Review: Gotham

Review: Gotham
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared.

When I began this book, I thought that I would speed through it in a summer month of dedicated reading, while there was little else to distract me. Yet after four weeks of slogging I had not even gotten a third of the way through. Worse still, I never felt fully engaged; every time I returned to the book it required an act of will; the pace never picked up, the writing never become effortlessly pleasurable. So I put it aside, to finish at the end of summer. When that didn’t work, I put it aside, to finish during Christmas break. And when that didn’t work, I bought the audiobook, to finish the remaining chapters on my runs. Now, 261 days later, I can finally tick it off my list.

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace set an ambitious goal: to write an authoritative, comprehensive, and accessible history of New York City. In their words, they want to include “sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime,” and that list is only the beginning. The amount of research required to assemble this vast and teetering edifice of knowledge is almost nauseating. When you consider that this book, heavy enough to serve as a deadly weapon, is the condensed version of thousands of smaller books, dissertations, papers, and studies, you cannot help but feel admiration for the many hours of sweat and toil that went into this pharaonic task. And in the end they have accomplished at least two of their three goals: the book is authoritative and comprehensive. But is it accessible?

This is where my criticism begins. Burrows and Wallace attempt to gather together so many threads of research that the final tapestry is confused and chaotic. In a single chapter they can pivot wildly from one topic to another, going from department stores to race riots to train lines, so that the reader has little to hold on to as they traverse this whirlwind of information. The final product is an assemblage rather than a coherent story, an encyclopedia disguised as a narrative history. Granted, encyclopedias are good and useful things; but they seldom make for compelling reading. What was lacking was a guiding organizational principle. This could have taken the form of a thesis on, say, the way that the city developed; or it could have been a literary device, such as arranging the information around certain historical figures.

Lacking this, what we often get is a list—which, as it happens, is the author’s favorite rhetorical device. To pick an entirely typical sentence, the authors inform us that, in 1828, the Common Council licensed “nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour.” Now, lists can be wonderful to read if used sparingly and assembled with care—just ask Rabelais. But overused, they become tedious and exhausting.

This is indicative of what is a more general fault of the book, the lack of authorial personality in its prose. Perhaps this is because Burrows and Wallace edited and rewrote each other’s chapters, creating a kind of anonymous hybrid author. Now, this is not to say that the prose is bad; to the contrary, I think that this book is consistently well-written. If the book is dry, it is not because of any lack of writerly skill, but because the prose limits itself to recounting fact rather than expressing opinion or thought. Again, the book is an encyclopedia without the alphabetical order, and encyclopedias are not supposed to contain any speck of subjectivity. Unfortunately, even the most masterly prose is dead on the page if there is no discernable person behind it.

I am being rather critical of a book which, without a doubt, is a triumph of synthesis and scholarship. If I am disappointed, it is because I felt that I could have retained much more of the information in these pages had it been presented with more coherence—a larger perspective, a sense of overall order, an underpinning structure. As it stands, I do not have that satisfying (if, perhaps, untrustworthy) feeling that an excellent history can provide: that of seeing the past from a high perspective, as a grand and logical unfolding. Though not exactly fair, I cannot help comparing Gotham unfavorably with another massive book about the history of the city, The Power Broker, which forever changed how I look at the city and, indeed, at the nature of power itself. Yet after finishing this, I am not sure if my perspective on the city has been appreciably changed.

But I should end on a positive note. This is a well-written, exhaustive, and thoroughly impressive history of the city. And despite all my complaints and headaches, I liked it enough so that I will, someday, drag myself through its sequel.



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NY Museums: The Morgan

NY Museums: The Morgan

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


Just as royalty and nobles have played a crucial role in Europe’s art, providing money and stability to artists, in American history very rich patrons have played an equally important role in the establishment of cultural institutions. From Carnegie, to Frick, to the Rockefellers, great business tycoons have used their enormous wealth to bring culture to the masses; and in this respect J.P. Morgan is no exception.

Unlike the above-mentioned robber barons, Morgan was not an industrialist; his specialty was money itself. A son and eventually a father of a banker, finance was in Morgan’s blood. He had dealings with every major player in business and government of the age, and was instrumental in the creation of the era’s major conglomerates: General Electric (which hailed from Thomas Edison), United States Steel (from Carnegie, Schwab, and Frick), and AT & T (from Alexander Graham Bell)—to name just a prominent few. A large man with a deformed nose, he struck the unflappable John D. Rockefeller as moody and impulsive. But this iconic money-changer and pharaonic materialist was not bereft of an appreciation of higher things.

