Archive | September, 2012

42nd Street & Tudor City Place

27 Sep

In looking back through these I see my whole point here, I guess, is to try and show how every thing’s connected, or at the very least (or is it most?) to point out why one should never be bored, in NYC especially.  I’ve said as much before but a map of New York City is pretty much a map of my own curiosity – each street an almost endless tangent to run down.  Just look at something and wonder, and then find out the answer to one question you might have about it and then see how many questions that answer brings up.  It’s a great way to keep busy.  It’s just unfortunate that one can’t be paid a lot, a lot of money for doing it…..or even just one a lot of money.  Or how about a really nice Italian dinner?  An egg sandwich?  Some skittles?

Tudor City gave me that thrill the other day, and just in time to counter, or maybe enhance, those first stirrings of fall weather nostalgia.  By which I mean that feeling of nostalgia – that hopeful, hopeless, hands in jacket pockets and a runny nose feel – that fall weather brings.  The kind that makes you want to walk around the West Village listening to Nico’s “Chelsea Girls.”  What is it about a nip in the air that makes our emotions feel that much more complex?  We seem so much more complicated when we’re wearing a coat; pop the collar, wrap it hurriedly around you as the wind blows and understand you’re an adult.  Tudor City had that feel for me: that fall like sense of coming home, the day already dipped in shadows.

In writing about Grand Central Station I mentioned how West 42nd Street (far west especially) feels liminal and how the East Side feels like a bastion or rock – a truly settled residential neighborhood.  Although it wasn’t always like this.  When Tudor City went up in the 1920s (1925-1928) it was perhaps not too far off from the glass and steel condos dotting the west side today – a force of change amidst the slaughterhouses and power plants of the east side of Manhattan: a sort of liminal space itself.  Tudor City’s very lay-out gave evidence of its surroundings: intentionally looking inward, upon itself and its suburbanesque lawns, cut-off from the area around it.  It had its own north-south running street: Tudor City Place (apparently pre-dating Tudor City, with the earlier name of Prospect Place, from Prospect Hill that it ran along) and the fact that it was on a bluff above the East River and its industry, only added to the separation.

That separation was the intention of its developer, Fred F. French, who saw Tudor City as a rival to the coming suburbs: a place for city dwellers (not millionaires, he emphasized) who might otherwise desire to get out to greener pastures.  The “tulip gardens, small golf course ((!) – no longer there), and private parks,” were built for them.  You could pretend it was the suburbs (maybe) and then walk a few avenues over and be in Midtown.  And there was room for everyone; Tudor City was the biggest single residential project yet attempted in Manhattan, with roughly 3000 apartments and 600 hotel rooms. 

It wasn’t just Tudor City’s size that made it revolutionary but the way that it was financed as well.  Following the dictates of Fred French’s influential “French Plan,” Tudor City was more of a co-investment between its tenants and its owner (the Fred French company) than the average development, with land being turned over to its investors/tenants at actual cost, not padded with construction or real estate expenses.  As French himself put it, “the entire net profits from the operation of a building should be devoted towards repaying the investors, together with 6% cumulative dividends,” before the company received any profit.  Or as he put it more succinctly  “making small profits on a large business as opposed to large profits on a small business.”  Now I’ll admit, I can’t quite penetrate the finer details on this kind of thing, but I’m trying!  Honestly the older I get it’s this kind of minutiae that excites me the most, because honestly, I’m pretty sure it’s how the world actually works.

And speaking of excitement, how about those tangents that I mentioned earlier.  You know, the way that everything is maybe connected?  Minutia aside my one question or tangent about Tudor City (if I had to pick just one) would have to be the Tudor Dynasty itself from which the complex takes its name (referenced in its Tudor Revival design by H. Douglas Ives).  The Tudors reigned over England from 1485, when Henry VII defeated Richard III at Boswell Field, to 1603, when Elizabeth I died childless and the Stuart dynasty began.  Man, that sentence right there alone excites me: how much you could explore in that!  Think of what fall must have felt like in, say, 1585, in London, with a light rain falling.  I bet they had some real great coats.

