There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?–Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster–tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand–miles of them–leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues–north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither? … There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries–stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water. … Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Chapter 1 (“Loomings”)
I love skylines, love dense clouds. New York City has wonderful skylines. You can’t really see them from Manhattan, but you can from the waterside and from the outer boroughs, which have lower buildings.
It is wonderful that Manhattan is an island bounded by water: the ocean (New York Harbor), the East River, the Hudson River, the Harlem River.
One thing this does is prevent urban sprawl and the development of a megalopolis ending nowhere.
It also gives the city an almost enchanted quality or aspect. It leads to dreamy speculation and reflection, as Herman Melville noted.
My departed friend Bill Dalzell alerted me to this special aspect of New York City some fifty years ago.
I love the curve of the bay at the bottom of Manhattan Island. Such a beautiful harbor.
Today, I walked along the water’s edge from 14th Street to the Battery. Such a wonderful stiff breeze off the river. Such a wonderful walk at a time of despair,
“The blab of the pave … the … talk of the promenaders”
— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (cataloguing the delights of the City)
I continuously see people on the street, in the park on sidewalk benches, in gathering places such as cafes and bars — everywhere — in pairs or larger groupings, engaged in deep conversation and repartee.
People feel less self-conscious in New York. Free to express themselves. New York encourages thought and exchange of ideas.
Addendum: Another thought. The fact that NYC is in large part a city in which people are on foot when they are outdoors, and not in cars, but instead are walking, or resting on benches, say; and, when they are traveling, are often on subways or buses, where conversation frequently occurs, is a facilitator of conversation and interaction.
On Friday, April 12, I walked from one end of Manhattan to the another — from bottom to top — and another five miles back downtown before getting tired and giving up.
The photos below were taken by me during different stages of my walk, beginning in Battery Park in the early morning, continuing to 218 Street at midday, and ending in the Columbia University neighborhood in the early evening.
I would like to make a few points about walking that have occurred to me from time to time, and which seemed to be confirmed by this long walk of between twenty and twenty-five miles.
First, contrary to what one might expect, walking, counterintuitively, seems to decrease appetite. I had eaten very lightly the day before; I woke up hungry. I walked about three miles before having a light breakfast at around 8:30 a.m., two and a half hours after I had started.
At around five-thirty, I stopped to eat a late afternoon, early evening lunch/dinner. I felt very hungry. But I quickly got filled up and couldn’t finish.
Secondly, walking seems (as I have stated before) to be a perfect form of exercise which does not unduly tax the body while contributing to wellbeing. I have not walked as much as usual lately — this was true in the winter months. Yet, on Sunday, April 7, I walked something like fifteen or sixteen miles, and on April 12, as noted above, I walked another eight miles or so further than on my previous jaunt. I experienced little tiredness at different stages of my walk, did not need to warm up or feel the need to take breaks.
Without being an expert, I would be inclined to say that we are made for walking, evolutionarily speaking. For most of human existence, until recently, people were accustomed to walk constantly, and it is undoubtable that they walked on average a lot more than we do now.
Thirdly, I have noticed that, when I start walking frequently, my “brother body” (a term used by the sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin, apparently adopting the phrase from words of St. Francis) seems to want more and more of the same. I will wake up a day or two later feeling, I want to do that again. Today!
On Sunday, April 7, I walked from Battery Park in Manhattan to Dyckman Street (200th Street; the last Manhattan street is 218th Street). The walk took me all day. With zigzagging, I probably walked sixteen miles.
I walked uptown from Battery Park along the so-called Hudson River Park until I reached the 30’s, when I decided to take a look at the New Hudson Yards development. Hudson Yards has just opened. It was built over a railroad yard on the Far West Side.
Hudson Yards has not been getting good press from architectural critics.
from The Washington Post:
“Architecture critics have been almost unanimous in their hatred of New York ’s new Hudson Yards development, a generic pop-up landscape of soulless glass towers and high-end retail built over the wasteland of midtown Manhattan’s west-side rail yard. Longtime New Yorkers, and transplants with taste, are inclined to agree: It’s as ugly as Dubai, it reeks of greed and mammon, and it only exacerbates the worst tendencies of a city that seems hellbent on erasing anything distinctive or humane in its built environment.”
— “The Shed is the only reason to go to Hudson Yards, New York’s most hated new development.”, By Philip Kennicott, Art and architecture critic, The Washington Post, April 3, 2019
from The New York Times:
The first massive tower emerged at the apex of the High Line, looming over it, a shingled, spiky, reflective blue-glass behemoth [The Vessel], shaped by eccentric cuts and angles, as if sheared by a giant Ginsu knife.
The largest mixed-use private real estate venture in American history. …, it is called Hudson Yards. … at jaw-dropping magnitudes you can’t begin to grasp until you are actually standing there, Hudson Yards has sprouted a seven-story, 720,000-square-foot shopping mall. There are also four more supertall skyscrapers as well as a $500 million city-sponsored arts center called the Shed.
