New York City takes pleasure in assaulting your senses. You turn a corner and hit a wall of garbage bags that have timed a particularly pungent release just for you. Or you stumble from the train half asleep in the morning and find yourself in a maze of gridlock. You might find questionable substances dripping on you from above where old air conditioning units are holding court. Or you might get to the landing in the stairwell in the subway and encounter an almost tangible odor of urine. Make no mistake: these are calculated attacks. But occasionally the abrasiveness gives way, and under the grime you'll catch glimpses of the harmonies that help shape the New York City. Newspaper hawkers are one such thing. Continue Reading »
Archive for the 'Landscapes' category
My office moved a few blocks south earlier this year, which puts me in the Flower District and means that I have a fifteen minute walk from Penn Station. As the summer months wane, the obstacle course of tourists and panhandlers grows more complicated. In this regard, New York City is like any summer town: an influx of visitors during the warmer months means an increase in profitable opportunities in many contexts. It's a pattern that you can readily observe in some of the smaller towns on the eastern tip of Long Island and in other small town vacation destinations. In a metropolis like New York City (and this applies throughout the boroughs), it might be harder to catch because the hustle and bustle never quite slows to sleepiness as it does in "proper" summer towns, but the ebb and flow is there: as the number of tourists and vacationers increase, so too does the number of panhandlers. Continue Reading »
There are secret places all over New York City--that is, if you can manage to escape the glare of lights and the siren-song of the tourist traps of midtown—but often, they work hard at being a secret and brandish badges of exclusivity. Then there are places that feel like a secret, and when you stumble upon them, it's piques the imagination.
History functions similarly. Sometimes, it teases: you know it’s there, and you have to follow the trail to uncover it. And other times, it remains completely hidden until the right circumstances jostle it from its hiding place.
A friend introduced me to a fantastic spot downtown called Trinity Place—it’s dark, the booths will swallow you, and it's rarely ever super crowded. It's a subterranean location, and it's easy to miss as you walk by because the windows seem to gradually melt into the sidewalk. I know. It doesn't sound particularly striking, but that's because you actually have to walk through the doors to be swept off your feet: Trinity Place boasts two 35 tonne bank vault doors that date to 1904.
"To be happy, stay hidden." - Yopie, Parisian cataphile
Ever since reading Jennifer Toth's The Mole People as a teen, I've been intrigued by the metropolitan underground. Cities teem with life, and change happens at a dizzying pace. But what lurks beneath the streets remains a mystery to many—it almost remains a realm lost to time. Yet, to think of this space as stagnant would be foolish: from Paris to New York City, the subterranean has a life and character all of its own. And if you look closely, you'll find traces of the urban centers on the surface—almost as though these spaces contain seeds of the personalities that thrive above ground.
Last week we stripped Trinity Church back to its foundations. This week I’d like to take a look at the history the building watches over. The churchyard is the final resting place for a number of revolutionary soldiers and Daughters of the Revolution, as well as a number of notable New Yorkers who helped shape the destiny of the colony. Let’s take a look at one of these churchyard residents.
There are two large markers in the churchyard: that of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton. As the story of Hamilton is widely known, we’ll focus on his neighbor Robert Fulton, the American engineer and inventor credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat—the North River Steamboat. Fulton’s creation ferried passengers between New York City and Albany. It seems fitting that Fulton has a place here at Trinity not just because he had a major influence locally, but because he shared something in common with Richard Upjohn, the architect for Trinity Church: both following a passion that was different from their intended profession.
Though Fulton demonstrated an interest in all things mechanical at an early age, he also learned to sketch at an early age and appears to have been influenced by family friend and artist Benjamin West to pursue a career as an artist. He moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the city of Philadelphia in his late teens where he made a living doing landscapes and apparently made some powerful friends, including Benjamin Franklin. In 1788, at the age of 23, Fulton decided to go to England where he lived with West and earned an income painting portraits and landscapes—but like those driven by other interests, he continued to develop and tweak mechanical tools and paraphernalia—similar to the way Upjohn continued to study architecture while working as a woodworker to make ends meet.
