New York, New York
Every big city has more than one story to tell, but none weaves a yarn as rich as New York. This megalopolis was built by immigrants, slaves, the poor, and the persecuted, which arrived at its shores over the generations, to make a better life. In the nineteenth century, Italians, Jews, Irish, Germans, Poles, Russians, and other European nationalities found their way here; in the twentieth, the diasporas changed to people coming from Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Mexico, Guyana, Ecuador, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, India, Korea, and Puerto Rico. Together, they make up a majority of the 8.4 million people living in the city today. New York has more Jews than Tel Aviv, more Irish than Dublin, more Italians than Naples, and more Puerto Ricans than San Juan. New York, like Mumbai or Istanbul, sits on the edge, and like a magnet, it has attracted people.
The place is the heady concoction of commerce, art, sport, religion, entertainment, and finance. It’s a melting pot of ethnicities, customs, languages, cuisine, and other such rubrics of daily life. Today, one drops laundry next door, run by a Russian Jew, grabs a falafel from the Israeli on the next block, or a donor kebab from the Turk, at the subway entrance. The barber could be a Sicilian, who has never put his foot out of New York, yet squabbles in Italian with his cousin shampooing the next customer. Two blocks down, there is a burly Sikh running a 7-Eleven, a Hungarian bakery, and the Greek Diner, with a fine choice of reasonably priced wines. You can go kosher to halal, within a half-mile radius. I once had a crash course on Anwar Sadat’s politics from an Egyptian cab driver, supporting a family of nine back home in Cairo. Where else do so many cultures touch our quotidian needs?
It’s a city of stark contrasts and deep contradictions; here the poor and ultra-rich exist side by side. What a Wall-Street-Stud could spend in one boozy afternoon, his office janitor may take a year to earn. The word Tenement brings to mind both the miseries of urban life and the upward mobility of striving immigrant masses. Yet the word Skyscrapers was also coined here.
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are, to a large extent, strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending on a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” — E B White in “Here is New York,”
Called as Big Apple, Gotham, Capital of the World, City that never sleeps, it can be overwhelming for a newcomer. Visitors have called the city to be hard-edged, febrile, arrogant, and even uncivil. But that is not entirely true. This is a place where time is precious, moments have possibilities and an average Joe is simply too busy to be solicitous.
What makes NYC unique, a ‘World City’, when there are over 30 mega-cities with populations exceeding 10 million? Truth be told, most of them are unmanageable urban sprawls in Asia or South America — Delhi, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Dhaka, Cairo to cite a few; so numbers just don’t make a World City. Being the capital of the country does not confer the honor either–take Madrid or Washington, DC. The ability to make money may be another criterion, but that smacks of ignorance of the nouveau riche–Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai are the New Kids on that Block, rising, but not yet there.
For most of the 19th century, London and Paris (and Vienna during the Hapsburg Empire) were the World Cities. These European nations colonized the world, accumulated untold wealth, and matched their intellectual and cultural vigor with their economic and military might. But by WWI, Western Europe was on the wane and then WWII had it bankrupted. London today, decidedly multicultural, is trying to find its feet after breaking up with Europe; and Paris, decidedly poised, has been navel-gazing at its past glory ever since Napoleon was defeated. The 20th century belonged to the US of A, and New York was its memento.
Today, it continues to define the collective vocabulary of the world — Wall Street means finance, Broadway is synonymous with theatre, Fifth Avenue is boutique shopping, Madison Avenue is the advertising industry, Greenwich Village connotes bohemia, and Harlem evokes images of the Jazz Age, African-American aspirations, and slums.
It was hard to conceive that NY will end up surpassing Philadelphia or Boston, the original divas during the birth of this nation. But a series of long-sighted administrators, the city’s sharp focus on commerce, and a bit of good karma led to where it is now. It was for a short time the capital of the country, but it soon shed those aspirations and got down to the business of creating wealth. It chose Plutus on the altar, and commerce in its soul to become a World City in both trade and outlook. Ever since the days of the Dutch, money has remained the source of the city’s energy, the reason for its existence, and the engine of its growth.
