Saturday, February 5, 2011

New York: A Love/Hate Relationship

I'm going crazy because of work. I am working 11 hour days and getting barely half of that in sleep every night. Everyday I commute into the city, packed into to a train like a Sardine. I take an elevator up to the 23rd floor. The view from up there isn't as spectacular as you would think. Then I do the same routine on the way back home.

I know that in New York you have to work hard. I love this city but the amount of time you have to work is draining me on my life and energy. I almost long for a slower paced, hippie retreat in the middle of nowhere.

But, I still love this city. I still love its energy. Maybe the reason I have no energy is because the city is absorbing all of mine? I was watching some old newsreels about New York. They're fun to watch. Newsreels were shown in movie theaters during the intermission. It's interesting to watch these old newsreels to see how things were way back when.

In one called City of Magic from 1956, you can hear the narrator's enthusiasm for the big apple. I too carry that enthusiasm for New York tucked under my jaded expression. I know if I move away, I will get that longing for New York that I've had on extended trips away. New York was the biggest city in the world at that time, an unrivaled metropolis. It had to tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building. The city must have exhilarated so many imaginations and thrilled so many hearts back then, as it still does today.

Transportation in New York back in the 1950s:

In a deep winter freeze, I could temporarily suspend my feelings. New York is all about being comfortable. In such a big city it can often feel lonely. NYers often keeps to themselves. We don't make eye contact unless we have to. I've been in other cities where I'm telling you, the people are so nice and friendly. They will say hello to you on the street. Girls will look at you and smile. I don't exactly know where I'm going with this.

To live in New York you gotta have friends and a job that pays enough money so that you don't have to be broke all the time. You have to live near a subway or you're fucked. You have to be careful about falling in love because relationships will change faster than the weather.

If you've read my blog you know that I have an on going love affair with all things New York. What I love in particular about New York is the cityscape. I love architecture and skyscrapers, and New York covers this superbly. Being that I grew up here, I've never been able to have that feeling of being overwhelmed by that first visit to New York City. I wonder what that feels like. I've only been able to feel it second hand from others who have experienced it. The look in their eyes and faces says it all.

New York doesn't have the tallest skyscraper, and it no longer even has the most skyscrapers. This kind of pisses me off, but having the tallest or the most isn't necessarily what's important. I was looking at some pictures of Sao Paulo, Brazil and the images blew me away. It has more skyscrapers that any other city I've ever seen. It's skyline stretches to the edge of the horizon in every direction. The thing about Sao Paulo is that its skyline has no real center to it. The city is a patchwork of highrises spread throughout the neighborhoods. Just look at this aerial footage taken from an airplane of the city:

Sao Paulo is different from New York in that it is a land-locked city. Geographically it is more like L.A., spread throughout a wide valley. Sao Paulo is said to be like if New York threw up on L.A. From the footage above you can definitely see why that's true. I wouldn't exactly call Sao Paulo's skyline beautiful, but its sheer magnitude of highrises, most of them residential, is stupendous.

This got me thinking: most highrises built now are for residential purposes. A close look at most American cities shows a downtown with a cluster of highrise office towers, but then a sharp taper off into mostly very lowrise apartments or houses nearby. Meaning, there are no residential districts with lots of highrises in most American cities. Sau Paulo, as well as most other large Brazilian cities, have so many residential highrises that you cannot tell where the central business district ends and the residential district begins. Even in New York, which has thousands of highrise apartment towers, there is a drop in the height and density of highrises once you are out of the central business districts. One variable to factor in is that in Sao Paulo, their commercial highrises are not as tall as New York's and most other American cities. They have no supertall skyscrapers(1,000+ feet tall) so their commercial and residential highrises are about the same height, leaving it hard to see a clear geographic distinction between them.

I do like the idea of a distinctive skyline with a clear end to it, but a very gradual end. New York's skyline ends pretty much at the edge of Manhattan's shoreline. In some places it picks back up on the other side of the water, most notably in downtown Brooklyn, and Long Island City. The "city" doesn't end at Manhattan's shore. The outer boroughs have an urban feel to them that is unmistakable. The typical New York apartment is a 5 or 6 story, brick-clad walk up. As in the shot below.

These types of apartments are everywhere in New York and have come to represent the city. When you think of a typical New York City apartment, this is the kind you think of. Sao Paulo, although it has more highrises than NY, doesn't have these type of apartments that fill the spaces between highrises and surround them. Sao Paulo has red-roofed houses spread through out the city between their residential towers. It creates a very different feeling of the city from the ground level. I cannot imagine how different New York would feel if there were houses between skyscrapers in the middle of Manhattan! That's what I love about Manhattan, no houses. No wait, I think I went over this on a blog a while back. There are no single detached houses on Manhattan island except a few of the historic ones from past centuries.

I want to bring up the Manahatta Project I can across few months back. Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, explored what Manhattan would be like if we could go back to 1609 when Henry Hudson first landed on its shores. After coming across an old topographical map made by the English during the American Revolution, and with the help of modern computer technology, he was able to recreate the Manahatta of 1609. Taking the geographic features from the map he recreated the valleys, hills, lakes, ponds, streams and forests that was once the landscape of "Manahatta", the name the Lenape Indians gave the island meaning, "Island of many hills".

It's hard to imagine modern day Manhattan as anything else but a metropolis, but it was once a forest with streams and swamps much like the rest of the eastern seaboard. Originally settled as a dutch village in 1614 called Nieuw-Amsterdam, and then New York when the British renamed it in 1664. All the way up until the early 1800s most of Manhattan was undeveloped, as were the outer boroughs. New York's furthest extent was a pond where City Hall now stands. Beyond that was a few sparse settlements and maybe a farm or two, the rest of the island being cover by woods or low lying swamps. Manhahatta is now gone forever, but it's nice to imagine what once was.

I personally prefer the hustle and bustle of the city over the wilderness of nature anyway. I will take the loud crowded subway cars over the tranquil meadows and valleys of Manahatta. I'll take a skyline over a landscape. Nature is fine for a moment, but not permanence. That's why they built Central Park.

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