York Urbanist

Archive for December, 2013

New York City – Manhattan

December 23rd, 2013
Urban Design

Sensual NYC

Visual – Look up, way up

The canyons that are the streets are framed by concrete and steel.  To crane your neck is dizzying for a small town boy.

IMG-20130909-01267Replacing the twin towers, are two somber square holes, whose bottoms are unapparent, eerie reminders of what happened here in 2001.  Contrary and resplendent is a single supremely tall building and glistening phallic to The Event. I remember where I was September 11, 2001.

But now, what is the big deal about the Empire State Building.  Tucked amongst other less descript buildings, we searched for its entrance, a lobby that soared with gilt touches.  I suppose that NYC is chock full of interesting architecture reminiscing about the past as in Grand Central Station, and revelling in the present with the new towers. But the white and black plinth that is the United Nations stands as testament to the impact of USA on world affairs and therefore captures my attention. FL Wright’s Guggenheim Museum stands in stark contrast to the architectural flavour of affluent Fifth Avenue. The Starchitect of the past gloried in its white and round disparity with the brick façaded street.  Looking up through the spiraling atrium, the museum has corrupted it into an art piece whereby patrons are to lie on their backs to experience the mood altering colours on white sheets that remove all identity from the normally overlooking railings.

Even the signage and lights are big.  Times Square and Broadway brazenly adopt the theme of never sleeping.  The major corporations are there, tourists are there, but the locals stay away.  This is the playground for the world and for retailers.  Young bucks and does gallop on and off the sidewalks. Taxis let out their fares to wide-eyed approval from those who are visiting for the first time. Toronto’s Dundas Square has tried to emulate Times Square with the digital ads and towering signs, but NYC will not relinquish its crown of excitement 24/7.

Nasal – Until you arrive at Central Park, hold your nose

Manhattan-20130909-01225Such a refreshing oasis is Central Park, away from the gas fumes and street meat caterers.  But even through the park are those thoroughfares essential to a city. This is like Vancouver’s Stanley Park which is bisected by an asphalt vehicular route.  Neglecting the black tarmac, one can immerse oneself in heritage buildings, art and active recreation. The density of plant material protected from human intrusion by ‘temporary’ fences contains the scents and moisture of enveloping greenness.  The broad greens of baseball, soccer and cricket are a welcome alternative recreation to streetwalking and shopping. I understand now the significance of Central Park to the City.  The West side of the Park is an apartment edge, probably some of the most expensive real estate aside from the Fifth Avenue east edge.  Frederick Law Olmstead was the designer, but someone, perhaps a futurist, understood the need for a place of respite, before the city enwrapped itself around the proclaimed public space.  The waft of ocean air greets one who emerges from the Lower East Side smells of food, garbage and traffic.  Open to the sea with vistas of harbour happenings, Battery Park, despite being under construction, promises to be a pertinent green with concrete verge to Lower Manhattan.

Manhattan-20130911-01364Two storeys up, there are panoramic and protected vistas from the Elevated Park that is the High Line.  Converted from an elevated train structure, this was a captivating reuse of infrastructure. With only the Chelsea Market as a commercial anchor, the park attracts so many in the summer, even though it ends abruptly at a construction site on the north end. The park is an attraction by itself. Yet there are often questions about funding its operations and growth. Imagine a loft apartment overlooking a park in lieu of an active rail. There will be no question of its value once the Port Authority is developed at the north end.  The believers in the High Line are today’s futurists.

Tastes – a Cornucopia

One can find any form of food at prices that recognize that there are no farms in Manhattan. NYC appears as multinational as Toronto without the proliferation of corner coffee and donuts shops.  Chelsea Market provided the broadest variety of food experiences in its historic setting on the west side.  But the lower east side is a cornucopia of districts.  Italian meets, Chinese meets Korean and Polish.  The smells and tastes seemingly blend into one another.

Sounds – My ears are ringing

Times Square, with its ever present crowds, is a constant clatter in which to revel. The sounds deaden somewhat in all directions, losing the beckoning salespeople, but not the traffic and delivery van noises.  Music and not-so-tuneful sounds emerge from commercial entities. But back to the hotel for respite, right?  Well, not quite. Even on the 17th floor, the sounds of the city rise above the street level. Good for four days. Good to get back to the quietude of Kleinburg, Ontario.

Touch – New York was cleaner than anticipated.

As a tourist destination, Manhattan respects the need to clean up for its guests.  Street cleaners abound in Times Square and gardeners quietly maintain the parks.  The volumes of persons who grapple for space in the limited green spaces are often prevented from touching what is in such precious limited supply. In this way, the city can retain the greenness of Central Park’s expanses by limiting its use.  Subtle physical guides lead patrons away from planting beds of the High Line and hard, wide trails imbue a need to stay off the grass, except to lounge on its softness.


New York City tempts all senses. For a short term, it was an experience all urbanists should have.  To return, I would find a shelter outside of Manhattan and commute in via the excellent transit that exists. Gone are the nostalgic grafittied cars, replaced by an efficient and event courteous system.  To live in Manhattan would require a place that secured a private space free of the senses of the city.   The surprise was the feeling of safety, despite a checkered past.