The Morgan Library & Museum sits right in midtown Manhattan, on Madison Avenue and 36th street. The main building looks quite similar to the Frick: a severe, grey, neoclassical structure. Adjoining this is an attractive brownstone building; and the complex is completed with a sleekly modern—and rather discordant and tasteless—box of an entryway, built in 2006 to help organize the space. This is where the contemporary visitor enters and pays.

No photos are allowed inside the complex, so I am forced to rely on my paltry memory.

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John Pierpont Morgan

As one would expect, the house is richly furnished. The original entrance hall is gorgeously decorated, with Renaissance-style wall frescos and Pompeian motifs; even the floor is attractively patterned. Anyone visiting the banker would know immediately that this was financial royalty. Morgan’s study, where he made decisions that shaped the economy, is a deep shade of scarlet—the rug, the wall paper, the furniture. Morgan himself, with his handlebar mustache sitting under his bulbous nose, presides over the fireplace in the form of a portrait. Few rooms give such an indelible impression of power.

The next room accessible from the entrance hall was, I believe, previously the librarian’s office; now it contains a fine sampling of Morgan’s impressive collection of Babylonian cylinder seals. These are small circular objects made of hard stone, about an inch long, inscribed with delicately carved reliefs. They were used as a sort of signature or official seal, by rolling the seal over soft clay to create a horizontal image. Dozens of these seals were on display in the room. Since the seals themselves do not look like much, they were shown alongside an impression made with the seals, wherein the images can be clearly seen. These typically involve scenes of gods and royalty, and are quite beautiful works of art. Certainly it is a much more elegant way of indicating ownership and approval than illegibly scribbling our names.

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This image is from the Louvre. It is in the public domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons

From here I went to the central attraction of the museum: the library itself. Even if it had no books at all, it would be a beautiful space—the ceiling as richly decorated with allegorical friezes as El Escorial’s royal library. Three floors of oaken bookcases line every wall up to the ceiling, each one filled with venerable volumes covered by a protective screen. On the ground level there are display cases that showcase some of the library’s treasures. And these are beyond anything I had expected.

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A page from the University of Texas copy of the Gutenberg Bible (public domain)

Here is the finest collection of manuscripts and rare books that I had ever hoped to see. To begin with, there are three Gutenberg Bibles, the first book published with moveable type in Europe, one of the most iconic books in history. While the invention of printing was, no doubt, a great advance in the history of our species, it must be admitted that the Gutenberg Bibles look rather plain next to the older, handmade ones nearby. The most famous example of these is the Morgan Bible, or Crusader Bible, a brilliantly illuminated Bible showing scenes from the Old Testament, but depicted as if it had occurred in medieval France. (Thus it is easy to mistake the images for depictions of the crusades.) The images are chaotic and violent, but no less compelling for being so; and seeing it such vivid illustrations between the cover of a book does make one a little nostalgic for the days when books were handmade.

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The most ornate book in the collection—and the first in the Morgan Library catalogue, MS M.1—is a book of the gospels from the 9th century, around the reign of Charlemagne. (I admit that I cannot remember if I actually saw this book in person, but I did see it in a documentary that mentioned the library.) The cover is a mass of ornately decorated gold, encrusted with precious jewels. The amount of material wealth devoted to this single volume beggars belief—though it does seem a little ironical to decorate a book about Jesus of Nazareth, arch-enemy of the money-changers, so resplendently. While I am on the topic of ironies, I must also add a point made by the journalist Alistair Cooke, that while these super rich tycoons—Carnegie, Frick, Morgan—were buying up the treasures of Europe, they were benefiting from waves of European immigrants willing to work long hours for low wages. And so these robber barons exploited the huddled masses of Europe to buy up its treasures.

Morgan_Beatus

But it is difficult to be indignant for very long when you are looking at such beautiful books. The Morgan Beatus, for example, is a brilliantly illuminated copy of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, with bright yellows and reds and oranges, showing us a world redeemed and a world aflame. Then there is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a wonderful example of gothic illumination. As with so many other illuminated manuscripts, the mind boggles at the amount of time it would have taken to paint a single one of these ornate pages, much less a whole book of them. An example of this is the Farnese Hours, illuminated by Giulio Clovio over a period of nine years. Clovio was a friend of the young El Greco, during his early years in Italy, and the Greek painter created a portrait of the old Italian master, pointing to this masterpiece of Renaissance illumination. The book was completed in 1546, 100 years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed, already the waning years of the art of illumination.