… [The Vessel, a climbable 15-story sculpture which stands out as a defining architectural symbol/motif is] a 50-foot-high, $200 million, latticed, waste-basket-shaped stairway to nowhere, sheathed in a gaudy, copper-cladded steel. …
For its advocates, the $25 billion development is a shining new city ex nihilo, a wellspring of future tax revenues and evidence of a miraculous, post-9/11 civic volte-face. …
It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.
A relic of dated 2000s thinking, nearly devoid of urban design, it declines to blend into the city grid.
It offers 14 acres of public open space in return for privatizing the last precious undeveloped parcel of significant size in Manhattan. But the open space looks like it may end up being mostly a fancy drive-through drop-off for the shopping mall, a landscaped plaza overshadowed by office towers and, for the coming western yards, a scattering of high-rise apartment buildings around a lawn — in effect, a version of a 1950s towers-in-the-park housing complex, except designed by big-name architects. … the whole site lacks any semblance of human scale. With its focus on the buildings’ shiny envelopes, on the monotony of reflective blue glass and the sheen of polished wood, brass, leather, marble and stone, Hudson Yards glorifies a kind of surface spectacle — as if the peak ambitions of city life were consuming luxury goods and enjoying a smooth, seductive, mindless materialism. …
Over all, Hudson Yards epitomizes a skin-deep view of architecture as luxury branding. Each building exists to act like a logo for itself. The assortment suggests so many crowded perfume bottles vying for attention in a department store window display.
— “Hudson Yards Is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community: Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?” By Michael Kimmelman, Architecture critic, The New York Times, March 14, 2019
Kimmelman goes on to say, perceptively:
The obvious precedent here is Rockefeller Center, completed during the 1930s, the last comparable development in Midtown Manhattan. … [It was] an object lesson in urban design and a landmark of modern art and architecture, a development ingeniously, democratically woven into the fabric of the street grid.”
At a glance, Rockefeller Center looks unified because of all the masonry construction and Art Deco details. But the real source of its coherence is its plan. … All the parts work in harmony to create a singular place inseparable from the rest of the city.” [Raymond] Hood [Rockefeller Center’s chief architect] grasped the difference between scale and size — how a site with multiple entrances needs to be orchestrated from many angles, how architecture without urban design is just sculpture, how true art enhances the dignity of a place, and how the success of a neighborhood and its retail businesses come down to what’s happening at street level.
Hudson Yards barely acknowledges any of these things.
The sage observations of one Roger W. Smith (while walking on Sunday):
Hudson Yards deserves the criticisms it’s getting. From critics who know a lot more about architecture and cityscapes than I ever will.
Its stores are for rich people and tourists. The new concert hall/arts venue (The Shed) does not look appealing or inviting.
But the place is thronged (was thronged when I went there on Sunday).
With ordinary people. Congregating, milling about. Mingling. Gawking.
Sitting on benches on a spring day.
Because it’s a place to go. In what was a storage yard for railroad cars. The number 7 subway line has been extended to go there. A new urban space has been created ex nihilo.
People like to be in the midst of other people. People hate isolation, hate to be cooped up. (Pity the poor, inhumanely and cruelly treated inmates in our prisons.) This is very true of New Yorkers.
NYC invites its apartment dwellers OUTDOORS. On a beautiful early spring day in April. Streets and thoroughfares for walkers and bicyclists everywhere. People out on Sunday. Congregating in parks seemingly everywhere. Walkers predominating and defining the streetscape (on a lazy non-business day), like you see nowhere else in America.
Many interesting looking people. Snatches of conservation overheard. Attractive young women. Attractive young couples. People sunbathing themselves on the grass. People in crowded bars and cafes, jammed with customers.
Young ladies walking dogs. Parents with kids. A father free from work for the day taking his son or daughter for a walk, presumably heading to the park, or in the park. Mothers with strollers. Kids frolicking and kicking a soccer ball in the park, with the utter abandonment characteristic of kids at a play.
New York is wonderful.
Rockefeller Center is accessible in a way that Hudson Yards isn’t. Michael Kimmelman makes an excellent point. But Hudson Yards is another place to go. New York keeps changing, sometimes not for the better, but it’s hard to destroy its vitality and appeal to common humanity, despite cement and steel.
The concentration of people. It’s why I love cities.
The concentration of business establishments; of restaurants serving every cuisine imaginable, at a wide range of prices; of coffeehouses everywhere where you can sit musing or chatting for what seems like forever; of places of interest such as libraries, theaters, cinemas, concert halls, museums.
The parks and public gathering spots, such as public sitting areas everywhere on even the most congested avenues.
The wide sidewalks, thronged with people.
The wonderful infusion of people of all races and nationalities. The immigrants. The tourists. What they contribute and share in terms of enthusiasm and amiability.
The incredible variety of languages spoken. Heard all the time, on the street and on the subway. Music to the ears.
The access to water, to the ocean and the Hudson and East Rivers, every which way one turns.
