Empire State

In July 2007 I traveled throughout New York State and into Manhattan. The primary reason for the trip was to accompany my sister who had been invited to a colleague’s wedding in New Jersey, but we both decided to take the opportunity to see more of New York while driving there. I was particularly interested in some of the museums in Manhattan, and I wanted to visit the New York Public Library. In planning the itinerary I noticed that Ithaca in the Finger Lakes district in the centre of New York State would be a good place for a stopover. Ithaca itself is home to many gorges and waterfalls, as well as Cornell University and the famous vegetarian restaurant Moosewood. The Finger Lakes district held the promise of many points of interest such as Mark Twain’s study and gravesite in Elmira, the Corning Museum of Glass, and the site of the First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. The Finger Lakes and the drive to New Jersey was indeed a great opportunity to view scenic vineyards and the many valleys of the Catskills and the hilly region called the Southern Tier on the Allegheny Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains which runs along the southern counties of New York State. Along the route through New York State I saw an opportunity to visit the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival near Bethel, New York in the Catskills.
In New Jersey, the wedding for my sister’s colleague was in the splendid community of Englewood. The Englewood downtown was beautifully developed, with condos above stores, and parks and a performing arts centre by the historic railroad which cut through the downtown. I could see some parallels to Guelph, as it currently is and as it could become with good urban development.
The wedding reception was in the observation deck of a Holiday Inn in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. I could see the fireworks from the Live Earth concert held at nearby Giants Stadium. The original plan was to stay at this Holiday Inn and make day trips into Manhattan, but my sister developed a knee condition and had problems walking so she decided to book a hotel right in Manhattan for two nights. The change meant I would have to drive right into Manhattan– a daunting prospect at first, but I found the Internet mapping services of Google and Microsoft to be of great help in picking out the precise routes to take, and spotting problems such as one-way streets and confusing freeway exits. I described the process as driving into the belly of the beast. Later, in a museum in Manhattan, I saw a depiction of Saint Margaret, who, as the story goes, was swallowed by a dragon. In the belly of the beast she makes the sign of the cross and bursts out unharmed!
The Empire State Building, built in 1931. Right now the tallest building in New York and the second tallest in the United States. As an office complex, more people work here than in any other single structure in the United States, except for the Pentagon.
Reading the Sunday New York Times in a bagel shop on Amsterdam Avenue, just down the street from my Upper West Side hotel.
One of my objectives met– my picture taken beside one of the New York Public Library lions.
My hotel– The Lucerne at West 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Once the location was picked I could use the travel guidebooks at the Guelph Public Library to select routes and destinations to fill up our limited time in Manhattan.
Times Square. On New Year’s Eve, the Waterford Crystal Ball descends the flagpole seen just above the Discover Card advertisement on the centre building. That building was once home to the offices of the New York Times newspaper, hence the name of the area– Times Square.
The new office tower that is home to the New York Times. This building, the fourth for the New York Times, opened this year on 8th Avenue in an area that is in the midst of banishing its seedy history with revitalization projects. The architect wanted to create a sense of levitation and vibration in a structure seemingly wrapped in gauze. The building is close to Times Square, but outside of the zone of oversized neon billboards. Ecofriendly designs include:
– walls that allow sunlight to bounce off ceilings so natural light is spread deep into the interior of the building
– rooftop garden
– beautifully designed stairways overlooking the street (people may be inspired to skip taking the elevator)
– efficient underfloor air conditioning system which is popular in Europe
– superior air filtration
– nontoxic finishes and furniture
– electrical co-generation with an on-site natural gas turbine
From some angles, the view of the Empire State Building has changed little over the years.
Grand Central Terminal. The collapse of the railroads over the years had led to calls to replace this classic example of Beaux-Arts architecture. In the 1960s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis led the charge to preserve the building:
“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.”
In the 1970s Donald Trump restored Grand Central Terminal along with the Grand Hyatt hotel next door. As a result, in 1980, the neighbourhood began a transformation.
Nine days after taking this picture there was a steam pipe explosion. I had seen steam venting from holes in the street during my open bus tour through this area– that was normal, it was explained, and a way to relieve pressure. Steam is used for heating and air conditioning in many of the buildings in Manhattan. The pipe that was damaged and that caused the explosion was 83 years old.
An article in The Globe and Mail, July 23, 2007, conveys the sense of restoration and rejuvenation that has occured in New York City over the past 30 years:
The good bad old days of murder, mayhem and disco
SIMON HOUPT NEW YORK DIARY Monday, July 23, 2007
New York City summers suck. But (with apologies to Tolstoy) each New York City summer sucks in its own way.
The summer after I moved to the city, chunks of buildings seemed to rain down on pedestrians every other week; people joked darkly that the sky was falling. The summer of ’02 was darkened by the spectre of a follow-up terrorist attack. A couple of years ago there was a severe water shortage that prevented kids from opening fire hydrants for relief and recreation. Last year, the city declared a heat emergency at the end of July; subway stations were like Dutch ovens. One area of Queens lost power for nine days.