Farnese_hours

Still more exciting than these beautiful books, for me, were the original manuscripts on display. These are the notebooks and pieces of paper where authors and composers first wrote down their masterpieces. Among these is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with his edits still preserved, as well as nine novels by Sir Walter Scott, including Ivanhoe. Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Lord Byron, and William Makepeace Thackeray also are in attendance; and in music there are handwritten examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and even Bob Dylan (the latter obviously not acquired during Morgan’s lifetime). It is thrilling to see the preserved handwriting of these men (and yes, they are mostly men), since they can appear so unreal behind the printed page. The artists become living, working, fallible souls when you can see them scribbling and scratching out. Even the most iconic works of art were the process of trial and error.

I must say that I was stupefied by the end of my visit. The collection had exceeded my every expectation. Few places are as inspiring as a beautiful library. The museum is a magnificent tribute to the ways that we have preserved and transmitted our culture—in all its manifold facets. From the Babylonian cylinder seals to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” humans continue to scribble, print, draw, paint, and inscribe our art and ideas for the benefit of people in distant times and faraway places.

But there was still one more thing to see. The Morgan has a temporary exhibition space, and when I visited this was dedicated to an exhibit on Henry David Thoreau. This was a stroke of luck, since I had recently finished rereading Walden.

Thoreau

Considering the scanty possessions that Thoreau left behind, the exposition was astonishingly complete. There was Thoreau’s writing desk, over a dozen volumes of Thoreau’s diaries, and Thoreau’s walking stick (notched so that he could measure things on his walks). Also present was every original photograph (there are only two, admittedly) taken of the man. The exhibit was filled with information about his life and extracts of his journals. Seeing his humble collections gathered all in a heap—his scribbled and illegible handwriting, his beat up desk, his pocket-sized images—spoke more eloquently of his life’s project than all the fanciful phrases he ever assembled. And just as with the original manuscripts, seeing his original possessions helped to turn Thoreau from a distant voice into a living, breathing person.

NY Museums: The Frick

NY Museums: The Frick

This is part of a series on New York City museums. For the other posts, see below:


As a child in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, I visited the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. It is a little boy’s paradise: dinosaur bones, stuffed lions and elephants, and my favorite—the whales. Later, in high school and college, I developed a taste for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was first drawn to the Arms and Armor room—swords and guns, another boy’s paradise—and then progressed to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities. It takes little sophistication to enjoy cursed mummies and violent gods.

But it was not until I moved to Europe, and began visiting art museum’s here, that I developed an appreciation for sculpture and painting. Thus it was only during one of my summer trips back home to New York that I finally visited one of the finest art museum’s in the city: the Frick.

The Frick Collection is housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the great robber barons that dominated the Gilded Age of America. He made his fortune by selling coke (the carbon fuel, not the drug), and achieved industrial dominance by partnering and eventually merging with Carnegie’s steel company. Despite his success and wealth, he is a difficult man to admire. Like many tycoons, he was adamantly opposed to organized labor, and played a key role in repressing the Homestead strike—a violent confrontation in which 9 strikers and 3 pinkerton detectives were killed, and which caused a major setback to the labor movement. He was so hated by laborers, in fact, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed (Frick would die in 1919, at the age of 69, of a heart attack) and Berkman spent 14 years in jail as a consequence, where he wrote a famous memoir of his experience.

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Henry Clay Frick

But whatever Frick’s defects in the realm of social justice, no one can accuse the man of bad taste. He accumulated superlative works of art during his lifetime; and, fortunately for us, he donated his house and his collection to the public upon his death, to be used as a museum. Along with Rockefeller and Carnegie, Frick is yet another example of a robber baron who managed to be both cutthroat and civic minded.

The museum sits across from Central Park, on 5th avenue and 70th street, about a 10 minute walk south from the Metropolitan. From the outside the mansion is not especially impressive: a squat neoclassical building, the color of granite. It has none of the conspicuous stateliness of Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, located just up the road (it is a part of Cooper Union now). But the inside is not nearly so restrained: each room is richly decorated, with the finest furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, and wallpaper that money could buy. I have walked through my share of palaces in Europe, so I am used to seeing affluent interiors; but I still found myself gaping as I walked through the house. In the giddy years before income taxes, the robber barons could accumulate more wealth than Old World despots.

