New York City is the place where . . . (Part I)

Five days in New York City after a four year absence is like an urban elixir full of steroids that make hours and miles of exploration seem inconsequential. Keep going, there is more on the next block. And more, and more. It’s easy to forget how big the city is, but it’s really, really big. And solid, and heavy, and thick, and old. Toronto is all those things to a degree, but coming back home, the initial feeling is that this great city seems almost light in comparison. American steel and concrete seem thicker and heavier than it ought to be, but it is. There are so many great buildings in New York that magnificent ones, like the building above, become nondescript.

I stayed in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in the north-middle of Brooklyn and went to Manhattan every day and night, so the size and distances covered was always a factor: this city ran on forever. Not city then suburbs, just all city. The difference between the Local A train the Express A was important. We drove too, around the Bronx, on East Side Highways and Brooklyn-Queen Expressways, looking for chunks of Robert Moses, the radio transponder in the car dumping money into the digital coffers of the Triborough Bridge without the cling-clank sound that at one time was the sound of his wild power in New York State. There were also trips through Mott Haven, Pelham, Flushing, Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and City Island. Mostly Manhattan though — Brooklyn is nice but Park Slope had too many strollers and Williamsburg too many dirty and dubiously employed hipsters. Manhattan would take a few weeks to get normal enough to not want to be there everyday.

What follows, in a few parts, is a rather long photo essay of some of the stuff you run into when in New York with no plan other than to walk around (and occasionally drive) during the day and late into the night.

Lower Manhattan Streetscape

Something about the way New York’s curbs are lined with steel gives it such a solid feel. There is one place in Toronto on Bay Street at Queen, on the south-east corner by The Bay, that has a New York style curb like this, and it looks good. 8th Avenue above, at about 14th.

There are a lot of rough edges in Manhattan that are at odds with the sentiment that Toronto’s messy urbanism, potholes rusty poles and other old infrastructure are somehow inferior to New York’s. People who hold this opinion must only walk along Fifth Avenue and not venture further afield. All cities have room for improvement — Toronto and New York are no different.

Next to the Rem Koolhaus Prada store in Soho. The glass blocks hint at activity below — in this case, expensive shoes.

Along Prince Street in NoLita. Canada represents with a John Fluevog store.

Solid & tells you where you are.

Forest of Skyscrapers

The MTA buses go all the way to Yorkville.

The Pan Am — Met Life building is one of my favorites. It is so impossibly big and beastly, complete with a defunct heliport and infamous accident that decapitated a snuff film director. It’s nearly 50 years old. Glass and steel international style skyscrapers are synonymous with the future — and it’s a surprise to think that the future is middle-aged now. Purists and old timers hated that it rose up above Grand Central Station, but I grew up with this as a central part of my NYC image, so this building fits in just fine.

The Waldorf – Astoria. More incredible size, age and bulk. FDR had his own car-sized elevator that went down to the Grand Central Station tracks deep below the sidewalk. PBS once ran a documentary (or perhaps it was a book) about the iceberg-like depths of the Waldorf below grade. Does anybody remember it? An urban explorer’s dream.

A quiet, cloudy Saturday on Park Avenue. Here, located across from one another, are the ground zeros of the International Style. Lever House above, the Seagram Building below. They say what Mies van der Rohe did with the Seagram building he perfected some years later at the TD Centre in Toronto. Maybe it was a Torontonian who said that?

Not all buildings are great — some are just regular

All buildings need not be landmark — but they should be built well and fit in without a fuss, like these ones.

Navigate by instinct and general direction on bike, rather than specific routing. Good.

Messy urbanism?

Kind of ugly — there is lots of this stuff — but because New York is so overwhelming, we don’t notice it.

Looks Familiar

Unclear what this area of town is for, was busy though. Seems like an homage to Yonge-Dundas Square. Not sure if it measures up to Toronto Life Square.

Ad-Free Infrastructure

New York, centre of world capitalism, world class city, the Big Apple, etc., does not have ads on their rubbish bins.

But lots of TVs

These large TV screens were over many subway entrances. There was a huge blitz for the new season of This American Life, so Ira Glass’s suited body was everywhere. That became sort of creepy.

We watched some ads on the long taxi ride back to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn late at night. There is a button that lets you turn the TV off. In New York, last call is a few minutes before dawn, and on a number of occasions it was suddenly 4am and those dreadful morning birds were chirping. Nobody means to stay out that late, but somehow New York distracts you until it’s too late, and you cannot walk another block, and you will pay this guy whatever he wants to bring you to your bed.

Stay tuned for Part II later today.

3 comments

  1. I moved here a year ago from Toronto. I spend every weekend and every evening, when I’m not working, wandering around town and the boroughs, camera in hand. I’m still discovering new places every day. You’re right it never ends. I’m just now beginning to understand the social/urban workings of this place. I’m still in awe and still trying to grasp what this city is. There is plenty to love and plenty to despise but in any shape or form it is an amazing place. I think you’ve inspired me to begin writing again! Thanks. It will be interesting to see a fresh perspective from a fellow in town out of towner.

  2. As it happens I’m on a reverse trajectory. I’m heading up to Toronto today for the weekend and looking forward to coming into the Island and seeing downtown for the first time in a couple years. (Yes, I know, I’m not a huge fan of the Island Airport but damn that Porter is seductive. Plus, using the Island is my way of protesting the lack of a rail link – build a train and I’ll go to YYZ instead). I expect to marvel at the glassy condos and then wonder why everything else in the city is so short.

    Anyway, I loved the photo essay and can throw in some suggestions for your next visit:

    – bike the Hudson River Greenway from top to bottom. It’s an amazing way to see seven or eight cities in one go (industrial NY, yuppie NY, historic NY, Dominican NY, parkland NY, seedy NY, tourist NY…)

    – stroll a few of the major cross streets and contrast and compare: Canal, 14th, 34th, 42nd, 59th/57th, 86th, 125th, 145th, 181st, 207th… all are fascinating in their own way

    – subway ride to Coney Island – Iconic mess

    – LIRR ride to Jones Beach – Moses Utopia

    – run a 5k race in Central Park – heaven

    – walk Alphabet City – the ultimate urban recycling

    – visit Columbia University – urban campus done right

    – bike over the Brooklyn Bridge through to Prospect Park – brownstones and skylines

  3. Hey, great photo-essay, Shawn. Funny, we were there long weekend too, seeing a play. We took advantage Toronto’s island airport and so enjoyed a seamless, smooth trip on Porter Air into Newark. I’m probably going to make a lot of enemies here by saying how much I love Porter (i.e., and the island airport)…

    I loved visiting NYC, but the one thing I realized the whole time I was there was how unique and wonderful Toronto’s form of built environment is – with its “shopping arteries” forming the symbolic and practical heart of neighbourhoods, feeding from inner quieter zones of housing. I kept thinking how it seems as if these days, we often are trying to be someplace we’re not (e.g., NYC), but rather, as we densify our city, we should celebrate our unique brand of urban form and build to that context instead.

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