When I first saw the sign in the featured photo I was taken aback. Somewhere a few paces back had I crossed an invisible line and now found myself in the New York of the Harry Potter universe? No such luck. It turns out that the department of transportation is behind these signs. There are stop signs on the road and pedestrian crossing at half-block points from the 51st to the 53rd street. These lead through a linked series of privately owned public spaces. This is the secret avenue in the heart of mid-town Manhattan. Just a badly kept secret, and not magic! I mentally shrugged my shoulders and moved on.
The day went by in a succession of muggle lattes. Later that evening I think I saw magic again. Looking out over the city I saw ectoplasm dribbling into the sky over the headquarters of the Ghostbusters. There’s a photo here to tell you that it’s the truth. New York is not totally mundane, rest assured.
Contemporary opinion on the Potter Building, completed in 1886, is very mixed. One critic called it “coarse, pretentious, overloaded and intensely vulgar”. Another thought it was a “great and illustrious monument”. I was quite impressed by the sheer size of this building from more than a hundred and thirty years ago. It takes up a block, and rises to 11 storeys. Park Row and Beekman Street make an acute angle, and from this rises the tall column in the centre of the featured photo, topped off by a pinnacle.
The lot was owned by Orlando Potter, a very successful businessman and a prominent figure in local politics. When the previous building burnt down, he commissioned a new building in the same spot by architect Norris Starkweather. The building was to have every possible fire safety feature then known. At that time this meant that the construction would use iron and terra cotta. The iron framework, called a cage, supported the floors. The exterior walls were of fire-resistant brick, twice as thick at the bottom as the twenty inches on top. The base is clad in cast iron. Terra cotta had come into use after the Chicago fire of the previous decade, and this building used it extensively.
You can see some of the details of the terra cotta work in the photo above. A contemporary account noted that terra cotta used as a structural element was half as heavy as stone, while being equally fire proof. The deep sculpting of the terra cotta exterior in this building contrasts with those in the two neighbouring ones, for example, the Morse building behind it on Beekman Street.
I’d wanted to take a good look at the external light court on Beekman Street, but the ongoing external work meant that I could not. The building was originally office space, but has now become cooperative housing. It looked like a nice place to stay. Just out of curiosity I looked at the building listing, and found that nothing is available for rent or ownership currently.
I walked around it and found that the white tower behind it is another notable. It is one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. Frank Gehry was the architect and it was completed in 2011.
Looking to catch my train at the Times Square/42nd Street subway station, I passed a long glass corridor. The monotony of the white glass was broken by colourful ceramic tiles set into the wall. I looked at some closely. Every day about half a million people pass through this subway station. If one percent of them look at a panel, it means that the ceramic works by Toby Buonagurio are examined daily by about 500 people. That’s a lot of inspection.
I examined the lovely work behind the lady in pink. If it had a title, it would be Boy with a hot dog. I examined the wonderful colours of the hot dog: perfectly done. A scribble in the pool of mustard says that the work was done in the year 2000. I googled the name of the artist. She has 35 of these panels in the station, in a group called 35 Times. Her web site allows you to buy good quality signed prints of these works. How many prints does she sell? You do the math.
The ceramic tablets are beautiful. I examined three more of the tablets. I think I would call them Looking at the NY skyline, New Year’s Eve party, and Two women with ice cream. Bright and cheerful pieces, each of them.
Buonagurio teaches ceramics at an university. The world’s most famous search engine vomited up various links for her, including a page at her university where I found reviews of her course by students. The most illuminating was this: “Toby was my ceramics teacher about 30 years ago and I’ve never forgotten her. She’s the best. Btw, I’ve been an artist and teacher all these years – though I’ve changed media, Toby teaches how to do things right, no easy way out.”
