Thursday, January 25, 2007

Manhattan is the eastern Sierra Nevada of the east coast

I suppose if you put up a title like this you really should follow up with a Walt Whitman poem. But last night at around 9:00 pm, after getting out of twelve hours of difficult meetings in New York in which I had decided in the morning upon the medicinal use of coffee, I found I was completely exhausted but completely wired. This is what happens to non-coffee drinkers. So I indulged in something I haven’t had time to do in a long time in my frequent but irregular trips to the city, which was walk Broadway from 14th Street to the street our old apartment had been on, 96th Street and Riverside, and back to my hotel at 25th and 7th. There is nothing like Manhattan, even on a cold night, and nothing like Manhattan at the hour when the theatres in midtown get out. Times Square lit magnificently, all so very alive, vibrating. People don’t understand – Manhattan does go to sleep; up on the Upper West Side it was all very domestic and asleep. By the time I got back down to Chelsea, it too was asleep.

Walking in Manhattan is the finest combination of the micro - the level of street life and interesting things to see at the level of the store front, the restaurant window, the faces of people walking along – and the macro – the grand landscape of the buildings and the skyscrapers and, in the darkness, the drama of the lighting and the advertisements. Paris is more civilized, London as alive but not as dramatic at the macro-level of landscape as Manhattan. What gives Manhattan its special character is found at the macro-level, the mountain landscape created by its buildings – plunge down Broadway from Columbus Circle down toward Times Square. The skyscrapers are densely textured and enormously deep. The older buildings and the newer buildings have back-layering of their stories – they look more than anything else on the East Coast or, really, east of the Rockies, like the glaciated crags of the Sierra Nevada. Despite a spurt of pure modernism, Manhattan skyscrapers are not merely monolithic rectangular prisms stood on end. They taper back as they gain in height, often dramatically so, and the effect of narrowing the top floors relative to a building's footprint on the ground floor is to make the buildings feel as though they were leaping upwards, creating a sense of grandeur that is very much akin to the mountains of the West.

I can tell no one reading this actually believes me. I can actually sense the skepticism, dear blog reader. Certainly that was the reaction this afternoon from my dear friends David Rieff and Scott Malcomson, sitting in a coffee shop in Tribeca – well, I say, you guys are jaded New Yorkers. Try it someday, coming down Broadway from 57th Street to south of Times Square, especially at night. Then get on a plane and fly into Reno and drive south on 395, or fly into Ontario and drive north. Come along the eastern Sierra, into the Owens Valley – the deepest valley in the entire Western hemisphere, so the geology books tell me, measured by vertical drop from the tops of the Sierra Crest on one side and the entirely different but nearly as high folded sedimentary White Inyo Mountains on the other. God’s own country, and Darwin’s, too: the rest, an afterthought. Go take a look and see if the jagged Sierra peaks are not the skyscrapers of Manhattan. The same stereoscopic depth of field, the same dense texturing. How very American to take the archtypal Western natural glory and architecturally recreate it in the most urbanized place in the United States - and a place notably lacking in real mountains. And that is a Whitmanesque thought, yes?

(I wrote about this once, in a review not long after 9-11 of a wonderful book on the evocation of the skyline of Manhattan in the movies, James Sanders' Celluloid Skyline. TLS review here. The book took as its source photographic materials a very strange and wonderful archive of Manhattan photos used in Hollywood to create sets of Manhattan for the movies over decades. How peculiar that the greatest archive of architectural photographs of Manhattan is actually in California and was created for the movies, to assist in painting backdrops and building sets. The book has a long and fascinating discussion of why the first King Kong movie, in which Kong climbs the Empire State Building, with its set back upper stories, feels so much more like a real mountain than the second, in which Kong climbs the featureless prism of the World Trade Center.)

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