall station, and the control house at Bowling Green in Battery Park. These buildings were grand and stylized with intricate details and a bit of an imposing presence. Spaces are made to reflect the personality of the social order that flows around them. Penn Station, as an entry point into the City, should have been a grand experience for visitors—it would set the tone for their stay. The Beaux Arts period in New York coincided with a sense of establishment and growth. When we capture a space, and give it a form and personality, we impart a bit of ourselves—at that moment—to the area. It speaks for us. The legacy of this transfer of self lends a sense of permanency to what is otherwise a very fleeting existence.
However, change is inevitable. The original seven wonders of the ancient world, for example, were meant to last through the ages, though only one—the Khufu pyramid—has survived the test of time. And even that is slowly being ravaged by nature as erosive forces strip the outer layers away, gradually reducing its size. It is a process that will continue until it is be nothing more than a hill. The other wonders were felled by assorted natural and human efforts: decay rendered the towering wooden Statue of Zeus and the Babylonian Hanging Gardens obsolete; earthquakes erased the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria; fire ravaged the Temple of Artemis; and Crusaders razed the Persian Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Once a testament to humankind’s supreme ability to conquer and command their surroundings, all but one of these monumental feats of construction are gone. And in their absence, others have taken up residence in their place, new testaments to our ever-growing ability to manipulate and mold our environment.
The Monkey House itself is not gone. The building has landmark status, and will be repurposed—visitors just won’t be seeing live primates there (and that might be a good thing). The public lamentation reflects a sense of loss of the familiar—of knowing how things work and knowing that they will never again be the same. It also represent a shift in social experience. For thousands of New Yorkers, the Monkey House was a shared experience: It ensured a degree of “sameness” in connection to that space, creating a common bond. Now there will be generations of children who won’t have that experience. A division in social memory has been created, as The New York Times notes:
But for visitors with memories — memories of seeing their faces merge in the reflections of the monkeys, memories of taking their children and grandchildren and seeing faces merge in their reflections — the zoo without the Monkey House will just not be the same.
There’s no denying that it will not be the same, but that doesn’t mean it won’t necessarily be better. There will, after all, still be monkeys in the Bronx, and perhaps our understanding of them will be better than just a consignment of “goofiness.” Perhaps there will be more room for science and anthropology to help fire imaginations and bring us closer to understanding our own evolutionary history.