Often a writer will be known for years to a small readership before she writes that one novel which makes her known to the rest of the world. While walking uptown in New York, I came across the moral equivalent of such a history, set in brick and mortar. I wasn’t quite thinking of the route when I looked ahead at a crossing and saw before me the southwestern end of Carnegie Hall (see the featured photo). In 1961 Bob Dylan broke out of an already charmed circle of listeners in a concert at this place. It is not everyday that you walk past a place where a Nobel Prize winner was born to the world’s consciousness.
I came back to look at it again. When the million dollar hall was inaugurated in 1890 it was considered to be almost in the suburbs. When Tchaikovsky conducted his own composition on the opening night, structural steel had not yet been invented. The building was made of brick. It looks heavy and squat in spite of the Renaissance design of the facade. I wanted to take a photo of the stylish and simple foyer which was part of the overall design by Willian Tuthill, but the doors seemed to be locked. I don’t mind having to go back there. The next time I’ll make sure to select an interesting concert to go for.
A little cobbled lane leads off from Hanover Square in downtown New York. No vehicle can pass through it, because the bars and restaurants lining the road have placed benches across it. It is a cheerful place. You wouldn’t look at it a second time, unless you wanted to sit down and relax.
It is hard to figure that it was once called High Street. In 1658 it was the pride of New Amsterdam because it was the first paved road on the continent. A few years before that the continent’s first brewery was founded in a building on the road. I don’t think any of the buildings survive. The exit of the Dutch and then of the English gave rise to much rebuilding. After that, the fire of 1835 wiped out a large part of lower Manhattan.
The look of the street is recent. It is possible, but unlikely, that the cobble stones are historic. After all, the road was redone in 1996. I walked through and peered at
When you go downtown to the Battery park in New York, you are reminded quite strongly that the history of the US is a history of immigration. At the entrance to the park is a memorial to the purchase of Manhattan from the local tribes by the Dutch. As far as we know, the ancestors of the tribes arrived in the land now called the Americas during a previous ice age, and spread over the continents in the same time that humans took to spread over the old world.
As you pass that monument you see a large expanse of grass and a circular structure behind it (see the featured photo). I think that beautifully green patch of grass was where Fort Amsterdam, and later Fort George, stood since 1626. The departure of the last British soldiers, and their freed slaves, is commemorated in the small plaque above the statue of the charging bull in Bowling Green. If you look carefully along the top edge of the photo here, you will see a plaque which reads Evacuation Day. After Britain lost the Americas to the new settlers, the fort, and the battery which gave its name to the park, was demolished.
The circular building, Clinton Castle, was erected in 1811. The army moved out of it in a few years, and leased it to the city. Jenny Lind, another immigrant, gave her first concert in this expanse of green in 1850. From 1855 to 1892, Castle Clinton was the place where immigrants landed and were processed. I did not enter the castle. I was distracted by a monumental sculptural group near it called The Immigrants (photo below). The sculpture by Luis Sanguino commemorates this period of history.
After this, the Ellis Island facility was started. From the pier here you can see the statue by Bertholdi, possibly the most famous statue in today’s world, which looms over the entrance to the harbour. The connection of the Statue of Liberty and immigration is so strong that it serves all over the world as the symbol of the freedom of human movement. I took a long shot of this statue, and then turned to leave through the East Coast Memorial.
This is a memorial to the US soldiers who died in the West Atlantic during the second world war. I walked up the central aisle of the memorial, with four tall granite slabs on each side with the names of soldiers engraved on them, past the bronze statue of an eagle, and turned to take a last shot of the harbour through which waves of immigrants once arrived.
In Aachen, near the Dutch-German border, I switched on the TV and saw the day-long destruction of the wall that hemmed in West Berlin. Twenty seven years later I walked into the lobby of 520 Madison Avenue and saw a piece of the wall. Five reinforced concrete slabs, out of about 100000. The side that you can see is the one which faced Mariannenplatz in West Berlin.