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But of course the absorbing interest of the museum is not the interior decoration, however sumptuous, but the paintings on display. Though relatively small, the Frick has one of the finest collections of old masters in the city—perhaps in the country. Relatively few works by Velazquez are available outside of Spain. New Yorkers are fortunate: the Metropolitan has a handful, the Hispanic Society has three, and the Frick has one—a portrait of Felipe IV. Typical of Velazquez, it is a masterful work: we feel we are standing right in front of the king. The Spanish monarch’s magnificently regal outfit—painted with such delicacy that it is almost tactile—contrasts sharply with the awkward and gangly figure who wears it, with his monumental Hapsburg chin sticking out below his curled mustache. Most impressive of all, Velazquez manages to imbue this unpromising figure with a certain kingly dignity—his eyes calm, thoughtful, careworn, but in control.

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The other two members of the Spanish triumvirate are also in attendance: Goya and El Greco. I especially like the former’s contribution to the collection: The Forge. It is an excellent example of Goya’s ability to convey strenuous action while preserving the harmony of the composition. The stocky figures, contorted with effort, nevertheless combine to form a solid triangle in the center of the painting. I also enjoy the gloomy, almost liquid blackness that engulfs the figures, emphasizing their solitary grandeur.

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The Dutch masters are also here in force. Frick managed to get his hands on three Vermeers. My favorite of these, Officer and Laughing Girl, shows all the hallmarks of his style: an interior room lit from a side window, with a homely girl in the center and a detailed map in the background. In this case the girl is chatting with a soldier, seated with his back to us. Is she being courted, or is there something more scandalous afoot? From a purely technical perspective, the most extraordinary feature of the painting is the map, which is so beautifully and accurately rendered as to beggar belief. Rembrandt is here, too, with two works. One of these is a self-portrait, showcasing himself as a florid gentleman with a sword strapped to his hip. The other paintings is rather more mysterious: The Polish Rider. It shows us an armed man in slightly exotic garb, mounted on horseback. Scholars cannot decide who this person is supposed to be; he is called “Polish” because of the style of his hat and dress; but beyond that there is little but guesses.

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We can also see a work by the greatest of English painters, J.W. Turner. The Harbor of Dieppe is entirely typical of his style: a bright yellow morning, a shimmering sea, and a large perspective with dozens of figures and boats. Nothing about the painting’s content is profound or especially moving. Its appeal is mainly to the eye—it is a joy to behold, since Turner captures so perfectly the warmth and the brilliance of a summer sunrise. Standing in front of the painting, you can almost feel the sun on your skin. How can paint be made to glow so intensely? In this glorious landscape of light—Turner paints the sun twice, in the sky and reflected in the sea—we can also sense the magic of all ports of travel: a place where different corners of the earth mingle, a gateway to the wide world, beckoning us towards the beyond.

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In the interest of brevity, I will skip over many other worthwhile paintings to get to the two great masterpieces of the collection, both by Hans Holbein. They hang on either side of the great fireplace in the center of the mansion. To the right is a portrait of the English politician Thomas Cromwell, and to the left is the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (famous for inventing the word “utopia”). The two were adversaries in life. Cromwell aided Henry VIII in his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which resulted in England’s break with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, More remained loyal to the Pope and opposed the new marriage. Despite this opposition, the two men shared the same fate: beheaded by the order of the king. More was beheaded for opposing the establishment of the Church of England, and Cromwell because he helped arrange the king’s next marriage (after Boleyn was duly decapitated) to the German princess Anne of Cleves (who did not please the king, but who escaped execution). These were dangerous times for love.

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The two portraits are masterful. Each detail is so sharply defined that you can lean in very close without noticing the brushstrokes. Both men sit in sumptuous rooms, and Holbein obviously delighted in painting the fabrics of their gowns, the tablecloth, the cushions. And, as in any great portrait, the personalities of the sitters shine through. Cromwell appears suspicious, scheming, intelligent, and alert; he is a man grasping for power and influence, and wary of all impediments. More’s portrait is a study in contrast. He is dignified and focused. Unlike Cromwell, who gazes sideways with narrowed eyes, More stares straight ahead. His eyes are soft and sensitive, almost like a poet’s, and yet the expression is far from naive; it is, rather, experienced and far-sighted. It is easy to picture such a man dying for his principles, just as it is easy to picture Cromwell plotting to bolster his influence with the king. The two portraits are complemented by Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII himself, which I have seen many times in the Thyssen in Madrid. As you stare past the corpulent face into his black beady eyes, you can tell that this was not a man to be trifled with.

I left the museum deeply impressed. By any standard the Frick has a marvelous collection of paintings, all the more remarkable for being here in America and for being showcased in a historical mansion. Whether you are a tourist or a New Yorker, I urge you to visit.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center

New York is a city bent on the future. Every new generation overtops the next, in the relentless march skyward. This is especially apparent when we compare two of the cities landmarks which are right across the street from one another: St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center.