The city is young by Asian or European standards. A Dutch settlement of 30 families had landed on Governor’s Island in 1624 and called it “New Amsterdam.” In the next few years, they purchased Manhattan Island from the natives for a princely sum of 60 guilders! By the 1660s, Britishers had expelled the Dutch, taken control of the area, and renamed it New York. The population then was a mere 18K, which by the turn of the century had grown more than ten times. The city developed on the southern tip of Manhattan (modern-day Financial District) and grew fast — today, over 8 million people live in its five boroughs.
Despair and resilience are recurring motifs in New York’s history and it has regularly been battered, doubted, cursed, and loathed, only to battle its way back to glamour. In 1835, a fire destroyed virtually the entire settlement; within a few years, a stronger, less flammable city emerged. Similarly, at the end of World War II, New York had the world’s busiest port and most productive factories. Three decades, and the arrival of 20 feet shipping containers later, shipping and manufacturing had collapsed, bringing the municipal government to the cusp of insolvency. Crime soared. More than 2K were killed each year on the streets, garbage piled high, and alley rats became gang lords — NYC became the ‘Crime Capital’ of the country. Yet two decades later, New Yorkers were hard at work again, this time in the service industry (finance and trading), in glass skyscrapers instead of factory floors.
Aftershocks of 9/11 presaged that nobody would ever again want to live or work in a skyscraper; the 2008 crisis predicted that Manhattan was doomed as financial capital — but all those worries too have come to naught. Now the latest ravages of the Covid pandemic have shaken the city to its core, but I think, and hope, the city’s resilience and energy will come up tops, yet again.
The city’s strength is its ability to reinvent itself. It is perpetually changing, adapting, growing, and meta-morphing mostly unmindful of woke public protests and scathing NYT op-eds. Some fret that not enough is done, others worry that change is happening too fast. There is a tug of war between memory and amnesia–a dilapidated tenement is an offense to someone’s aesthetic, yet each new building could be an insult to another’s childhood memories. You can pick your side of the argument, but New York’s appeal is in its complexity and contradictions.
Topographically, New York is a web of rivers, estuaries, inlets, bays, and channels that have played a critical role in the city’s growth. City officials have called the water as New York’s “sixth borough,” occupying more than a quarter of the city’s surface, giving it over 500 miles of coastline. Until the end of WWII, it remained America’s busiest port, handling the shipment of more than half of goods and immigrants that arrived in the country. Only the merchandise kept changing with time–from slaves to hemp, to coffee, sugar, spices, cocoa, molasses, limes, ginger, tobacco, then industrial goods and military equipment. Now, with manufacturing outsourced to Asia, there are miles of beaches, wetlands, desolate industrial stretches, and a lengthening necklace of waterfront greenery.
Flying in over Manhattan, on the way to JFK or LaGuardia landing, one can’t but be awed by its physical majesty. This city was compelled to shoot skyward because there was no other direction left to grow. Those superstructures are a metaphor for its aspiration and faith, the modern-day church spires of this global village.
In 1811, when the population started exploding, the city planners laid out a symmetrical grid, north of Houston Street, along eleven parallel avenues, crossed by 155 streets. At the time, the city was limited to the southern tip of the island, and north of Houston Street was farmland and uneven wilderness. On the map, it’s easy to see the chaotic street layout of South Manhattan that evolved before the 19th century, and then north of Houston St — all straight lines and right angles. No broad squares or grand boulevards converging on monuments (like other wealthy European cities) exist — here, tenements, skyscrapers, and stately buildings all follow the symmetrical grid.
They made Manhattan for walking before Fitbit made it cool, though a newcomer may get a little shock at the decibel levels of midtown. Walking is woven into the city’s DNA because traffic often makes driving impractical. As New Yorkers like to quip: Shall we walk or do we have time to take a cab? One minute on foot will carry you the length of a standard north-south block; all New Yorkers know that twenty blocks make a mile.