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Park Avenue & 42nd Street

12 Sep

I’ll admit, I sometimes too feel like the world’s a cold and forlorn place, closed off, unrecommendable, with nothing beyond the most pedestrian or sallow gifts to offer – and then the weary, fetid soul: that oft befuddled, tired soul, no mystery so much as an incessant and repetitious recurrence.

Most of the time I’m feeling pretty good though.

I was kind of wondering the other day: what’s the heart of Midtown?  This was coming off of an earlier musing: what the hell is Midtown?  That one might be, ultimately, unknowable.  But for the first one, I figured 42nd Street would be a decent guess.  I was only even asking the question because it was so hot out and I was thinking how inhospitable Midtown is: absorbing and radiating out its own internal heat, and then, following that (some what perversely) – standing, expectant, on its edges – I was thinking how one could feel compelled, driven almost, to delve into its thick, sun-blasted canyons of as if on some type of vision quest.  Does that make sense?  I was already pretty sweaty and delirious by now.

Heading east on 42nd Street, from the Hudson, there’s the feeling of moving from new to old, from empty towards full, from the threshold to the established.  The crux is probably somewhere near Fifth Avenue, closer to Park.  In fact the crux, possibly, is Grand Central Station (officially Grand Central Terminal, but who cares, right?  We’re sweaty).  Grand Central is nestled firmly, snuggly, in the city fabric, in its stream – a rock really – which is impressive because in truth Grand Central is a door: an exit, a passage out of the madness.  And it’s a throw back too: the largest train station in the world (44 platforms, 67 tracks) at a time when rail travel ain’t exactly what it used to be.  Still, Metro-North remains one of the busiest commuter rails in the U.S., with about 140,000 people passing through Grand Central daily (compared to close to 600,000 over at Penn Station).

Grand Central wasn’t built for Metro-North though; it was built for the much larger and more extensive New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, the New York & Harlem Railroad, and the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad.  The first two of those railroads, at least, were owned by “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt: who got his start (and nickname) running ferry service in the harbor out of Staten Island.  He created Grand Central in part to physically consolidate his different rail lines; the first depot was opened in 1871 (by all accounts already obsolete when it was finished), with renovations to follow in 1898 and 1900.  The big change came though only when it was decided (with much public and governmental coercion) to electrify, sink and then cover up the entire railroad yard and tracks all the way up Fourth Avenue to 96th Street.  Out of that idea the current Grand Central Terminal, and also Park Avenue, was born.

The Terminal, completed in 1913, was a huge, expensive, ten year long endeavor, that played out as a bit of a power struggle between the two architectural firms involved: Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore, with Warren & Wetmore seemingly winning out (and being primarily responsible for the Beaux Arts style and details of the building).  One of Reed & Stem’s big contributions though was the use of viaducts to run Park Avenue around Grand Central Terminal, which I guess is pretty blasé today, but honestly, is pretty wacky.  It’s kind of like the past’s idea of what the future would look like, you know: let’s just run elevated roads around buildings, no problem, they’ll probably all be doing it in 30 years.  So there you go.  There’s basically a highway circling Grand Central Station like a belt, around the second floor or so – a highway – and no one even talks or gives a shit about it!

Anyway, sorry.  The interior of the terminal, of course, is very beautiful (you can’t see the highway) and famous, but probably everyone knows that already.  There’s been a move in recent years, beginning with extensive restorations in the 90s, to make Grand Central a destination in its own right, which is bearing fruit today: nice restaurants upstairs ringing the Main Concourse, gourmet shopping at the Grand Central Market, and then a host of cheaper options in the Dining Concourse downstairs.  It’s pretty cool: I mean, the building’s here already, we should use it.  I think it would be fun to get dressed up real nice, like an old-fashioned, classy 1920’s look, and sit down in the Dining Concourse with a couple different newspapers, ex-pat style, and just drink Fernet.  And then, you know, go and eat at like Chipotle.  Also the Oyster Bar (since 1913!) lists where all their beers are from, including Budweiser, which I think is great.  Like, “Hey, what do have that’s from St. Louis?”  “Man, this is delicious!”

