“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, December 10, 2010
Inwood Park Walk (pt. 2) & the Columbia “C” Explained
A quick recap…this is the side of the park I entered through (on the west side of the Amtrak rails, and the West Side Highway)…
In the summers lots of soccer, little league, and barbeques. The Manhattan side tower of the George Washington Bridge in the distance….
To get into the main park, the pedestrian bridge takes you over the Amtrak rails….
Then this tunnel takes you under the southbound Henry Hudson Parkway (past The Tuft’s of Flowers mosaic from the last post)….
A little farther along up a hill, there’s another tunnel that takes you under the northbound Henry Hudson Parkway, and you come out here…. See the cars? They’re doing about 75 mph. The lamp posts are from the 1930s, installed during WPA (New Deal) projects…
A repeat picture from the last post, just because it’s so Planet of the Apes-like to see lamp posts like this…can you see both of them?
Most of the paths are narrower than this, and not as well defined. I went the other way, and climbed more hill…
From the hilltop, this is the clearest view you can get of the Cloister tower…
And after a short walk farther along the hilltop, this…
There are no really old trees surrounding this overlook, it must have once provided an unobstructed view. By the trampled leaves, it looks like people still find it though.
It seems they expected quite a number of people back then…Look to the far left, I thought that was another entrance to the overlook.
…obviously windstorm damage…
If you’ve spent any time in a car in the metropolitan area, the radio always reported traffic conditions “under the apartments.” Those are them…
…and a less obstructed view of the Cloister tower…
Leaving the overlook and continuing down the other side, just a few feet away…this really is Manhattan….
And then a real mystery….
Continuing over the crest…
…and along the path…
The clearest view I could get looking east from this altitude…. The Broadway Bridge leading to Riverdale (the Bronx) is the bluish metal structure to the left of the tree. The Tracey Towers, the tallest buildings in the Bronx (I think still), are the twin buildings in the distance. The white dome through the thicket are tennis courts across the Harlem River in Riverdale.
And one lone jogger passed by….
And the Columbia “C” from high above. Painted by Columbia students in the 50s. Today I learned why it’s there!
But that’s in a bit. First there’s this…I have no idea.
Assuming they were never moved, what could this have been a foundation for? On a less cold day I will go back and do some forensics. That’s a serious foundation slab…if you know, please speak up…..
I took the steep way down…some of these are looking back on my descent…
The path must have once been more manageable, since it leads to these most accommodating stone steps…
At the bottom is this monument…It announces this spot as where Peter Minuit “bought” Mannahatta for sharp edged metal tools (and of course, some beads). There’s another monument at the Battery commemorating the same thing. It very well might have happened in both places, since he dealt with the wrong people the first time.
The tulip tree is pretty incredible, 1658-1938. The Wall Street wall was 4 years old when the tulip tree sprouted. That’s how old my father was when it died.
From the bottom, looking along the last segment of the Harlem River where it meets the Hudson just beyond the Henry Hudson Expressway.
Panning to the right a bit, a lagoon. Those are seagulls, and they’re walking…
Farther to the right, this is mud under a sheen of water…ecosystems don’t get much richer than this…Manhattan’s last salt water marsh.
This how 21st century urbanites enjoy the park…they stay mostly down below…
…and have this view, looking across a lagoon at fjords from Manhattan. That’s the Spuyten Duyvil train station across the way under the Henry Hudson Bridge.
Just another minute’s walk farther along is Columbia’s Wien stadium. I thought this was the closest I would be able to get…. (The Broadway Bridge is in the back.)
But the gate was open…(see blog title)
It’s important to pay respect…mutton chops, gilded age…the first wooden stadium and this monument were both erected in 1928…read the bottom: “‘C’ Club”….
From the uppermost seats in Wien Stadium. Now you know why the “C” is where it is….
Five hundred feet later I’m back in the city…The Broadway Bridge, the downtown 1 train passing, buses and cars at all the wrong angles (this is why it’s so easy to skate in the Manhattan, vehicles don’t move.)
But if I’m going to leave you with that image, I might as well show you a few miles away, a few hours later….