These are my eclectic geotags of memories of NYC during multiple visits.
Financial District (FiDi)
Lower Manhattan is where it all started in 1626 when a transaction occurred between a bunch of Dutch sailors and Native Lenape chief, for a princely sum of 60 guilders. That spot today is a small park of Bowling Green. Here the Dutch erected a ramshackle Fort, just a crumbling mound of packed dirt, which is long gone, and then built a cobbled street that the Britishers later named the Broadstreet. This southern tip of Manhattan is a palimpsest of numerous additions and reconstructions.
Those few Dutch sailors had not arrived to proclaim the glory of their king or do the work of God but in worldly pursuit of beaver pelt, which at that time was worth gold. Transaction, commerce, industry, and wealth have since been the guiding stars of Manhattan. Money is the juice that nourishes New York’s soul. London and Tokyo may serve a different time zone, but on a sheer scale, NYC remains the world’s financial capital.
Lower Manhattan has also been the theatre for the city’s defining catastrophes and its rebirth. One frigid December night in 1835, a fire swept through the neighborhood and charred most of the 17th and 18th-century rickety construction. Firefighters flailed and pumps seized up — near the shore, the East River was frozen solid. The city rose from those ashes with a better and safer urban design. There were more mishaps to come — the Depression-era of the 1930s, the fiscal crisis of 1975, the 9/11 attacks, the financial meltdown of 2008, Hurricane Sandy; yet each time, the place has reincarnated stronger.
Today, amid this manmade canyon of shining glass and concrete, it’s hard to imagine this place in its earlier days, when one inhaled the odors of brine, tobacco, tar, and horse dung. Streets were narrow and twisted, barely allowing a horse-drawn carriage. Here the dealers traded molasses, investments, and political influence, on the street side or in taverns. Until 1762, the city even ran a dockside slave market, collecting taxes on every sale of a human being; African slaves made up a fifth of the population during the 18th century. Quick growth in population and construction created tons of wastes. Huge loads of ash, offal, manure, and household garbage were carted to watery edges of East River and Hudson, and thus precious land was reclaimed.
Over time, the trading in hemp and sugar, and slaves gave way to equities and bonds. But now as we walk around, the area is again transforming itself. Banks have been moving to Midtown, or Jersey City, preferring airier, brighter options and, in their place, residential districts have sprung up. Master bedrooms are replacing the corner offices, and new schools and playgrounds emerge in earlier parking lots. Pandemic-induced WFH and its impact on FiDi’s real estate remains much debated, as I write this.
Federal Hall National Memorial — When NYC was the original capital of the United States — before it moved to Philadelphia and then Washington, D.C. — this served as the Capitol Building and City Hall. It’s where the founding fathers accepted the Bill of Rights and George Washington was sworn in as president on the front balcony in 1789.
The New York Stock Exchange — Erected at the intersection of Wall and Broad, in 1903. It was at one time the largest indoor space in the United States. Today, traders in blue windbreakers are part of history, as trading has gone online.
Trinity Church — Trinity Church was the first church built in NYC, and at one point was the city’s tallest building. What remains today is the third version, last raised in 1840, after a couple of fires. There are a few prominent New Yorkers buried in the churchyard–Fulton and Alexander Hamilton amongst them.
The Charging Bull — Weighing in at a whopping 7,100 pounds of bronze, the Charging Bull was designed by artist Arturo Di Modica in response to the stock market crashes of 1987/8. As a measure of ‘guerrilla art’, he left this hunk on a deserted December 1989 night, announcing that the work attested “to the vitality, energy, and life of the American people in adversity” and that it was “offered honorably” — and free — “in acknowledgment of American dynamics.”
WTC Memorial and Oculus
“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.” — E B White wrote in 1949, 22 years before the World Trade Center was completed.