St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St. Patrick’s is not the first Catholic cathedral in the city of New York. It replaced a building that is now called St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (nowadays merely a church), which is still standing, further down town. It is easy to see why the authorities wanted the old structure replaced: it has none of the grandness and grandiosity that the cathedrals of great cities are supposed to have. Construction began on the current cathedral (the land had long been owned by the church) in 1858, and was completed twenty years later. When it was finished the towering spires must have dominated the landscape from miles around—since what is currently midtown Manhattan is far north of the former population center. Nowadays, of course, the gothic spires look almost dainty compared to the highrises nextdoor.

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The cathedral presents an impressive face to passersby on the sidewalk below. Designed in a resplendent neo-Gothic style, where pointed arches hold everything up, its orientation is entirely vertical. This is the classic aim of gothic architecture: to draw the looker’s gaze towards heaven. But now, ironically, the cathedral has the opposite effect: it provides relief from the relentlessly vertical structures of midtown Manhattan. The city block on which the cathedral stands is a breath of air in an otherwise claustrophobic space, a note of contrast in an otherwise monotonous wall of buildings. And besides what it gains from its surroundings, the cathedral’s façade is lovely in itself—dense with decoration and design, so very different from the walls of concrete and glass that normally encase the sidewalk.

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Visiting the cathedral is free. To enter, you must only let the people in front check your bags. The interior is no less impressive and harmonious as the exterior. Indeed, it is almost too harmonious. Much of the loveliness of European cathedrals consists, for me, in the fact that they were built over a long period of time. The buildings were shaped by several generations of workers and artisans, using different materials, in different styles, with different techniques. As a result the visitor can really feel the time that has gone by in the cathedral, can sense how the building played an integral part in the community’s life for hundreds of years.

The visitor to St. Patrick does not get this sensation, since the whole aesthetic is unified. The same materials, the same styles, and the same techniques were used throughout the space. The decoration on the chapels, the walls, the choir, the altar, and the stained glass is all of a piece—very well done, but somehow sterile when added together. Another element that adds to this sensation is that the builders of St. Patrick had modern tools and technology to work with; and as a result, much of the artwork has a kind of manufactured perfection that is simply not seen in old cathedrals. Of course this is the trouble with any revivalist art: in seeking to replicate the artwork of the past, without going through the trouble needed in those days to make it, the revivalists produce only a sort of empty copy: superficially perfect and yet lacking in emotional power.

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If I am being harsh on St. Patrick’s, it is only because I am comparing it with some of the great cathedrals I have had the pleasure of seeing: Toledo, Prague, Chartres. But this is an unreasonable comparison, since St. Patrick’s was not made in analogous circumstances. And even the harshest critic must admit that, all told, it is a lovely building—pure, bright, balanced. I feel refreshed every time I visit, and grateful every time I walk by on the street.


Rockefeller Center

Across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral is another New York landmark: Rockefeller Center. This building complex—19 distinct buildings in all—is centered around a plaza, made famous by the massive Christmas tree placed there every year. Thousands of workers commute here every day—to clean, to sell, to sit behind a desk—and thousands more tourists come to experience one of the best views of New York, on top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the tallest building in the center.

Though I have lived in or near New York City my whole life, I had not visited the Top of the Rock until this very year. This is a common occurrence: residents neglect the great monuments and attractions of their own cities, only to seek them abroad. It is a little strange, since seeing the sights of one’s own city is cheaper and easier than going elsewhere; what’s more, it provides an opportunity to learn about local history, which enriches the experience of living in a place. Yet there are good reasons that residents stay away. Tourist attractions are crowded and expensive. The Top of the Rock is a case in point: it costs $36 for a visit that will likely last under an hour; and the visitor will likely be elbowing crowds half the time. A certain mindset is necessary to justify the expense with the experience, a mindset that is common enough while traveling but rare during workaday life.

But my time spent living abroad has turned New York City into a quasi-foreign town, which I can enjoy like any other tourist. So even though I was put off by the price, I decided to visit.