Fulton did not invent the steamboat. The technologies necessary for this endeavor were fleshed out by the French inventor Denis Papin in the late 17th-century. His ideas were expanded on by his English and German colleagues (similar in many ways to the DIY revolution of today). And eventually the steamboat grew out of the efforts of Claude de Jouffroy in 1774. In the U.S., it was not until 1787 that a successful steam powered boat was developed by John Fitch, who hosted a demonstration on the Delaware River, but failed to secure a monopoly on the patent which is actually what opened the door for Fulton's success.
Meanwhile, Fulton would move to France in 1797, where he was recognized for his inventions, and was able to learn about steamers from James Rumsey and Claude de Jouffroy. He set his sights on submarines, and designed the Nautilus, which survived submersion for a full hour at a depth of 25 feet (7.6 m). He tried to get the French government to subsidize the plans for the Nautilus, but they were not interested, and he turned his sights back to steamboats in 1801 after meeting Robert Livingston, the US Ambassador to France. The two designed and built a steamboat that they sailed up the River Seine, only to have it sink after the run. Not one to be discouraged, Fulton tried again, and the result was the North River Steamboat.
Fulton’s legacy in New York echoed in the fish market that bore his name for more than a century. The market was successful partially as a result of the ferry service that brought customers across the East River from Brooklyn. When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, declining ferry service was a primary reason the Fulton market faltered and eventually found it necessary to refocus its business. His physical mark on the city is preserved today in the streets that bear his name in Manhattan and Brooklyn, that stand like the halves of broken trail on either side of the East River.
Standing directly at the western end of Wall Street, Trinity Church is perfectly framed. Seriously, the young colony could not have chosen a better spot. Today it looks a bit out of place at first glance, but its Gothic spire and dark exterior seem to hold the nearby skyscrapers at bay—which is fitting since this building reigned as the tallest in the mid-nineteenth century. Sunlight and shadow coexist perfectly on the grounds, making the surrounding churchyard a refuge from the busy city that flows around the land. Buildings have lives of their own. They have histories, and they mark and record the history, culture, and time that passes around them. Trinity Church, which is one of New York City’s oldest houses of worship, is no different.
In 1696 the Anglican community of the growing colony petitioned Governor Benjamin Fletcher for land for a parish. He approved the sale of the downtown plot to the Crown, which then issued a charter to the parish with a rent of 60 bushels of wheat annually. The church appeared to be well received. In fact, legend has it that even famed Captain Kidd pitched in to help with construction. This building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1776, which was believed to have been set intentionally and destroyed twenty-five percent of the city. Rebuilt in 1790, the roof of the second building collapsed under the weight of snow 40 years later, and the third building—the one that stands today—was constructed in 1846.
In 1938 Eastern Long Island took the brunt of a hurricane that swept through the New England area. It was devastating:
The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also swept out to sea; around 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the east end of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road.
Since then experts have been warning New Yorkers that we could get hit again. It's become a favorite fact on Discovery Channel disaster projection programs that New York City is only a few feet above sea level and the storm surge could wreak havoc, particularly by immobilizing the subway system. As Live Science writer Robert Roy Britt says, "it is a question of when, not if."
But the promised storm has only been a vague threat so far. A few weeks ago, New Yorkers braced for Hurricane Earl. The Wall Street Journal's Metropolis projected that:
Residents will see the worst of the conditions as Hurricane Earl makes its closest approach. That means gusts up to 80mph on the Jersey Shore and Eastern Long Island, with gusts to 100mph at Montauk Point. The city could see gusts to up 40mph, higher in the top floors of Midtown skyscrapers.
We all waited a little anxiously. And then nothing. Earl gave us some wind and a bit of rain, but it largely ignored New York City and western Long Island--though I'm told there were some fantastic swells out at Montauk. This cycle of warnings and misses has left many New Yorkers a bit skeptical about "a big one." And curious as well about what these storms can actually do. Well, last night Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of what sudden strong winds and heavy rain could do and the responses were interesting to note.