The story of FiDi cannot be complete without reference to 9/11 and its aftermath. Today, at ground zero, where those towers once stood, are two identical square chasms clad in granite, with water perpetually flowing in from all sides, an emollient to relieve the grief of over 3000 lives lost. It’s a elegiac memorial stunning in its simplicity and haunting in its provenance. Names of the victims, incised in bronze, scroll around the parapet of those twin voids. On any day, one finds few stems of roses placed against specific names — a moving birthday tribute to the dead. The atmosphere is a mixture of somber reverence and casual selfie stick toting tour groups.
The approach to the 9/11 Memorial is through Oculus–a structure that defies credulity. Exiting the subway, one enters a large hall that competes with Grand Central Terminal in its vaulted drama. Something draws your eyes upwards where air and pristine light bleaches through slits of a colossal stack of boomerangs. Oculus, being a metaphor for the eye of the pantheon, now starts to make sense. But more visual razzmatazz hits you once outside. It transforms into a giant prehistoric bird’s skeleton, almost alive and heaving, having escaped from the lobby of the Natural History Museum. Its spiky extravagance is accentuated when seen against the repetitive vertical linearity of steel and glass towers. Locals, as is their wont, keep arguing if this is a work of genius or an extravagant overkill, but to me, it remains an architectural mirage.
Those entire destroyed blocks have risen into a geometric cool. Besides Oculus stands 1776 feet tall ‘Tower One’ — a deliberate reference to the year when the US Declaration of Independence was signed. They have balanced its exceptional height with an artful arrangement of ‘Prisms’. Close by it is ‘4 WTC’ with corners sharp enough to slice a salami, and it's exterior so pristine that a gust of wind may cause umbrage.
It would appear that while preserving the memory of death and despair of that dark moment, the city has moved on with life.
High Line & Chelsea
The High Line, an old elevated freight track abandoned to the weeds in 1980, runs from the new Whitney Museum of American Art to Hudson Yards. Here, nature is sculpted to simulate neglect — walkways of concrete and wooden planks merge into the grass, then sections of the original rusted rail track play hide and seek. Residential high rises appear at touching distance, where the High line walkers and apartment residents, the voyeur, and the exhibitionist, can peer at one another.
But this cool neighborhood is just a decade or so old. A hundred years back, a freight train huffed through the crowds along 10th and 11th Avenues, preceded by an urban cowboy on horseback whose job was to clear the tracks. This was the “Meatpacking District” where animal blood and offal were hosed off the sidewalk during the day, and live flesh sold at night. From the mid-nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth, this was a tough waterfront area where hours were long, life was short, and this edge of the town harbored every kind of morbid fetish of sin, sex, and crime.
The second half of the 20th century saw the arrival of containerized ports, supersized vessels, and air travel, making these narrow wharfs obsolete. The neighborhood had turned into a wasteland by the 1980s. In 1985, a Frenchie ‘Florent’ opened an all-night bar-restaurant attracting cross-dressers, celebrities, clubbers, and such eclectic eccentrics; in 1995, Chelsea Piers was turned into a sports complex. Apple and Google arrived in midtown; Art Galleries and gentrification followed at Chelsea. Then, in the first decade of this century two friends — Hammond and David, with blessings of Mayor Bloomberg, brought about this High Line renaissance.
Hudson Yards (HY)
A $25 billion extravaganza, with an additional $6 billion of tax credits, is the latest punching bag of New Yorkers. Multiple suicides at its futuristic ‘Vessel’ and a post-pandemic kneecapped retail, are also keeping HY on the back foot. But I think the city is still processing the attitude of this new arrival and will embrace it as its own in a few years, like it has done so often before.
A Walk along 42nd Street
This one street has a most impressive celebrity line-up: the United Nations, Tudor City, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, Times Square; this street is also where the press (the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the Times, and The New Yorker) have tested the limits of freedom of opinion.