I bought my ticket online, which comes with an entrance time. At the designated hour I walked through the doors, went up the stairs, passed through a metal detector, and got in the line for the elevators. On the walls were images and panels of information, explaining some of the history of Rockefeller center. The line moved too quickly to really delve into the story, but I happened to know some of the from reading Ron Chernow’s biography of the Rockefeller paterfamilias. Rockefeller was not a project of the Oil magnate, however, but of his son, John D. Rockefeller, Junior. A man deeply involved in charity, with the world’s largest fortune at his disposal, Junior wished to help the Metropolitan Opera relocate. Thus he bought this plot of land from Columbia University in 1928.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the stock market crashed a year later and the Great Depression ensued. The Metropolitan Opera could not relocate, so Junior was stuck with a massive development in a sinking economy. To avoid going bankrupt himself, Junior had to compromise on his principles. A hater of modern art, a lifelong teetotaler, and certainly a prude, Junior nevertheless approved designs for an Art Deco building complex complete with Radio City Music Hall, where patrons could enjoy alcohol while they contemplated dancing girls. Thus there are some notable artistic works on display, such as the Atlas statue across from St. Patricks and the Prometheus statue in the Plaza’s fountain. Despite this and other adornment, however, the buildings themselves are quite plain and brown.

After I passed these information displays I was herded to the elevator. The employees did a good job in keeping the crowds moving and organized, but even the best crowd control is not a pleasant experience. Admittedly, they tried to alleviate the discomfort: the woman who operated the elevator drummed on the walls and told jokes. The elevator itself was also memorable. It shot up to the top floor sixty-fifth floor in under a minute; and as we were elevated, images were projected onto the clear glass ceiling, while sound effects played. It was an audiovisual experience.

Once at the top, I found myself in an enclosed space with balconies. By following the signs I ascended up to the outdoor observation decks. And there it was—New York City, for miles all around. It was a typical summer day in the city: hot, muggy, overcast. The humidity in the air diminished the visibility somewhat, making things in the distance appear vague and grey. Still, the view was astonishing.

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432 Park Avenue

If I looked north I could see Central Park, with the Great Lawn, the Reservoir, and the Metropolitan Museum. On the left flowed the Hudson, with the George Washington Bridge in the far distance; and on the right I could see the Harlem and the East rivers. This view must have been more impressive in the past, since lately a spate of skyscrapers have been constructed in the space between Rockefeller Center and Central Park. The tallest of these, at 432 Park Avenue, is a residential apartment building that is even taller than the Empire State Building. Indeed, if you discount the antenna on top of the One World Trade Center, it is the tallest building in New York. Its huge height (1,398 feet, 550 feet taller than 30 Rock) is accentuated by its thinness, which looks almost unsafe. Two similarly tall and skinny buildings are going up directly north of 30 Rock, which will not improve the view.

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The view south is even more impressive. Front and center is the Empire State Building, towering over its surroundings. The ability to see this iconic structure from a level height is why 30 Rock, and not the Empire State Building itself, is the best view of New York. (30 Rock is not nearly so pretty from the Empire State observatory.) Beyond, down near Wall Street, the One World Trade Center stands like a ceramic blade; and if I squinted I could just make out the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. On a clear summer day, or better yet on a clear summer night, the view would be perfect. (But sunset tickets costs extra.) The views to the east and west are not quite so interesting: On one side is Queens and Brooklyn, and on the other is New Jersey.

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One thing that becomes immediately apparent from up high are the centers of real estate development. The tall buildings of New York are concentrated mainly at the southern tip of Manhattan and in midtown, from about 36th street upwards, with a notable gap in between these two areas that stretches from the Village to the Empire State Building. The newest concentrations of skyscrapers are, as I said before, between Rockefeller Center and Central Park, and also in the new Hudson Yards developments on the west side. Proceeding further north, the building size abruptly drops off in the area next to, and north of, Central Park.

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I stayed on the roof for about an hour, enjoying the new perspectives. Pedestrians were nearly invisible on the sidewalks below, and the cars looked smaller than toys. Even St. Patrick’s Cathedral, directly underneath, looked dainty and delicate. The steady hums of air conditioners on the tops of neighboring buildings was clearly audible, as they fought against the summer heat. Helicopters flew by, traveling up and down the rivers, almost at eye level. I could not regret spending almost $40 to get up here. It is refreshing to see familiar things from a new perspective. Suddenly an imposing and monolithic place was turned into an oversized jungle gym.

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The seven train slowed to a stop in the Mets-Willets Point station and a distorted voice crackled onto the PA system: “Last stop, last stop everybody, this is the last stop, please exit the train.” Normally the seven goes to Flushing; but today it terminated one stop earlier because of track work. With a chorus of sighs and groans the passengers shuffled out and pushed down the stairs to the buses waiting on the street, a stopgap solution used when the subway is shut down.

The buses were much smaller than the train, of course, so we had to pack ourselves in tight. When the final passenger squeezed in, the doors shut and we started moving, throwing nearly everyone off balance. Most people were silent, but behind me a man began talking: “Honestly, this is unbelievable—unbelievable! Every week, track work, signal problems, delays. Every week another problem. And they keep raising the fare! We pay more money, more money, and the service gets worse and worse. These damn MTA people, they don’t even use the subway. You know who’s on the MTA board? Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono hasn’t taken the subway once in her life!”