And a whole lot more of other things.  There’s way too much about this place to fully delve into: the railroad’s history, the architecture, “Commodore” Vanderbilt himself, Park Avenue and the skyscrapers and developments that run along it.  No lack of tangents there: more than enough to get you going.  A map of our curiosity would possibly look a lot like New York City, except with way fewer straight lines and angles, and also, to read it right, you’d have to be physically running and maybe adding on to it, incessantly, just as you go, and also, probably shouting.  But it’s cool though; I mean, we’re already sweating, right?

(Originally posted Aug. 11th, 2011 on Takethehandle.com)

The Elevated Acre

2 Sep

So where’s the best place to catch a nap outdoors in the Financial District? Well, who cares? It’s winter again; the answer is nowhere. When the f did that happen? I got to say: I didn’t see it coming—my instincts really let me down. The monarch butterfly travels 3,000 miles to avoid this kind of thing. Your common black bear takes a nap for five months. I look at weather dot-com and say, “Boy, it’s going to be cold the next ten days.” Then I probably say, “Oh well, it’s not really the cold that does it, it’s the fact that it gets dark so early.” Well bullshit! What baloney. I’ll take pitch black and 80 any day. Good napping weather.

A few months ago – what I like to think of as my golden past—I would have said the Elevated Acre, at 55 Water Street, was the spot. Back then I’d pop up there whenever I could find the chance: a slow day on the trading floor, a long lunch break at Deutsche Bank, an informal meeting with American International Group (I have a few jobs—I’m also available for baby-sitting). The Elevated Acre’s dense undulating strips of tall grass and trees provide a nice spot to take off your shoes and hide; its boardwalk stands 30 feet above the East River with its sunny views and helicopters, and its turf lawn is perfect for some face-down napping. The top two floors of the palazzoesque New York City Police Museum (originally the First Precinct Police Station) peeking over the lawn add a nice touch—like you’re passed out on the manor grounds of some old estate in England. Then you roll over and gaze up at the largest office building in the city.

The Elevated Acre was part of the original design for 55 Water Street, though it didn’t have the snazzy name. When the two-building complex was completed in 1972 it had more square-footage than any office building ever built: a monument to the super-monoliths of the 1970s that everybody hates so much today. By providing a public plaza on the property, developers were able to trade-in for an additional six-and-a-half or so floors, a pretty standard arrangement in New York since the 1961 Zoning Resolution. As one New York City developer put it, “Architectural amenities are sheer nonsense. Zoning determines architecture.”

He’s got a point. The 1961 Zoning Resolution was a creature of its day, following in some fashion Le Corbusier’s vision of the future city as “skyscrapers set in parks.” It emphasized very large plots, built uniformly tall and wide, surrounded by or including open spaces. What you generally got were nondescript, oppressive monstrosities, squatting over neighborhoods, removed from the city grid and its street energy by bands of marginal and unused public plazas. 55 Water Street itself replaced four whole city blocks of older buildings and removed some streets entirely from the map. The original plaza followed along the same disappointing lines: built almost as lip service for the traded increase in square footage it allowed. The plaza was hidden away, unmarked from street level, and paved primarily in brick (including a wall at the eastern end that effectively cut off the East River view). The fountains and pools that it included didn’t last long before they were shut down and for long stretches of time the plaza would be closed entirely, unopened to the public. Don’t worry, the owners of the building still got to keep their extra six-and-a-half floors.

The original design has been called the height of “cynicism towards the public”—indicative of the orthodox planning of its day, which consciously or not seemed intent on destroying the very assets that make a city unique (I’m deep into Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities—truly amazing). It seems all the more exciting, then, that the Elevated Acre has been remade. Today the space is inviting, relevant and, most importantly, used—a reflection, in part, of the growing residential character of Lower Manhattan. A park means nothing by itself; it’s pointless if it isn’t frequented. Someone has to be around to feel the breeze blow, to watch the turf struggle nobly towards the sun. Well, we’re that somebody! It’s a small and lovely role to play—it takes like five minutes. Sure it’s winter, but whatever. There are things to do still, we’ve all got minds; we’ve invented layers. Something’s gonna happen. And something can be very small.

(Originally posted Dec. 17th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)