I choose to walk it from East, where the UN is headquartered, struggling to save the world from itself, but mostly failing. The street starts with Tudor City, opened in 1925, a hilltop enclave of eleven buildings with 2,800 apartments — practically a manufactured town. Built for middle-class white-collar workers, it boasted its own streets, a hotel, a cramped but fully operational eighteen-hole golf course, and tennis courts. The golf course is sadly long gone.
Next is the elegant Chrysler Building piercing the skyline — an auto company’s ode to itself. Completed just as depression years set in, it’s a delightful tale of two egos clashing to build the tallest structure–the rivalry coming from Manhattan Company Towers. To beat the challenger, team Chrysler secretly built and raised a 185-foot spire on top, without the press or competition getting a wind. But the victory was short-lived–within a year Empire State Building, a few streets down, outsmarted it by over 200 feet!
We next arrive at the entrance to Grand Central, capped by sculpture Transportation, where Minerva and Hercules (Wisdom & Strength) perch besides Mercury (Commerce). The clock itself is 13 feet and statue, a staggering 48 feet. More splendors await inside. Concourse is 13-story high, with shafts of sunlight angling through vast double windows; across the vaulted ceiling, artist Paul César painted the night sky, constellations, and hundreds of twinkling stars lit by incandescent bulbs. Passageways lead out from the main concourse to the streets, the subway station, and on the lower level, a dining lounge, and the longest-serving eatery — the Oyster Bar. This striking opulence is fit for a conclave of Gods but instead provides grandeur to the daily commuter.
Again, the building’s history carries the recurring theme of a calamity, giving birth to a better idea. This is where a gruesome accident occurred in the morning rush hour of January 1902, when two trains collided killing fifteen people. In response, the public authorities and private capital worked together to this magnificent structure, redefining train and subway transport forever.
We can end the tour at Bryant Park, inside the public library, or if the legs allow, carry on to Times Square.
Bryant Park has achieved respectability in recent decades, but the 1970s accounts describe it dispensing “happiness was on a heated spoon bubbling away, and the paths were carpeted with needles…” But more blue-blooded is the attached Public Library that opened in 1911, flanked by the friendly lions — Patience and Fortitude. Imperial stairs take us to the third-floor Reading Room–with gushers of sunlight and neat rows of carved oak tables. The library is accessible with equal facility to the barely literate or a noble laureate. This is the second time (after Grand Central Concourse) I witness the city’s largesse in giving a common man the same right to dignity and richness. At the time of this writing, the library is facing old-age-joint-aches and the latest challenge from kindle-d digitalization.
Times Square — In 1979, Madonna arrived in New York and told a cabbie to take her “to the middle of everything.” He dropped her at Times Square! It takes its name from New York Times that shifted its headquarters here in 1904. Later, the area went to seeds during the world wars, and the terrible seventies, when crime, drugs, pickpockets, grifters and prostitutes took over. But it had got its bearing back by the time Madonna arrived.
Now 50 million tourists gawk every year at its Neon spectacle, buskers, and bare tit cowgirls strumming guitar. Locals go out of their way to avoid this kitsch. Restaurants and shops are unimaginative, but big-name Broadway plays next door.
Technically, Times ‘Square’ is a triangle — the bottom part of the X formed by the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, but let’s keep the charade going. The northern triangle is Duffy Square, hosting the TKTS ticket booth.
As old yet larger than Manhattan, BKLYN was an independent city, and its waterfront a worthy rival to Manhattan. As its requirements and ambitions grew, BKLYN annexed Williamsburg in 1854, and then finally, in 1898, it merged with NYC, as one of its five boroughs. At that time, it had a population of a million and was the third-largest city after New York and Chicago. Today it houses 2.6 million.
BKLYN and south Manhattan, separated by the East River, always shared the most active ports and shipping channels. In the early 19th century, as Manhattan grew, developers turned the farmland on the bluff overlooking Lower Manhattan into a residential enclave called Brooklyn Heights. Sensing potential, in 1814, a commercial ferry service started whisking people across the East River in 5–10 minutes. That became the first American ‘suburb’, and the ‘commuter’ was born–dividing his work and home life, into separate physical spheres. This two-centuries-old brownstone neighborhood remains a coveted address.