Except for the Yoko Ono part (I don’t know where he got that from), the man was right: service on the subways is getting worse, even though the fares keep going up. The quality has gotten so bad lately as to approach a crisis. This summer we have had two derailments, and a track fire that sent several people to the hospital. Less dramatic, but no less important, are the delays: signal problems and overcrowding cause constant tardiness. On some lines, the trains are late more often than on time. Since nearly 6 million people use the subway per day, this is a serious political liability. True to form, the politicians have done what they do best: point fingers at each other. The mayor blames the governor, and vice versa, until finally governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency regarding the subways.

Living in Madrid has given me a new perspective on the NYC subway. Before I moved I had just assumed that, by their very nature, subways were dirty, uncomfortable places. The trains screech and wail on the tracks, and jerk back and forth when they pull into the station. The stations themselves are sweaty, claustrophobic, and full of garbage and rats; and the subway cars are always packed to the breaking point. But in Madrid I discovered that a metro can be clean, sleek, and comfortable—and, most surprisingly, cheap. For comparison, a monthly ticket on the Metro North, the railroad from my town in Westchester to Manhattan, costs almost $300; and a monthly subway pass costs an additional $120. An equivalent ticket in Madrid, including both commuter rail and the metro, costs about 100€—one-fourth the price for a cleaner, safer, and better service.

Subway Interior
Modern subway interior

I may sound like I’m disparaging the NYC subway, but really I have a great affection for it. The subway has a gritty, industrial aesthetic that I find strongly appealing. And despite the frustrations, the subway represents what is best about New York: a place where people of every background, doing every activity imaginable, are thrown together in a tight space and manage—just barely—to avoid killing each other. Just the other day, for example, I witnessed a woman violently push herself onto the subway, shoving everyone out of her way to get to a seat. As soon as she reached her prize a man rightly began castigating her, and a loud argument ensued. Luckily, another man began preaching in a loud voice, drowning out the argument and restoring a tense truce as we were given a sermon about the perils of hellfire. I simply don’t witness things like this in Madrid.

For this combination of reasons—a mixture of admiration and despair—I set out to investigate the NYC subway. First I visited the New York Transit Museum, and then I read this book.

The New York Transit Museum has two locations, a small shop in Grand Central Station, and their museum in Brooklyn. The shop in Grand Central has rotating exhibits in half the store. The latest one is about the history of the seven train, which runs from Manhattan to Queens. This line was recently extended to the far West Side, with the opening of the first new station in twenty-five years: Hudson Yards. The museum in Brooklyn, near Borough Hall, is in an old subway station. In addition to the historical photos and the information on display, the museum has examples of all the turnstiles ever used in the subway; and on the old platform there are antique subway cars, going back even to when they were made of wood. (Wooden cars got a bad reputation after the Malbone Street Wreck in 1918, a terrible accident that killed 93 people. The wooden cars splintered apart upon impact.)

Wooden Subway
Wooden subway cars

If you go visit this museum, I recommend a little stop along the way. The New York City subway was officially opened in 1904. The showpiece of the new system was the City Hall station, located right under the seat of the city government. This station was lavish: decorated with ornate tile-work designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, using arches based on medieval Spanish churches. Beautiful as it is, the station had to be abandoned when the subway switched to longer cars. The short length of the platform, and the sharp angle of the turn, rendered the famous station useless. Now it sits, unused and empty, below City Hall. You can still catch a glimpse of this station, however, if you take the six train down to the Brooklyn Bridge station, and then stay on the train when it curves around to go uptown. The subway screeches horribly as it turns, but it is an eerie and fascinating experience to see the old abandoned station.

(I couldn’t get any good pictures myself, but you can find some in the gallery here. The Transit Museum does occasional tours of the City Hall Station, which you can find here.)

This book was the perfect accompaniment to the museum. Written by a professional historian, 722 Miles is, I believe, the most informative book on the market about the subway’s history.* As do many books by academics, this one began its life as a doctoral dissertation. It must have been substantially revised, however, since it is mostly free from academic stuffiness and scholarly squabbles. Hood casts a wide net, focusing on three interrelated aspects of the subway’s history: the political wrangling involved in getting it built, the role it played in the development of NYC, and the engineering methods and challenges of the subway. No engineer himself, the latter aspect is fairly basic; but the politics and the urban history are quite well done.