A sense of being impervious to weather. It’s fun to walk the streets on a hot summer day when everyone is without a coat. On a winter’s day when somehow an icy chill doesn’t seem to matter. When it makes your blood tingle, and when walking the streets makes you feel warmer. And when it’s raining, the rain-slicked sidewalks often have a feeling of romantic beauty.
The City. Manhattan. The energy! The fun. The sheer excitement!
In a metropolitan area with the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the nation, and in a City where far more languages are spoken than in any other city in the world — in public; on the streets and in parks; in stores and restaurants; on buses and the subway; and so on.
To hear the variety of languages spoken in NYC is exhilarating.
I love to hear foreign languages.
To hear the wonderful sonorities of Spanish being spoken. To hear Russian, and to be able to recognize it. To be able to recognize Polish, which I hear spoken very often in my neighborhood.
To guess at other languages that I hear being spoken during my peregrinations.
To me, it’s just another reason to WELCOME IMMIGRANTS. If only others — some do, but I fear, and in fact know, it’s far too few — could see this.
“The grass that grows by absorbing the life-giving energy of the sun becomes [in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass] a metaphor of ‘the ceaseless springing forth of life from death.’” — David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman: A Cultural Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pg. 240
My longtime friend Bill Dalzell, who for many years lived in New York City, introduced me to so many things when I first came to New York in the late 1960’s.
Among other things, Bill introduced me to cinema and art. We made several trips together to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bill, a New York transplant from a suburb of Pittsburgh, where he grew up, was — like many having adopted New York City as their home, including myself — an enthusiast of all New York had to offer. He knew all the inexpensive, interesting things to see and do in the City.
Bill used to say: “Would you care to hear me sing the praises of New York?” He used to marvel at the fact that so many people of all races and nationalities lived cheek by jowl in harmony. At the richness of culture. At the convenience of things such as getting around. At how much the City had to offer at what were then modest prices.
Admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was free. The main branch of the New York Public Library was open 365 days a year. The subway and bus fares were 20 cents. So was the Staten Island ferry, one of the fun, vivifying, and inexpensive things he enjoyed doing. (We would get off on the Staten Island side, walk around a bit, have a cup of coffee, and take the ferry back to Manhattan.) A meal of wholesome, plain food at the Automat (where Bill used to love to sit and drink coffee while lost in thought) could be had for less than a dollar. A glass of beer in a bar was 20 cents, and usually every third beer was on the house. Films cost less than two dollars. Rents were cheap. Bill paid twenty-nine dollars a month for a one-bedroom apartment on East 5th Street.
Bill introduced me to the paintings of Edward Hopper, one of his favorite painters. (Hopper’s paintings are, for the most part, exhibited in New York museums.) Bill and I, at his suggestion, made a one-day excursion to Nyack, NY to view Hopper’s birthplace.
During our museum trips, he pointed out how Hopper made use of light.
“The light is different in America,” Bill would say. (He had traveled practically everywhere in the world on a limited budget.) By “different,” Bill meant brighter. More brilliant. Yes. Brilliant light. An observation which I do believe to be true. I have observed and thought about this often.
I have come over the years to be myself fascinated by light. Early morning light, daylight, late afternoon light. The light hitting the grass. Different shades of light and degrees of brightness. Summer light. Autumn light. Winter light.
While I would and could never aspire to be an artist — I have no innate talent and only a limited appreciation of the visual arts — I have been taking photographs in the City in parks, on the shorelines, and of houses and streets on my walks, I have posted below some photographs of mine in which an appreciation of sunlight as viewed from ground level is expressed in the photo. I am fascinated by the quality of sunlight in different seasons and at different times of the day.
Most of Hopper’s figure paintings focus on the subtle interaction of human beings with their environment-–carried out with solo figures, couples, or groups. His primary emotional themes are solitude, loneliness, regret, boredom, and resignation. He expresses the emotions in various environments, including the office, in public places, in apartments, on the road, or on vacation. … In many Hopper paintings, the interaction is minimal.
The effective use of light and shadow to create mood is central to Hopper’s methods. Bright sunlight (as an emblem of insight or revelation), and the shadows it casts, also play symbolically powerful roles in Hopper paintings such as “Early Sunday Morning” (1930), “Summertime” (1943), “Seven A.M.” (1948), and “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963).
Hopper always said that his favorite thing was “painting sunlight on the side of a house.”
Although critics and viewers interpret meaning and mood in his cityscapes, Hopper insisted “I was more interested in the sunlight on the buildings and on the figures than any symbolism.” As if to prove the point, his late painting “Sun in an Empty Room” (1963) is a pure study of sunlight.
countryside near Helsinki, Finland; photograph by Elisabeth van der Meer
East Green, Central Park, New York; photograph by Roger W. Smith
Inwood Hill Park, New York City; photograph by Roger W. Smith
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,
Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-hemm’d Manhattan,
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide,
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter*;
Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me;
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you;
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sun-lit water;
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!
— excerpted from Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
* A lighter is a flat-bottomed barge used to transfer cargo to and from ships in harbor.