In 1884, more than a mile long Brooklyn Bridge, itself a wonder of engineering and majesty connected it to the heart of Manhattan and rendered the weather, ferry schedules, and capacity irrelevant for moving people and goods. It cost one cent to cross the bridge on foot, five with a cow, and two with a sheep. They strengthened the connection to mainland Manhattan with Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge within the next decade. ‘Walking the Bridge’ at dusk from BKLYN towards Manhattan, as the skyscrapers come alight is a five-star experience today, and they have stopped charging the one cent.
Gone through the usual cycles of boom and bust, BKLYN that once was the epicenter of manufacturing, and a blue-collar borough, is now gentrifying with hipsters getting in the business of making chocolate, distilling moonshine, or brewing flavored ales.
South of Williamsburg, the borough’s character remains boisterous and architecturally beautiful. The waterfront no longer teems with longshoremen, but BKLYN’s working-class roots show. A former warehouse district, DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) houses some exceptional bookstores and restaurants, century-old barges are enjoying second acts as unconventional art venues, and Brooklyn Bridge Park necklaces the waterfront.
Statue of Liberty
Lady Liberty, 150 feet tall and weighing a mere 225 tons, arrived from France, as a gift for America’s centennial in 1876. Originally, she was crafted to stand at the entrance to the Suez Canal, but lack of funding for the project diverted her to the shores of New York. There she stands since, welcoming hordes of immigrants (and tourists) arriving in boats and ships.
“Give me your tired, your poor| your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”–goes a line in the poem by Emma Lazarus, etched at the Statue’s pedestal.
Ah, and this tower of metal bears some 600 lightning bolts every year!
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., (scion to the famous robber baron and founder of Standard oil), was a financier and philanthropist who left his mark on the city in more than one way. Today his memory lives on at Rockefeller Center — a massive complex of 19 high-rise commercial buildings in Midtown Manhattan, between 5th & 6th Ave and from 48th to 51st St.
Most of it was built in the 1930s depression era. It was an audacious bet at that fickle time, to sink billions of dollars in the hope that others will want to live and work there. And they did, in hordes; post-WWII, the triumvirate of the Empire State Building (34th St), and Chrysler Building (42nd St), with Rockefeller Center, cemented Midtown as the place for companies to be, in the center of things.
The complex is a mini-city with media houses, entertainment & theatres (Radio City), commercial space, rooftop gardens, skating rink, observation deck (‘Top of the Rock’), a recessed central plaza, and a plethora of art installations — bronze gilded Prometheus & the Atlas being the showpieces.
This charming but curiously shaped building on 23rd street looks like a ship sailing up the fifth Av. The odd triangle shape (“flatiron” because it resembles a typical 19th-century iron) came from the fact that Broadway cuts diagonally across the perpendicular grid design of Manhattan.
The building got publicity for another reason — its odd shape created strange, and sometimes deadly, wind currents — wreaking havoc with men’s hats and women’s skirts. Police stationed at the intersection popularized the term “23 Skidoo” to tell ogling men not to persist on 23rd Street, waiting for a well-timed gust of air.
There are no two ways about it: Central Park is vast — two and a half miles long by a half-mile wide. It covers more than 800 acres of land, lakes, and over 60 miles of pathway. Bethesda Terrace and its Angel of the Waters, Tavern on the Green, Sheep Meadow, Shakespeare Theater, and the Bow Bridge, are known celebrities, but the real deal is to be just a flaneur here, drift around and experience unscripted surprises, graceful fountains, buskers, street performers and the like. And thank the city planners who gave this verdant space to the common public some 150 years back.
The visit is incomplete without laying a flower on Imagine mosaic at Strawberry Fields, an eponymous eulogy to John Lennon who was shot by a fan, next to his Dakota apartment, on the night of 8th December 1980.