Old Interior
Antique interior design

The reader may be surprised (or maybe not) to learn that the subway has always been plagued with political wrangling and controversy. It was born in an era that saw major government spending and ownership as antithetical to sound business practices. But since private capital has always proven insufficient to infrastructure on this scale, the subway has been a public-private hybrid since its inception, with the state gradually taking on more and more responsibility. One reason the state had to step in was because the five-cent fare became a political stumbling block, something the public regarded as a sacred right; and so the fare remained a nickel even when the cost of a ride to the business was twice that amount.

Old Interior 2
Another old interior design

Originally the subway system was owned and operated by three separate entities: Interborough Rapid Transit (INT), Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Independent Subway System (IND). A relic of this origin is preserved in the subway’s odd numbering and lettering system: the numbered lines were the INT lines, and the lettered lines BRT and IND. These three were consolidated under city ownership by LaGuardia in 1940. From that year onward, there was very little development or even proper maintenance of the subways, in part thanks to the nickel fare. Another contributing factor was Robert Moses—the villain in every New York City story—who commanded most of the federal money available during the New Deal to build highways and bridges, diverting it from subways. Later, in 1968, the subway system was transferred to the newly created Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), by governor Nelson Rockefeller. This did little to help its finances, apparently, since by the early 80s the subway was a frightful, rundown, dangerous place. (Photos from that era have a haunting, apocalyptic beauty.)

The original purpose of the subway wasn’t just to serve already built-up areas in the city. Rather, several lines were run into undeveloped areas in the hopes of relieving population density. When the seven line was built in Queens, for example, it was running into almost pristine farmland and wild fields, where many still went to hunt fowl. It didn’t take long for this land to be urbanized. The muckraker Jacob Riis played a role in this development strategy, since it was he who documented the horrors of overcrowded tenements in lower Manhattan, prompting progressives to see the subway as a tool to make the city more livable and clean. This was done under the influence of Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner who originated the idea of the ‘garden city’ (which Jane Jacobs later opposed).

Turnstiles
Chronological turnstiles

Aside from the drier history, there are some fun facts in this book. The first underground train in New York was, I learned, not a proper subway at all, but a pneumatic train built in secret. This was the idea of Alfred E. Beach, who tunneled under Manhattan under the pretense of building a pneumatic parcel delivery system, to avoid the opposition of the corrupt legislature. In 1870 he unveiled his new train, which caused quite a sensation, despite being totally impractical for longer trips (Beach’s train only went a few blocks). I also learned that the tunnel that takes the seven train under the East River, on its journey from Manhattan to Queens, is called the Steinway Tunnel, because it was originally funded and promoted by that scion of the famous piano company. He was interested because he had a factory on the other side of the river.

This book was originally published in 1993, and it shows its age. This was a particularly bad time for the subway, when it was slowly recovering from its low point in the 1980s, and the book ends on a bleak note. Until fairly recently, the subway has been making quite a comeback since then. Just as many people are using the subway nowadays as they did in its so-called “Golden Age,” the 1920s and 30s, which amounts to almost 2 billion per year. The subways are no longer covered in graffiti and plagued by crime. Instead of posters warning passengers about mugging, they discourage ‘manspreading’ and promote basic etiquette. Viral videos also encourage passengers not to eat, clip their toenails, put their bags on seats, or to try to get on the train before other passengers have gotten off—a big improvement. We still have rats, though.

Even more impressive, the subway is building once again. Delayed for nearly 100 years, the Second Avenue line has just begun opening stations, which will relieve the overused Lexington Avenue line. We also have wifi in all the subway stations now.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems to fix. The most daunting is to replace the subway’s signal system. This system is badly out of date. On some lines, they are still using equipment that dates from the 1930s. Having obsolete analog signals means that there are frequent malfunctions; and even when working properly, trains cannot safely run close to each other, since the old signals are not precise, which leads to overcrowding and more delays. This may seem like an easy fix, but it is estimating that it will take at least until 2045, and probably even later, to refurbish the whole system.

Despite these problems, and despite the expensive fares and the shrieking cars, I am still optimistic about the NYC subway. To me, the subway is a symbol of the entire city: dirty, grimy, overpriced, overcrowded, part worn out and part sleekly modern, where people of all sorts come to strive and struggle and suffer in a narrow space. New York simply wouldn’t be New York if it didn’t include frustration—and garbage—and rats—and loud energy; and the subway has all that in abundance.


*I’m not sure where the number 722 comes from. According to the Transit Museum, there are 656 miles of mainline track and 842 miles total. This number will be rising some more with the completion of the Second Avenue line.

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