The cheerful paintings are due to two street artists, Thierry Noir and Christophe Bouchet, who decided to do something which was not only illegal but dangerous. The wall stood inside the territory of East Germany, so anyone painting the wall was technically crossing the border. When asked about this, Thierry Noir said to Huck “…the soldiers were allowed to jump over and arrest me if they wanted to. But I was young and quick at that time so they had no chance against me.”
The two were joined by other artists. Eventually, by the late 1980s, a kilometer long stretch of the wall had been painted. Now Noir sometimes joins other artists to paint other pieces of the wall. He was asked once about his feelings when the wall came down in that June many years ago. His reply was “I was not crying because my world was pulled down, it would be arrogant to say that. It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”
I was the only person in the lobby on that Saturday morning. The guard looked bored, from which I gathered that some still come in to look at this piece of history. I wonder whether twenty five years has been long enough for us to forget that people overcome walls.
It seems to me that my reaction to New York is conditioned by my first experiences. In the late ’80s the city was a gritty place. Some parts of it were too dangerous to walk about in the evenings. You were told to be careful in Central Park, Times Square and Bryant Park. And through it all, steam wafted out from vents and chimneys, making everything look even more weird. It’s a new and more pleasant city now, but the steam still rises from the streets.
It has never been as easy to read about the world as it is today. I sat in a little cafe off 5th Avenue and found out more about this. I was not surprised to learn that the 170 kilometers of steam pipes under the streets of New York make it the steamiest city in the world. What surprised me were the uses to which the 40 million kilos of steam that flow these pipes daily are put. I’d lazily assumed that it was mainly for heating. Not so.
The superheated high pressure steam is used for energy. Restaurants use it to power their dishwashers, and buildings to power cooling units in summer. The Guggenheim uses it to fine-tune the humidity in the building, and hospitals sterilize equipment using it. The system has been operated by Consolidated Edison since the 1950s, when it acquired the business from the NY Steam Corp which started up in lower Manhattan in 1880. As mid-town was developed in the 1920s, electrical cables and steam pipes were laid down together. ConEd claims to have around 2000 buildings as customers and seven generating stations. In three of these stations the steam is a by-product of ConEd’s electrical power generating plants. it seems that the operation is fairly green.
A part of Broadway in lower Manhattan is called the Canyon of Heroes. Ticker tape parades used to take place along it, and these are now commemorated through granite plaques installed along the sidewalk. I walked along, looking at the strips reminding people of the games won by New York’s Yankees and Mets. On the way was the wonderful Georgian chapel you can see in the featured photo.
This is the 250 years old St. Paul’s Chapel, by now the oldest surviving building in New York. Interestingly, the building is made of the bedrock on which the island of Manhattan rests: the rock called Manhattan schist. The chapel is more well known because George Washington came here on the day of his first inauguration, and continued to come here regularly during the years when New York was the capital of the country.
I brought my attention back to the pavement of heroes: astronauts from the early days of space, Haile Selassie, and then, Radhakrishnan, the second president of India. I didn’t know that any Indian president had a ticker tape parade. The date was interesting: June 10, 1963. That’s the day Kennedy announced that the US was ready to enter into negotiations to stop atmospheric nuclear tests. About a year before that, China had invaded India during the Cuban missile crisis. At the end of the crisis, China withdrew its troops unilaterally. And on the same day that the US was ready to start on a new road to peace, the Indian president was given a ticker tape parade on Broadway. International politics was different then, but not completely different. Geography has a way of causing history to flow along certain channels.
On my way from Carnegie Hall to the Hearst Tower I passed in front of the school where Norman Rockwell studied art. The building which holds the Art Student’s League of New York was getting a face lift. A photo would have shown only the scaffolding. Opposite it, near the 57th Street subway station was something no art school should be without: an art supplies store (featured photo). That Mona Lisa on the wall outside the store required a closer look.
It isn’t a da Vinci, but its not so bad. No queues, no tickets, and a Beaux-Arts building for a canvas.