“No other city is so spitefully incoherent.”
The walking tours offered here are part of decades-long project whose eventual goal is a soon to be completed book. I worked in the worlds of publishing and education before I became a New York City tour guide about 15 years ago to write the book I wish existed when I first moved to Madison Square in 1993 (aka the Flatiron District, and, now, NoMad).
When I moved into the Breslin Hotel at 29th Street and Broadway, now the swanky Ace Hotel but back then a Single Room Occupancy welfare hotel, I shared a $600/month studio with my best friend. In-line skating was new and all the rage and for three years I skated just about every square inch of Manhattan Island. It wasn’t long before I realized that on my daily excursions after work, any direction I went from where I was living the combination of buildings from history changed in a radical, inexplicable way. Beautiful French Second Empire apartment-hotels with elaborate mansard roofs that spoke to an upper class social scene were just feet away from blocks of much more low-brow, sad looking buildings from the same time. Art deco factories for garment manufacturing were across the street from country churches. Brownstone homes were wedged in alongside jewel-box like loft buildings. I had been reading many New York City history books but none came close to explaining the city I was seeing.
When it comes to New York City history on the Island of Manhattan everyone agrees that “the city” moved uptown, but what, exactly, moved uptown? Did everything move uptown? A wide and wild assortment of buildings of brick, cast iron, steel-frame stone-clad (so-called “loft buildings”), Modern and post-Modern day skyscrapers; built as a home, flat, apartment building, a store, factory, or office building, can make up any given city block. Manhattan is an inscrutable, information-rich cityscape that begs many questions: Which buildings came first, and why? Why did some buildings survive when others didn’t? What new buildings came in and why? How did the ones that stayed, change? There is likely nowhere else on Earth where land use, “the management and modification of the natural environment into built environment,” underwent such seemingly chaotic, intense, radical and rapid change, in so compact an area, and over such a relatively short period of time, as on the land mass comprising the roughly lower third of Manhattan Island. How does one make sense of buildings that have been adapted for re-use over time, at different points in time, sometimes many times over? Is there any way to make sense of how a jumble of neighborhoods, made up of a jumble of buildings, came to be “put together”?
I went on many walking tours of the city in the hopes of understanding the history the way I was seeing it. And while there were many good tours and tour guides, none were explaining what I would eventually come to call the Frankenstein’s Monster of history and architecture that New York City was Central Park down to the Battery.
Many a neighborhood’s architectural reputation precedes it. Soho has cast iron buildings, Tribeca warehouses, the Lower East Side tenements, Times Square theaters, Museum Mile mansions. Each neighborhood has its own particular and distinct architectural make-up and “streetscape sensibility” that is the assortment of buildings retained from history. Soho has a particular look, and it’s a different look from the blocks around Madison Square. And the Lower East Side couldn’t look more different than nearby Tribeca. And while the assortment of buildings from different eras tell the story of any individual neighborhood, it’s the different combinations of different buildings across all of Manhattan’s neighborhoods that tell the story of the whole city.
I ultimately came to realize that telling the story New York City on the island of Manhattan required gathering up the reins of a hundred different histories: architecture, shipping and trade, technology, transportation, manufacturing and industry, finance, real estate, newspapers and communications, theaters; cultural economies and the evolution of housing for the rich and the poor, the history of retailing, the history of theater and entertainment. In fact, I came to see there was the history of an American culture: how we lived, how we worked, how we shopped, how we entertained each other and ourselves, that was captured and recorded, unintentionally preserved, by the slow motion onslaught of manufacturing and industry, business and office buildings, as they made their way up through the middle of Manhattan Island. But what came first were the suburbs; homes churches and schools. I was determined to find a way to tell the story of the interplay of all of these histories, and discover the unifying principles that sort out, and in essence decode, Manhattan’s otherwise inscrutable cityscape.
And so when the author James Baldwin to remarked that New York City was “spitefully incoherent,” he could have been talking about any neighborhood or district between Central Park and The Battery; these were the parts of town that were created by a slow-motion cyclone of brick and mortar, glass, stone and steel, in a pattern of building up, tearing down and building again. What was left behind was the kaleidoscope of neighborhoods we know today as Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue’s shopping district, Times Square, the Garment District, Herald Square, Murray Hill, Madison Square, Union Square, Washington Square, NoHo, SoHo, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Tribeca, the Civic Center, City Hall and the Financial District. These are the parts of the city that contain the history of the city's historic move uptown through the middle of the Manhattan over a roughly a century-long period of phenomenal expansion and growth.
I hope to see you on a Manhattan Unlocked walking tour!
Friday, November 26, 2010
I haven't gotten choked up about September 11 in a long time, but the size of the memorial is staggering when you see it for the first time. It was difficult to view, but I guess it's supposed to be.
That's part of the footprint of the South Tower, I think that's a generator and lights being hoisted up.
The South Tower footprint/Reflecting Absence being born...
The view from the Winter Garden. I've been at this spot maybe a dozen times since September 11 and for years the feeling was like you were looking at a construction site. With the memorials in view now, the feeling here is starting to change.
The opposite direction of the above view....