This year, we already have Lexington Avenue exploding from a burst steam pipe, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg declaring, “There is no reason to believe this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure,” which could only be reassuring in a post-Sept. 11 world.
But in the annals of New York, the summer of ’77 stands out as probably the most tumultuous on record, not the suckiest. That summer, the serial killer David Berkowitz came out of the shadows to taunt the city as the Son of Sam in a series of letters to police and reporters. The heat soared to near record levels. Rupert Murdoch’s intentions for the liberal New York Post, which he’d acquired the year before, were becoming clearer. A blackout prompted looting and a wave of arson. More than 1,500 murders were committed that year – none of them, alas, in retribution for the fashion crimes occurring nightly at the new Studio 54.
But the sharp turbulence of that time seems to have faded from memory, as this city has donned its rose-coloured disco glasses for a fond look back. All three papers still around from that time have recently run special coverage of that summer.
The current edition of the free listings guide L Magazine contains a fake section “reprinted” from July, 1977, complete with reviews of the “new” Fleetwood Mac album Rumours, Elvis Costello’s debut album, and Talking Heads: 77, as well as a fashion piece declaring: “Bellbottoms Are Dead; Long Live Flares.”
The central event of the summer was the blackout of July 13, when lightning knocked out a Con Edison transformer, spurring unprecedented looting and demonstrating the breakdown of the social fabric. More than 1,000 fires were set across the city. A car dealership in the South Bronx had its entire stock of vehicles driven off the lot. Almost 900 people were arrested in Brooklyn. Police who responded to emergency calls were often pelted with debris that littered the streets from looting, anything that people could get their hands on: paper, water, bags of dried beans. Shopkeepers took up shotguns to protect their property.
Earlier this month the sports cable network ESPN debuted The Bronx Is Burning, an eightpart weekly miniseries that captures some of that chaos as it follows the quest of the 1977 Yankees for the World Series title. John Turturro stars as the manager Billy Martin, going toe-to-toe with Oliver Platt’s George Steinbrenner over the acquisition of the spoiled superstar slugger Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata). News about the show has been hard to avoid: ESPN has bought all the ad space in many subway cars, and sponsored a commemorative cover of the Post.
The series is based on Jonathan Mahler’s richly evocative 2005 book Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx Is Burning. (The title comes from a droll declaration made by broadcaster Howard Cosell when a school fire broke out near Yankee Stadium during the World Series.) In Yankee-land, ’77 is considered a high point, maybe because it was the last time the team won a World Series without buying its way to the championship.
Elsewhere, though, there’s a much stronger sense of ambivalence about ’77. The Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn, which was already on the skids from factory closures and the abandonment by Irish and Italian families that had long been the area’s backbone, suffered perhaps the worst blow that summer. Five days after the blackout, only two days after getting power back, the worst fire in modern city history (until Sept. 11) – known as an “allhands fire” because more than 300 firefighters fought the blaze – left 250 families homeless and 30 buildings destroyed. Over the ensuing decades, the neighbourhood became a haven for drug users and dealers.
Bushwick is on its way back now, jolting awkwardly forward in a rebirth tracked by a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society called Up from Flames. Curator Adam Schwartz wanted to offer an alternative to the golden hue that the storied summer has taken on. “I don’t necessarily see the romance in ’77,” he said late last week. “I see the tragedy. I see how many people died. I want to make sure the pain isn’t forgotten.”
Bushwick is still experiencing pain. Last month, The Village Voice ran a 6,000-word piece by journalist Tom Robbins called The Second Battle of Bushwick, about the struggle for low-income renters to stay in their homes even as halfmillion-dollar luxury condos parachute into the neighbourhood. Schwartz says the giddy optimism that’s taken over much of the rest of New York is ill-suited to this area. “Bushwick still has the second-highest rate of foreclosures in the city,” he says. (Bedford-Stuyvesant has the highest.)
Some other people here don’t believe the Summer of ’77 signified a turning point for the city. The Post columnist Steve Cuozzo, pimping as usual for Rudy Giuliani, wrote that it was another 17 years before the city began to come back from the dead – that is, in 1994, the year Giuliani took over City Hall.
Whatever the truth, the breadth of the discussion is impressive. But then, it’s just a larger version of the sort of selfcreating conversation this city always seems to be having. Barely a month goes by without a lecture or essay or documentary or art exhibition or TV show reflecting on an event or era in the city’s recent past. New Yorkers used to visit their analysts to understand their lives; now the city is in constant public analysis, self-mythologizing with an intensity and frequency that is unrivalled.
In Canada, we break out in self-conscious hives whenever we talk about the need to “tell our own stories.” Here, that tendency is in the city’s very DNA.
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