So there's been some fuss recently over proposed new additions to the New York City skyline. A developer has set his sights on 15 Penn Plaza, which has upset the owners of the Empire State Building. One of them, Anthony Malkin, is particularly upset by the plans:
"Would a tower be allowed next to The Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower? Just as the world will never tolerate a drilling rig next to The Statue of Liberty, why should governmental bonuses and waivers be granted to allow a structure as tall and bulky at 15 Penn Plaza to be built 900 feet away from New York City’s iconic Landmark and beacon?"
He has also said that the proposed building will "ruin" the skyline and it will be a "black eye."
The Manhattan skyline is unmistakable. And it's a fan favorite—search Google "best skylines" and it will consistently be ranked in the top favorites. It has become a symbol of the city itself—sold on coffee mugs, in snow globes, on t-shirts. But what if the straight edges of the buildings and roofs were softened? If the roofs didn't pierce the sky but melded urban and natural a bit more easily? Imagine a skyline that could shift seasonally, and not simply as a result of new construction. It would be a subtler change that might confer a more real sense of the vitality of the cityscape. The icing on the cake? It would be good for us too.
Our recent discussion about infrastructure is definitely very much on my mind—particularly as my commute has now become longer and more congested as a result of shortsighted planning. The fire at the switching station on the LIRR has been a reminder of the vulnerabilities that lurk below the surface of our constructions. And provocations, stress on the system, can come from anywhere, including nature—something that New York City already knows: A thunderstorm on August 8, 2007 caused 7,000 kilograms (about 15,000 pounds) of dirt and debris to flood the subway system during the morning rush hour forcing New Yorkers and city officials to acknowledge that our subway drainage system is ill equipped to handle suddenly water surges. But this should not have come as news to anyone—we've been through this at least once before in recent memory: Lower Manhattan was flooded in December 1992 as a result of a storm.
Nature seems to be our biggest threat at the moment, and it's time we started planning and building with this in mind. A article from Scientific American earlier this year, reports the ways poor infrastructure can compound the effects of climate change. For example, a rise in temperature means it will get hotter underground as well. New Yorkers, you think it's hot in the subway during the summer months now? A 2 - 4 degree increase (predicted by 2100) may not sound like much, but you'll likely feel differently as the sweat pools at the base of your spine. One solution would be more vents to help push the hot air out of the subway, but more vents means that more water can get it—so we're back to dealing with flooding.
But it's not just planning below ground. What we choose to do with our open space is also an issue. We construct buildings. Fine. We all need places to live and work—I'm definitely not going to be the one to say we need to live in mud huts or caves or gather around an open campfire. But many of our buildings are capped off by black tar roofs. In the summer, they become infernos and add to the sweltering effect felt in the city.
One idea that is slowly gaining popularity is the suggestion that we can reclaim these spaces, these miniature hells, as National Geographic writer Verlyn Klinkenborg referred to them last August, saying that the urban roof is "a lifeless place of bituminous surfaces, violent temperature contrasts, bitter winds, and an antipathy to water." This doesn't need to be the case. But it will require changing the way we think about our landscapes—and our skylines. Green roofs reintroduce plants, supported by shale and clay to allow for drainage, and as an added bonus, they attract birds and insects, who may have been displaced by urban development. They can a more natural feeling to the concrete jungle.
It's been a very hot summer here in New York City. And the city smells. It's more than the smell of baking asphalt, exhaust fumes, and lack of deodorant—these smells are around all year. The heat has awakened older smells.
Around midday, if you happen to stroll down by the South Street Seaport you can pick up on the smell of fish in the air. If you can manage to follow your nose—which really isn't all that hard to do—it will lead you right to the old site of the Fulton Fish Market. It has been closed since 2005, but if you close your eyes while you stand outside the gates of the old market building you can smell the day's catch and just hear the bustle of fishmongers at their trade.