The city has close to a hundred museums, but these three are perhaps its top draws, and all are located near Central Park.
Museum of Natural History (ANHM) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)–both completed 150 years in a pandemic muted 2020. On the Central Park West Av and east side Fifth Av, respectively, they were originally part of the Central Park.
Both are humungous in their proportions and their collection of artifacts. And as if that wasn’t enough, MET has a branch, The Cloisters, at Washington Heights, showcasing medieval art, architecture, and artifacts. All these have often been featured in Hollywood movies, and have been robbed a few times. While visiting, one is advised strategic selective viewing and, if possible, bringing along an extra pair of legs!
Guggenheim Museum, on Fifth Av, facing Central Park, this building is more of a statement of Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius, than the art displayed inside. The museum opened in 1959, rounded soft curves all around, in the middle of buildings that were all right angles and rectilinear. Cynics have called it a bathtub, an inverted oatmeal bowl, and a Jell-O mold, but it is a bold statement of architecture redefining art.
But the Museum that’s breathtakingly fresh and fun is MOMA, at Midtown 53rd St. It didn’t happen through some bohemian movement, but was a gift by the 0.1 percenters (John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and a few others), to introduce Modern Art to America. In 1920s, in contrast to the stately but staid galleries of the MET, this place exhilarated the crowds with Paul Cézanne, Mary Cassatt, Gustave Courbet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp. Today, MOMA continues to expand the limits of what is art including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, media and performance art works, architectural models and drawings, and so on.
Post scripted thoughts
The year 2020 was tumultuous and brought an inordinate amount of pain, loss, and anxiety — especially to NYC, which saw over 900 deaths a day for weeks together at one point. Fifth Av penthouses sat empty, and parks turned into funeral parlors. The question debated now is about the future of the city…
There is a line of thinking that the megacities are obsolete — that there is little need to put up with high rents, overpriced restaurants, and packed subways in the era of digital nomads. Employers and employees have both embraced remote work; lower office costs and greater work-life balance are a ‘win-win’ for both. By some accounts, NYC has 100 million square footage of vacant office space and has lost more than half a million jobs. During the pandemic’s worst months, it became a ghost town, and those who could, escaped; double whammy of sky-high overheads and no turnover killed scores of shops, bars, and restaurants. Many wonder — What if the city’s Golden Geese decamp to low tax Florida, taking their big fat incomes with them (thus denying NYC its share of taxes)? Will NYC see the vicious days of the 1970s again, when tottering on bankruptcy, the city was high jacked by arsonists and drug dealers–a hell-hole as shown in films like “Taxi Driver’ and ‘Death Wish”?
Others scoff at the absurdity of these alarmists. They quote instances of mega corporate like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, sinking serious money into the city, hubs of AI and Biotech start-ups propping up in BKLYN, and predict that Silicon Valley is shifting east. They see a post-pandemic city as more equitable to the poor, more fun-loving — after all, it has decriminalized weed and is even considering opening its first casino at Albany (all adding juice to the city’s future tax collections). City bars, restaurants, and stadiums have started to fill up, and there is data supporting that people are coming back in numbers. The city has learned to come to terms with grief and sorrow and its scar tissues are healing, they say.
This is not the first time that crisis — 1970s ‘Death Wish’ city, 9/11 bombing, 2008 GFC, to name a few — also led to overheated predictions. But each time the city prevailed. In the past decade, when economic center of power was already shifting to Asia, the pandemic delivered a double hook to New York. This time again, the city is walking the tightrope from calamity to serendipity.
Successful civilizations leave an extravagant legacy or two at the peak of their prosperity — Taj Mahal, Giza Pyramids, Machu-Pichu, Petra, Colosseum… all tell us of extraordinary people when they were at the top of their game. Gotham too has ridden unparalleled waves of prosperity for over two centuries and has much to show for it. Now, we watch again as the city gets busy re-inventing itself, and wish it the best!