New York New York is a “helluva town”. The 1944 musical On the Town did not mince matters. I was there recently and since my return have read about its out-of-the-way museums, its public art, co-working spaces and constant references to the High Line, which is rarely out of the news. The long, elevated west-side park gave new meaning to re-use of old freight lines, with its recycled timber seating, plants, grasses, water displays, and peep-hole steps for watching the traffic passing below. Endless fantastic views into a city’s industrial, commercial and residential heartland are added to by glamorous new apartment blocks gentrifying the Chelsea district and turning the cost of living there topsy-turvy for its long-term residents.
I travelled in from Nyack, an arty, historic Southern Highlands-type town on the Hudson some 50 kilometres north of Manhattan, a bus and then local or express train from Tarrytown (pronounced as a lilting James Stewart by the guards on trains that still clickety-clicked the tickets). We passed the new Tappan Zee bridge under construction a few metres noth of the origianl cantilever bridge. Work on the new dual-span twin bridge began in 2013 for targeted completion in 2017 and judging by the registration plates in a car park near an accessible part of the site it is attracting workers from right across the country.
Image: New NY Bridge
The train passed foliage turning all shades of red, and went down through the Bronx and Harlem, to arrive at Grand Central Terminal, on 42nd street like Times Square but in its own domain. Said to be the world’s largest station by number of tracks and number of platforms, some 10,000 people come into Grand Central just to have lunch. Besides the Beaux-Arts architecture, marble columns, sweeping staircases and vast main concourse area (and a massive Big Apple insignia marking the first level store and the city itself) I was so impressed by its organisation, clear signage to tracks and subways and an information booth in the centre of the concourse area whose numerous staff were not afraid to pull out a timetable to rapidly roll out times and track numbers.
The bathrooms were even cleaned regularly, felt pads soaked up dribbling soap dispensers and powerful hand driers meant that, for once, I avoided chapped hands even when the weather turned cold.
Generally I was lucky, pounding the blocks in warm sun, 10 per mile I understand, in that pulsating New York motion, realising how important wide pavements are even though the city at the moment is a construction site with fencing and scaffolding everywhere. There were details, such as heavy doors (catering for what is a cold climate) and uniform slim door hardware in many outlets in New York and also Philadelphia, which I also visited). Three levels of drinking fountains cater for children, adults and people in wheelchairs; loud cafes with artisan bread have a city thrum from brick walls and concrete floors; and the new Whitney Museum’s details are for more than the art work. I admired the way the millet bread rolls were embedded within tightly chequered napkins. Eataly, a deli with different types of coffee (none of which as good as my favourite flat whites here), wine, pizza, cheese, cold meats, near the triangular Flatiron Building on 5th Avenue where cabbages were growing in fluted stone roadside containers.
Image: Prodigy Network
I loved the subway’s Metro Card, one fare for all trips and turnstile exits with no need to tap off (Sydney’s Opal cards please note), and the need to discover unexpected places as when the memory card in my camera was full and my cousin took me to an old-fashioned specialist camera shop in a high street so unlike the sprawling suburbs around it; no this was not NY City.
Then there are the coincidences that make you pinch yourself, such as when I was admiring the cobblestone Meatpacking District to hear my name called and see a well-bearded Bill Dowzer, BVN Principal who have set up in WeWork co-working space in Brooklyn’s Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) before a planned re-location to another space in Penn Station as they pursue North American work in law firms who wish to change their whole approach to design. I could not get over this instance in twilight New York of the firm’s bump factor. Who needs an office?
And then there is the sight of architectural icons, historic Empire State Buildings and Rockefeller Centres, and elegiac, the Ground Zero perpetual waterfalls and etched tributes to the 9/11 victims. All this, and more, reminds me of the building industry’s reach into all facets from products to transit, design to sustenance, density to parks, bridges to pavements, public art to scaffolding, construction to maintenance, landscape to home.
Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community. @deborahsingerma